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Did the Padres Tony La Russa Allen Córdoba?

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The strange journey of the former Cardinals prospect is similar to what happened to the former Cardinals manager.

San Diego Padres v Colorado Rockies Photo by Russell Lansford/Getty Images

In the last week, Allen Córdoba was DFA’d by the Padres, removing him from their 40-man roster, and ultimately assigned to their AAA club. Assuming that’s where he begins the year, that means his level over four seasons will be: Rookie, MLB, High A, Triple-A.

That’s extremely weird, but it’s not unprecedented. In fact, Córdoba’s long, strange trip and the factors that led to it are very similar to those that sunk the career of Tony La Russa the baseball player.

It all started with Padres GM A.J. Preller’s plan to game the intention - if not the actual regulations - of the Rule 5 draft. That draft allows teams to select players from another organization who have been in the minors for 4 or 5 years and are NOT on the 40-man roster. The idea is to redistribute players who might be blocked or otherwise languishing in a given organization. And to ensure it’s only those languishing, Quad-A type guys who are redistributed, the rules state the team who selects the player must keep them on their Major League Roster for the entire season, or give them back.

Sacrificing a spot on your 25-man roster for the entire season is a pretty big commitment, and if you plug in a guy who is not ready for big league competition, it will be a stone around your team’s neck. But that only matters if you care about winning games at the major league level.

Preller’s plan was essentially to use spots on his MLB roster to hoard prospects from other organizations. In 2015, the Padres selected Luis Perdomo from the Cardinals High-A level. Perdomo survived that 2016 season, making 20 starts and posting a 5.71 ERA. And the Padres got to keep the young hurler, who has been a StatCast darling, though his results have not always been great.

So heading into the 2016 Rule 5 Draft, Preller tripled-down on this strategy. In addition to claiming two more players who had not appeared above A-ball, he claimed 20-year-old Cardinals infielder Allen Córdoba, who had never played above Rookie Ball.

Cardinal fans were miffed at the front office for losing a prospect to San Diego for the 2nd year in a row, but I’m pretty sympathetic to Mozeliak in this situation. Córdoba came from TWO LEVELS below where any player had been claimed as a Rule 5 pick in the past. At the time, Mo noted how hard it would be for San Diego to keep a player with that level of experience on the roster all season, and suggested “there’s a pretty good chance we get him back.”

The Cardinals did not get him back. Instead, despite showing a brief flash in the first few weeks of the season, Córdoba labored through 100 games, 227 plate appearances and an abysmal line of: .208 / .282 / .297.

But as a reward for keeping him for the full season, the Padres were able to hold onto Córdoba and, in 2018, assigned him to a more reasonable A-ball level... where he hit even worse than he did in the majors.

Córdoba went from being ranked the #19 prospect in the Cardinals organization at the time he was taken in the Rule 5 draft, to not even placing in the Padres current top 30 via MLB Pipeline. His Johnson City teammate Andrew Knizner is just now on the cusp of breaking into the big leagues. Córdoba has already played a full MLB season and is on the cusp of playing himself out of professional baseball.

So while Preller’s Rule 5 gambit was seen as an innovative-if-nefarious move, the results are looking very similar to what happened to Tony La Russa and many of the other “Bonus Babies.”

From 1947 to 1965 (though it was rescinded and modified multiple times during that period), MLB imposed a rule that amateur players signed for a certain dollar amount must remain on a team’s major league roster for a full season (and sometimes two).

Such was the case with Tony La Russa, a highly touted high school shortstop who was signed by the A’s in 1962 for a $50,000 bonus, plus a new car and a promise to pay for his college education.

La Russa would enter his first full season of professional baseball, in 1963, needing to stay on the A’s roster lest he be lost to waivers. That would have been challenging even in good health, but La Russa injured his shoulder in the offseason. He wouldn’t even appear in a game until May 10, and then only as a pinch-runner. He would not appear in the field until late July, and not start a single game until August 25.

La Russa would return to the minors the next season, and there he would stay for the vast majority of his 16-year playing career, managing just 203 big league plate appearances across that entire span.

La Russa was far from the exception when it came to players who were pushed straight into the majors during the Bonus Baby era. Among the players signed for market-topping bonuses were Rick Reichardt, Paul Petitt and Hawk Taylor. Never heard of them? Some had solid careers and a few Bonus Babies even became Hall of Famers, but the overall track record is pretty poor.

If someone asks why these players never panned out the way scouts had imagined, the correct answer is, of course, “who knows?” To quote the late, great William Goldman, “nobody knows anything.” He was talking about Hollywood, but the same could be said about baseball. A multi-billion dollar industry analyzes and prognosticates which amateurs will rise to “the show,” all to elevate the process to something just slightly above a crap-shoot.

But many have posited - and it’s not unreasonable to assume - that these players development was irreparably damaged by being thrown into the deep end of the major leagues at too young an age.

Córdoba was a contact-machine, striking out less than 9% of the time in his final two seasons for the Cardinals in Rookie Ball. That soared to 23% during his season in the majors, then was up again to 28% last year in A-Ball. It’s not hard to imagine a guy who is completely overmatched against big league competition changing his game in an effort to just keep his head above water, then unable to get back to the player he was before.

Or maybe he was just never all that good? There’s really no way to know.

Of course, Córdoba is still a young guy. I hope he can re-establish himself and have the professional career he was always meant to have, at whatever level that might be. But for Cardinal fans, who saw a prospect stolen in the night, and I’d imagine for Córdoba himself, it will always be hard not to wonder “what if?”