In 1964, MLB finally decided to do something about the rising cost of amateur talent by instituting an MLB Draft, starting in the 1965 season. Led by Rick Reichardt and his $200,000 bonus, amateur talent cost had kept rising. It was basically the only time players had any leverage, so the draft was a way of removing that leverage while also giving the worst teams first dibs at the best players without the pesky high price such talent had demanded. The Cardinals won the World Series in 1964, so their first pick was the last pick of the 1st round, Joe DiFabio. He never made the majors.
This is more or less a microcosm of how the first 40 years of the draft went for the Cardinals. Eventually, they learned how to find diamonds in the rough, but until then, they were stuck with seasons where they weren’t quite bad enough to get high picks and not quite good enough at drafting to make up for it. The 1970s have a nasty reputation among Cardinals fans, but surprisingly the three highest draft picks in Cardinals history belong to the 1990s Cardinals. They were willing to pay the price for 1st overall pick talent J.D. Drew, while Dmitri Young was a part of one of the worst drafts of all time for the Cardinals.
Neither of them hold the distinction of being the highest pick the Cardinals ever had though. That honor belongs to the truly bizarre career of Braden Looper, whose career probably wouldn’t be as weird if he wasn’t the 3rd overall pick of the 1996 MLB Draft. That’s right. Braden Looper is the highest draft pick in Cardinals history. And oddly enough, they essentially received appropriate production from a 3rd overall pick, but because this is Walt Jocketty’s tenure, it wasn’t through the guy they drafted, but through a trade.
The 1996 MLB Draft was right before their was widespread coverage of the draft, so I can’t give many details on the selection of Looper, but it was a weird pick judged by modern day standards. Baseball Cube has Looper’s 1996 stats in college, but nothing before, but in 1996, his stats do not seem especially great to me. He was a multi-inning reliever, appearing in 26 games and pitching 56 innings with 64 Ks to 15 walks in those innings with a 2.09 ERA. That’s good to be clear, but it’s not earth-shattering either and he was in the bullpen for those stats.
Now obviously, he was probably drafted more because of scouting than those stats, but it still feels like a 3rd overall pick should have a base level of dominance in their performance that he just didn’t reach. I can’t think of a good reason why his 1996 stats would be worthy of a 3rd overall pick. The only thing I can come up with is he was in the bullpen due to a previous injury, but I couldn’t find any evidence and even then, that feels like it would add more questions marks than you’d like from a 3rd overall pick. More likely, I guess, would be that he was drafted at a time when relievers were more overvalued than ever.
The Cardinals still tried him at starter, for the briefest time imaginable. Because the draft pick signing deadline used to be so late in the season, he didn’t pitch an inning for the rest of 1996. He was the #32 overall prospect according to Baseball America before he threw an inning. The Cardinals sent the by then 22-year-old to High A to start his professional career and he wasn’t all that good there. He started 12 games there, walked an above average number of batters (3.5 BB/9), struck out a healthy amount for the time (8.1 K/9), but combined it just didn’t lead to being a good pitcher (4.48 ERA).
The Cardinals gave the 3rd overall pick all of 12 starts at starter before moving him back to the bullpen. Looper’s MLB career has shown that this was a good decision, but this is a very hard decision to wrap my head around viewed from 2020. They skip a guy all the way to High A and while he wasn’t good, he was still holding his own for a guy who jumps immediately to High A. And the Cardinals say, yeah we want you in the majors right away, we’re going to advance you to AA and move you to the bullpen full-time already. His AA stats are about as close to identical to his High A stats, which I’m not sure whether you view that as a positive or negative considering the move to the bullpen and huge leap to AA.
And then he made the MLB club in 1998 out of spring training, a truly insane decision. In his MLB debut on March 31st, he struck out all three batters he faced. Things went poorly after that. In his second appearance, he gave up a two-run homer. In his third, he came in to try and salvage a win when Lance Painter gave up a two-run home run and walked a guy with a 7-3 lead that became a 7-5 lead. Looper walked the first guy he faced and the bases became loaded on an error. A sacrifice fly, then a wild pitch, and later a single turned the 7-5 lead into an 8-7 loss. In his last appearance, he came into a 4-3 deficit with a runner on 1st and then gave up two hits to widen that deficit to 5-3 and was only bailed out by Ray Lankford throwing out a runner at 3rd.
