Barring unforeseen tragedy or circumstance, Bryce Harper will be the number one overall pick in next week’s amateur draft. This will occur roughly a week after Steve Phillips suggested he would trade last year’s number one pick, sir Stephen Strasburg, for a proven veteran starting pitcher. Undoubtedly someone who resides somewhere will suggest a similar faith for Harper. The concept of trading the number one pick before said player reaches the major isn’t just a concept or crackpot suggestion, though, it’s happened and it’s happened as recently as last decade. Here’s a brief history.
The Tim Belcher trade
Drafted by the Minnesota Twins as the first overall pick in the 1983 amateur draft, Belcher actually did not sign with the Twins, and instead would be drafted the New York Yankees in the secondary draft. The Oakland Athletics would acquire Belcher as a free agent compensation pick less than a month later. For Belcher it was a tumultuous path not to the majors, but just to find an apartment for longer than a few weeks at a time. In 1987, the Athletics would send Belcher to complete a previous trade for Rick Honeycutt and three days later Belcher would debut in the majors. Per Baseball-Reference, he would compile 13.2 WAR for the Dodgers while starting 119 games. As for Honeycutt and the Athletics, he would spend eight years there, pitching 406 innings and recording 3.9 WAR.
The Shawn Abner trade
After 16 drafts without a first overall pick being dealt for reaching the majors, we had it happen with back-to-back picks. Drafted by the Mets in June of 1984, Abner would be traded to the San Diego Padres in December of 1986 along with Kevin Armstrong, Kevin Brown, Stan Jefferson, and Kevin Mitchell for Adam Ging, Kevin McReynolds, and Gene Walter. For his part, Abner would actually be well below replacement level despite only racking up 562 plate appearances over five years for the Friars.
The Josh Hamilton trade
This is probably the best known entry while being the one under the least normal of circumstances. Hamilton, of course, fought through addiction and league banishment just to re-enter the Rays’ minor league system in 2006. After a few weeks in short season ball he suffered a season-ending knee injury that required surgery. The Rays left him exposed for the Rule 5 draft and figured he wouldn’t stick on a 40-man roster. The Cubs took him in the draft and traded him to the Reds for cash.
The Adrian Gonzalez trade
The top pick from the 2000 draft, the Marlins would send him along with Ryan Snare and Will Smith the Texas Rangers for Ugueth Urbina. This is one of those trades where it’s easy to look at it now and say, “Wow, they gave that up for Uggie Urbina?” and yes, they did. They gave up a guy with a myriad of potential Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff jokes for Urbina. They also gave up Gonzalez.
At that point, Gonzalez was in the midst of a season and a half of disappointing statistics in Double-A as a 20- and 21-year-old; disappointing in the sense that he wasn’t quite the devourer of ozone layers quite yet. Presumably the Marlins didn’t feel comfortable with his development and decided that flags fly forever, so why not add the ultra good Urbina? Not that I’m defending the trade or that point of view, but Gonzalez would contribute -0.7 WAR to the Rangers over two seasons while Urbina would rack up 0.9 wins in 38 innings for the eventual world champs.