What does MLB Draft Lottery have in store for Cards?

December 4th, 2023

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Most of the Cardinals’ focus at this week’s MLB Winter Meetings figures to be on potentially trading for another difference-making starting pitcher and also fortifying their bullpen, but the most substantive piece they leave Nashville, Tenn., with could come from an unfamiliar and unexpected source.

For the first time in 25 years, the Cardinals have a legitimate shot at picking in the upper echelon of the MLB Draft, which will take place on July 14 in Arlington, in conjunction with the MLB All-Star Game. The MLB Draft Lottery, which is in its second year of existence after being written into the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2022, will be held on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. CT at the Winter Meetings.

Following a highly uncharacteristic 71-91 season that ended their National League-record-tying streak of 15 consecutive years with a winning record, the Cardinals hold the fifth-best odds (8.3%) to land the top overall selection in the Draft. So, something good may come out of a frustrating season.

“[Selecting that early is] something that we hope will never happen again, first and foremost,” said Randy Flores, the Cardinals’ assistant GM/director of scouting. “It’s a strange feeling to be picking this high, and we continue to have that standard where it is a strange feeling. That being said, it is an opportunity for us.”

How rare is this opportunity to nab a top amateur player from the Draft? Since selecting J.D. Drew with the No. 5 pick in 1998, the Cardinals have drafted sooner than the No. 15 selection just twice: Outfielder Shaun Boyd at No. 13 in 2000 and first baseman Brett Wallace at No. 13 in '08. St. Louis’ 22 first picks of the first round since '99 have been, on average, from the No. 22 spot. The club has picked 30th twice and No. 25 or later five times since '99.

Rather than have teams simply draft in inverse order of the standings, MLB adopted a lottery system to decide the top six picks of the Draft. Each of the 18 non-playoff teams has a shot at nabbing a Top 6 pick.

The Athletics, Royals and Rockies have the greatest odds of landing the top pick, at 18.3%. The White Sox have a 14.7% shot at the first spot, while the Cardinals are fifth following their first season finishing last in their division in 33 years. (The Nationals, owners of MLB’s fifth-worst record, are ineligible to win the top pick.) Flores, who will sit in the sequestered room where the actual lottery takes place prior to the 4:30 p.m. CT announcement, likes the advent of a lottery system.

“It was a move to try to correct some of the extreme advantages of losing a lot of games, and trying to disincentivize that type of behavior is good,” said Flores, who helped the Cardinals cull young standouts Nolan Gorman (No. 19 selection in 2018) and Jordan Walker (No. 21 pick in 2020) from the middle of the first round in recent years. “Now, if a team with 0.5% of a chance gets the first pick, I bet people are going to be up in arms. But until we cross that bridge, it’s a system that is a step in the right direction, for sure.”

For years, NBA executives became famous for bringing all sorts of lucky charms -- such as horseshoes, rabbit’s foot keychains and children’s trinkets -- to their league’s draft lottery. Flores, who pitched for the Cardinals from 2004-08 and helped the Redbirds win the 2006 World Series crown with his seven relief appearances in the playoffs, said he won’t be armed with any sort of gadgets for Tuesday’s Draft Lottery.

Instead, the Cardinals will have a human good-luck charm representing them for the made-for-TV portion of the MLB Draft Lottery. Former reliever Jason Motte, who closed out Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, when St. Louis beat the Rangers for the franchise’s 11th title, will be on the stage for the club.

Whether the Cardinals defy the odds and land the top pick, settle somewhere in the top five or happen to fall back a few places, Flores is confident the franchise will be poised to take advantage of the rare opportunity to pick near the top of an MLB Draft for the first time in 25 years.

“However the Draft Lottery shakes out, whether we move up a little or move a few steps back, we will wind up drafting in a position unlike one that we’ve experienced in a long time,” said Flores, who nabbed pitchers Michael McGreevy (No. 18 in 2021) and Cooper Hjerpe (No. 22 in '22) and outfielder Chase Davis (No. 21 in '23) in recent years. “I think our group is up to the challenge, and we’ll be receptive to wherever the lottery shakes out. We’ll be ready to execute the pick and trust out the preparation we put into it.”