Again 2020 me views all of this as INSANE. This is not a pitcher who had shown himself to be anywhere close to MLB ready. He had bad stats as a starter in High A and bad stats as a reliever in AA and he made the MLB and two appearances in, he was expected to hold a 7-5 lead with a runner on 1st. These are the kinds of decisions where it reminds me of what having Tony La Russa as a manager was actually like and not the 2011 playoff version we remember. He was sent down on April 10th. The next time he played for the Cardinals, it was eight years later. His AAA stats that season are solid, with over a strikeout per inning and less than 3 walks er 9 innings, in addition to saving 20 games in 40.2 innings pitched. But man.
Looper is the exact perfect kind of prospect for Walt Jocketty, because him being a reliever limits his value as a player, but not as a prospect, at least not in 1998. So his tendency to trade prospects came in handy when the Florida Marlins were shopping a super young shortstop, whose career had already made him a World Series hero. Looper was the centerpiece of the trade, although also included was another prospect who you had reason to doubt his numbers.
The Cardinals had signed a 21-year-old Pablo Ozuna out of the Dominican Republic who made his stateside debut at 22 in Johnson City. Prior the 1998 trade, he batted .357 in Peoria at 23-years-old... with a .400 OBP. He also stole 62 bases... while also getting caught 26 times which pretty much negated any value his steals could provide. After the trade, the Marlins sent him to AA, where he had an empty .281 average with 31 steals and 16 caught stealing as a 24-year-old, and Baseball America made him the #8 prospect in baseball, which is certainly a decision that has not aged well. Also in the trade was a 26-year-old Armando Almanza, who had to that point never made the majors yet.
This is the perfect Jocketty trade. You have a legitimate relief prospect, a reliever who wouldn’t be called a prospect nowadays, and an extremely overvalued outfield prospect, who carried the triple threat of always being old for his league, having an empty average, and getting caught stealing too much. The best part is that Jocketty was surely aware of none of the above either. This is the same guy who drafted Looper after all. A guy who thinks a probable reliever is worth drafting 3rd overall is not a guy who suddenly becomes aware that Looper is a reliever with top 100 prospect status. He just liked to trade prospects and Edgar Renteria was a valuable player, with multiple years of team control left.
The Marlins allowed Braden Looper to reach free agency a year before he became eligible and the Mets signed him to a two-year contract to be the team’s closer. Things went very well the first year, disastrously in the 2nd, with eight blown saves and -0.6 fWAR. The Cardinals then signed him to a 3 year, $13.5 million to be the team’s setup man to Jason Isringhausen. He pitched well despite never striking anybody out. He had a 3.56 ERA and 3.46 FIP for a 1.1 fWAR season and was an important cog in the World Series winning Cardinals of 2006. But there were warning signs, namely that he never struck anybody out which led to a not particularly special 4.26 xFIP. Which he did outpitch his xFIP for his career, but not by that much (4.35 xFIP, 4.15 ERA).
And then.. the Cardinals moved that guy to the rotation. And it kind of worked. He wasn’t very good to be clear. But in the 2006 offseason, the Cardinals lost Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, and Jeff Weaver to free agency. The Cardinals still had Chris Carpenter, top prospect Anthony Reyes, and closer Adam Wainwright, plus they re-signed Mark Mulder to be in the rotation. And the fifth guy was decided to be Braden Looper. Obviously, everything went wrong. Except for Looper. Carpenter got injured on Opening Day, Reyes turned out to be a bust, and the re-signed Mulder pitched in just 3 games in 2007.
Looper meanwhile ended up pitching back-to-back seasons as a respectable 5th starter. Aside from Wainwright, Looper was the most reliable starter in the 2007 season, otherwise known as the season where Kip Wells lost 17 games. In 2008, he tied with Kyle Lohse for most starts (33) and was just 1 inning under Lohse for innings pitched (199). Career reliever, 12 total starts as a professional converting to starter at 32-years-old and it works.
What a truly wild 2007-2008 Dave Duncan had in those years. You have Looper’s conversion to starter. Squeezing one good year out of the truly miserable to watch Todd Wellemeyer. Joel Pineiro becoming a Deadball era pitcher. Adam Wainwright realizing his potential (although really that happened a year later). Of course you also have the, shall we say, mishandling of Anthony Reyes, where he tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. (People in the comments can expand more on this, but I believe he tried to make Reyes a groundball pitcher when it would have been best served to lean on Reyes’ strengths as a strikeout pitcher.)
Back to Braden Looper, it’s pretty weird nobody signed him for the bullpen for the 2010 season. He went unsigned all year, signed as non-roster invitee to the Cubs spring training in 2011 and he retired when he didn’t make the Opening Day roster. He took the exact opposite route most pitchers have. Most pitchers hang around at starter, and end their career in the bullpen. He hung around in the bullpen and ended his career as a starter. And so ended the career of the Cardinals highest draft pick ever.