Today’s deal between the Padres and Twins will colloquially be known by fans as “the Phil Hughes trade” due to the veteran righty’s prominence. “The extra Competitive Balance draft pick trade” may not quite roll off the tongue as well, though from San Diego’s perspective, the trade was really all about securing the 74th overall pick of next week’s amateur draft, at the cost of paying $7.5MM of Hughes’ remaining salary obligations and sending catching prospect Janigson Villalobos to the Twins.
This is the latest in the series of trades involving the Competitive Balance Round picks since the extra selections were instituted in the 2012-2017 collective bargaining agreement. (Here is the full listing of the order for Competitive Balance Rounds A and B in the 2018 draft — some of the exact numbering of the picks has changed due to the addition of free agent compensation picks being added ahead of CBR-A.) The Competitive Balance Round picks are unique since they are the only selections that can actually be traded, and they have become a unique bargaining chip in several deals, with such names as Hughes, Craig Kimbrel, Alex Wood, Jim Johnson, Jose Peraza, Bryan Morris, Brian Matusz, and Bud Norris switching teams as part of trades involving these picks.
None of these deals have exactly been blockbusters; several have been little more than salary dumps, with teams willing to surrender this extra pick to get some money off the books (i.e. the Twins and Hughes). Still, just the fact that some picks are available at all has added another layer of strategy in recent years, leading one to wonder just what would happen if Major League Baseball decided to make any and all draft picks eligible to be dealt.
Jayson Stark explored this same question in a piece for ESPN.com back in 2015, with several unnamed front office executives arguing in favor of picks being traded. The general consensus was that the ability to trade picks would greatly elevate fan interest in the draft — trades are, of course, major reasons why the NFL, NBA, and NHL drafts carry a higher profile than MLB’s amateur selection process. One American League exec claimed widespread support for the pick-trading idea (“I don’t know anybody who’s not in favor of that at this point“) around the game, though no changes of this nature were implemented when the new collective bargaining agreement was agreed upon in the 2016-17 offseason.
The stricter slotting and draft pool system, Stark argues, has already helped dampen long-standing concerns that trading picks could lead to big-market teams dealing picks for high-salaried players, or agents being able to manipulate their young clients’ landing spots. Both of these things already happen to some extent anyway (dumping salary in exchange for a draft pick isn’t really any different than dumping salary for a prospect already in someone’s farm system), and it’s possible that the ability to trade picks could actually help smaller-market teams get competitive quicker, given the criticisms leveled at the draft pool process.
Along these same lines, I would argue that if MLB is worried about draft trades leading to some type of seismic shift in the player movement market, the league probably has little to worry about. We’ve already seen how the greater value teams put on draft picks has impacted the free agent market (particularly with qualifying offer free agents), so there isn’t as much chance you’d see a team unload several picks for an established superstar. Such deals are more common in the NBA or the NFL given how the addition of one star rookie can instantly turn a team around, whereas in baseball, even the bluest of blue-chip prospects generally spend at least a couple of years in the minors and are rarely superstars from day one. As added precaution, perhaps baseball could institute its own version of the NBA’s “Ted Stepien Rule,” or maybe a cap could be instituted on the number of extra picks a team could acquire in any one given draft.
While any changes to the draft wouldn’t happen until the next CBA, the Competitive Balance Round deals and teams’ ability to deal international draft pool slots have indicated that the league is showing some flexibility when it comes to trades involving amateur talent movement, as one NL executive noted to Stark. I’d argue that another potential next step would be to allow teams to deal the other “extra” picks available in the current format — namely, the compensatory picks given to teams after their free agents reject qualifying offers to sign elsewhere. These picks are currently available either after the first round, after Competitive Balance Round B, or after the fourth round.
Let’s open the debate up to the MLBTR readership. (poll link for app users)