Why Trading Draft Picks Shouldn’t Be Limited in Any Sport
Arizona’s monumental trade for Atlanta pitcher Shelby Miller—which included 2015 first-overall pick Dansby Swanson—was generally viewed as a steal around the league by the Braves. Not only did Atlanta—which also sent prospect Gabe Speier in the five-player transaction—pick up Swanson (a top-10 prospect), they also got top-100 pitching prospect Aaron Blair and promising outfielder Ender Inciarte.
Though it’s difficult at this stage to judge who won, the trade represents something of a turning point. Before this year, teams weren’t allowed to trade a player who was drafted in the previous year; with the recent rule change, newly drafted players can be dealt immediately following the World Series.
It’s a small step to correct a silly MLB rule that doesn’t seem to help anyone—the restriction on trading away future draft picks (save for a handful of newly introduced competitive balance picks after the first round).
The rule is designed as a way to keep teams from hurting themselves and to improve league parity. Of course, if they were really serious about it, the league would implement a hard salary cap and have all teams share equally in local TV deals. But they don’t.
Making it even sillier, draft picks in baseball aren’t nearly as important as they are in football and basketball. Why? Teams can sign international free agents to stock their farm systems if they so choose. Besides, baseball’s drafts are the biggest crapshoots in sports. That’s why they last 50 rounds.
Look at the once-pitiful Kansas City Royals. From 1996 through 2001 they had a total of 11 selections before the second round (“sandwich” picks plus the normal first-rounders). Of the players chosen, only one ever made an All-Star team (Mike McDougal in 2003), and four of them never even saw the big leagues.
Consequently, the Royals’ already-barren minor league system went completely dry and since the team had no money to spend on free agents either, the losing continued (17 out of 18 seasons under .500 from 1995 to 2012).
Wouldn’t the Royals have been better off trading those picks in advance for prospects or fringe major-league players? (Actually, the Royals would have been better off picking the right players in those drafts, but they chose based on signability not baseball ability.) At the very least, had they been allowed to deal their picks away they could have at least traded down, selected that same player, and picked up some extra assets (in the trade) in the process.
So actually disallowing the trading of future draft picks not only didn’t help keep the team from losing, it actually hurt them.
The Herschel Walker Trade
Look at the NFL, where draft picks are more highly valued—and are able to be freely traded. (Even the compensatory picks can now be dealt.)
One of the most famous lopsided trades in league history was the 1989 one where Dallas traded Herchel Walker to Minnesota for numerous draft picks.
While Dallas used those selections to build a three-time Super Bowl winner, the trade didn’t exactly derail Minnesota. The Vikings had just one losing season in the ’90s (6–10 in 1990) while making the playoffs seven times and while winning four division titles.
Even the 1999 Ricky Williams trade that saw Mike Ditka and the Saints insanely give up their entire draft—plus a first- and third-round pick the next year—to move up and select the Heisman Trophy winner didn’t exactly ruin the team.
Although Ditka was out as coach after going 3–13 in ’99, New Orleans won the division the very next season and won an average of eight games in each of the next four years. Meanwhile, Williams was dealt after three years to Miami—along with a fourth-round pick—for a pair of first-rounders and a fourth-rounder.
Anyone looking to make a case for restricting the trade of future draft picks, though, need only look at the 7–20 Brooklyn Nets—and then compare them to the 1–28 Philadelphia 76ers.
Yes the Nets are already floundering and they haven’t even felt the full brunt of that infamous 2013 trade with the Celtics.
That monumental 2013 deal (for Boston, anyway) netted Brooklyn a year of Paul Pierce and one and a half of Kevin Garnett in exchange for unprotected 2014, 2016, and 2018 first-round picks—plus the rights to swap first-rounders with the Celtics in 2017.
The picks are spread out purposely over five years because the NBA has a rule that limits teams from trading back-to-back first-round picks. Yet the rule actually could have hurt the Nets in this one.
Had they given Boston their first-round picks in three straight years (2014–2016), the Celtics would likely have gotten the 2015 one (15th overall) instead of the 2018 selection—which at the team’s current dismal pace will likely be higher in the lottery if not top-three. (Of course, the Nets couldn’t offer Boston their 2015 first-rounder because Atlanta already had the right to swap it with theirs if they wanted to, as part of another ill-fated Nets deal.)
Still, New Jersey won a playoff round in 2014 and gave top-seeded Atlanta a scare in the first round last year, which is more than the Sixers can say.
Last season, Philly went 18–64 and was a paltry 19–63 the season before, despite keeping their top picks. They just used them on injured top prospects like Nerlens Noel (2013) and Joel Embiid (2014) and are in no hurry to improve the team while hording high draft picks with the hopes that in a few years they’ll go all-in and become instant contenders. (At least we’re guessing that there’s a method to the team’s losing.)
If a front office is going to mess up, they’re going to mess up. Restricting everyone’s trading options has never helped.