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Friday, August 11
Don't discount draft picks

Editor's note: The team of writers from the Baseball Prospectus (tm) will be writing twice a week for You can check out more of their work at their website at

As the July 31 trading deadline approached this season, fans and employees of the numerous non-contending teams began their yearly ritual: they wondered what would be done with the big-ticket free-agent-to-be still hanging around on the roster. From Juan Gonzalez to Mike Mussina, the trial balloons and rumors flew. When the dust settled, several impending free agents had been shipped off to new teams for the stretch run as their former organizations said to the fans "we had to get something for him."

The most interesting trade of the year was the Mike Bordick-for-bodies deal between the Mets and the Orioles. Bordick filled an obvious need for the Rey Ordonez-less Mets, and in return, the Orioles got a fair pitching prospect in Lesli Brea and some assorted filler. The Orioles have a squad that won't be good any time soon, and Bordick was doing them no good this season, so the O's just did what they had to do, right?

Let's look back to the beginning of the decade, and another team far out of the race at the trading deadline. The Kansas City Royals limped to a 82-80 record in 1991. In the midst of a disappointing season, second baseman Kurt Stillwell was on his way to a career performance in the last year of his contract.

Like Bordick, Stillwell was a light-hitting middle infielder, and like the market at the time of the Bordick trade, contending teams weren't knocking down the Royals' door with trade offers. Rather than take the best offer, the Royals stuck it out with Stillwell, who finished up with a superficially passable, if empty, .265 batting average. Stillwell signed with the San Diego Padres in the offseason.

Johnny Damon
If not for Kurt Stillwell, Johnny Damon would never have become a Royal.

Every year, free agents are divided by position and quality by a process that takes into account the past two seasons and heavily favors counting stats. The top category, Type A, is the slot many players who have started at their position over the last two years end up fitting into -- obviously, they look great when compared to the likes of Chris Jones and Keith Lockhart. Any team signing a Type A free agent must give either their first- or second-round draft pick to the team losing that free agent, provided they still have that pick. In addition, the team losing the free agent is awarded a "sandwich pick" between the first and second rounds of the draft. These draft picks can add up quickly, as the Orioles should know: by losing Eric Davis, Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar last offseason, they ended up with seven picks in the top 50 of the 2000 draft.

The implications of the Royals failing to trade Stillwell? For losing the services of a defensively challenged middle infielder with no stick, they were awarded both the Padres' first-round pick and a sandwich pick. That sandwich pick? Current Royal Johnny Damon.

Chances are, Bordick will be rated a Type A free agent at the end of the season. If the O's had held on to him, they would have been virtually assured of a couple of high draft picks for him signing somewhere else. As it is now, the Mets get those picks -- in addition to the services of a shortstop they badly need -- and it cost them only a flamethrowing pitching prospect with control issues, a couple of utility players too old to make a difference on the next good Baltimore squad and a 23-year-old gassing the youngsters his third time around the league in A ball.

Obviously, even a high draft pick doesn't ensure that an organization will pick up a useful player: the Royals drafted washout Jim Pittsley with the other pick they got for Stillwell. Sometimes, a team gets more than fair value for a veteran on a deadline deal, like Cam Bonifay's Pirates did when they stole Enrique Wilson and Alex Ramirez for Wil Cordero. At some point, though, it becomes a better gamble to take the compensatory draft picks than to peddle the free agent to the highest bidder -- something teams entering a wholesale rebuilding phase, like the Orioles, would be wise to keep in mind.

Dave Pease writes for the Baseball Prospectus, the annual book by the same name, covering over 1500 players with in-depth statistical analysis and hard-hitting commentary. Dave may be reached at

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