The End Of The Affair: When Top Picks Get Traded

Oh sure, it'll all be joy and Pirate jerseys when Pittsburgh uses its top pick tonight on, it appears, Gerrit Cole. There'll be projected arrivals, dreams of nights spent together, a limitless future.

Well, at the risk of sounding like your homely friend on Valentine's Day: good luck with that. It doesn't always happen that way. Sometimes, there's a parting of the ways. So as you see teams and draftees running into each other's arms, slow-motion, on a beach, consider these partings before you get that "Brien Taylor 4Ever" tattoo you'll live to regret.

Every pick since 2005 is still with the team that drafted them, but 2004's top pick, Matt Bush, is now on his third team. The San Diego Padres tried to get their shortstop of the future, but Bush's off-field problems, combined with an inability to hit, led the Padres to convert him to pitching, then deal him to Toronto for cash considerations. The Blue Jays released him, and Bush finds himself toiling in Double-A for Tampa Bay now. He's posted a 6.97 ERA as a reliever so far this season, with too many walks, an off-the-charts strikeout rate, and a relatively dim future.

2003's top pick, Delmon Young, is no longer with his first love either, though the Rays certainly aren't too unhappy with the way the future turned out. Young made his debut in 2006, and showed signs of becoming a strong everyday option on the outfield in 2007, posting a 91 OPS+ at age 21 while playing in all 162 games. The Rays then traded Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie to the Minnesota Twins for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan. Garza became a star pitcher for Tampa Bay, Bartlett an everyday shortstop, while Young has struggled to build on his debut, 2010 excepted.

The Rays weren't finished, either, turning Garza into several pieces (the deal will probably be known as the Hak-Ju Lee deal in a few years), and Bartlett into four prospects as well. When people turn their first loves into younger models, they are generally castigated. When baseball teams do it, they are deservedly praised. Such is the fate of Delmon Young, The First Wives Club of recent picks. The same can be said of 2002's top pick, Bryan Bullington, who bounced around after Pittsburgh waived him in 2008. The Pirates, of course, didn't get anything for Bullington, let alone the bounty Tampa eventually pillaged for Young.

But there's a third story, the revenge served by number one picks. This is best illustrated by 1999's Josh Hamilton and 2000's Adrian Gonzalez. In each case, the drafting team gave up, in retrospect, far too quickly. Hamilton's story has a Matt Bush quality to it, of course, while Gonzalez's is just baffling.

Hamilton, following his 1999 selection, showed the ability to hit at every level- unlike Bush. However, he had persistent off-field issues, stemming from substance abuse. As a result, he didn't play in a minor league game in 2003, 2004 or 2005, and just 15 in 2006. Finally, the Rays allowed him to go unprotected into the 2006 Rule 5 Draft, and the Cubs drafted him. Cubbies win, right? Nope, Cubs sold him that same day to the Cincinnati Reds. He posted an OPS+ of 131 for the Reds in 2007, making the league minimum. Then Cincinnati traded him to Texas for Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera, and he's been making pitchers (and guys who buy his batting practice jersey) look foolish ever since.

By contrast, the Marlins gave up on Gonzalez after just three years. The 2000 top pick posted strong numbers in 2000, 2001, and even 2002 as a 20-year-old at Double-A. And yet, fighting through an elbow injury in 2003 that curtailed his power, the Marlins decided to deal Gonzalez, Ryan Snare and Will Smith (not the Men in Black guy) to Texas for Ugueth Urbina. I guess flags fly forever, but wow, that's a lot for a rental. His power returned in 2004 and 2005, but Texas still didn't know what it had, and traded Gonzalez to the Padres, where he became one of the elite first basemen in baseball. He's now fulfilling that role for the Boston Red Sox.

But let's not assume that these top pick stories will all end in misery and missed opportunities. After all, just this weekend, 1990's top pick, Chipper Jones, hit a home run for his original team, the Atlanta Braves. Jones and the Braves are still together after all these years – sometimes love truly does conquer all.


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