Cardinals take a PED-connected player in the first round

Associated Press

Delvin Perez, a high school shortstop from Puerto Rico, was considered a top-10 pick until very recently. Maybe even higher than that. Perez is a plus defender and his offense has trended upward as he progressed through school. Some suggested he could be taken very, very high. But he slipped to number 23 in the first round, where he was taken by the Cardinals.

Why the fall?  Perez recently tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

We’re used to older players, marginal players or young, international free agents taking PEDs. In those cases it fits a pattern of a player trying to recover from injuries, trying to make that one last leap for the bigs or pumping up those free agent dollars and getting attention from scouts. But Perez was a known quantity, subject to the draft. What does his PED test mean in the grand scheme of things? Does it make his status as a top prospect an illusion? Does it raise character questions? Given that it’s not a common situation, I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer for that.

One thing that seems clear, however, is that the PED test caused his draft stock to slide. There were 22 teams above the Cardinals who could’ve used an elite, 18-year-old shortstop in their system but they shied away. The Cardinals, however, did not, and they maybe got a bargain. In no other universe does a player like Perez fall to them here and in no other universe would they be able to sign a first round pick with his talent at the slot price they’ll pay at pick 23. The Cardinals certainly exploited an inefficiency, to use the parlance of “Moneyball.” If you’re a Cardinals fan it would not be unreasonable for you to be pleased at this bit of savvy.

Not everyone sees it as savvy, however. Some see some risk and an instance of troublesome ethical considerations in action. Chief among them last night and this morning is Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He set off a firestorm in Cardinals Nation Twitter last night following this series of tweets:

Ortiz’s column on all of this appeared this morning. If you want to see how the sentiments are being received, click through to any of those tweets and read the replies. To say that Cardinals fans take issue with Ortiz would be an understatement.

Personally, I was pretty surprised by Ortiz’s comments. He has never been a PED alarmist like so many other scribes, and he has routinely voted for PED-connected players on his Hall of Fame ballot. He’s likewise not a moralist, a bomb-thrower or hand-wringer when it comes to other controversial issues. He’s one of the better baseball writers out there.

And to be sure, I am on board with Ortiz insofar as he talks about how this pick is a risk, but only in a narrow sense. That being that, practically, in a purely scouting and analytical sense, it may not be 100% clear what the Cardinals have in Perez given that he took PEDs. However, Ortiz goes too far in talking about What The Pick Means for the Cardinals, what it says about the organization and what it says about Perez’s character.

For one thing, to the extent this pick is controversial, it is in no way related to the Ground Control hacking scandal, as Ortiz alludes. Even if it was, no team should make draft picks based on public relations, image or anything other than baseball and financial considerations. Indeed, if the Cardinals have been stereotyped for anything over the years it’s been leaning too hard on Cardinal Way-inspired lip service to character and good citizenship. An unearned stereotype, I might add, given that the Hall of Fame manager who brought them back to glory was Tony La Russa and one of their bigger acquisitions and contributors in recent years was Jhonny Peralta, who was involved in the Biogenesis scandal. If anything, not picking a potential franchise player late in the first round would be an instance of being hamstrung by concerns over image, not benefitting by having such high standards. It could even be said that the Cardinals pick of Perez represented some admirable progress along these lines.

Apart from that, you will not be surprised that I have no use for the “think of the children” stuff or the “raises questions about his character stuff.” We’ve spilled thousands of gallons of virtual ink on these topics over the years, of course, but let’s leave it at this: We live in a world where some PED-associated players are considered beloved heroes for whom kids line up for autographs and to whom reporters flock for interviews and quotes. Meanwhile, other PED-associated players are considered utter pariahs. In light of this, it’s abundantly clear that how such players are perceived is 100% a function of how people choose to perceive them or describe them, not a function of their inherent character, goodness or evilness. If Delvin Perez is bad for the kids, it’s because someone says he’s bad for the kids. If he has bad character, it will be revealed by more than a supplement he took in high school.

Making such judgments about baseball players is dicey stuff in the best of circumstances with the most information possible. Making them about teenagers who almost no one has talked to and almost no one knows is something akin go recklessness. The Cardinals may have gotten a bargain at pick number 23. They may have made a big mistake. That, however, can be said of basically every draft pick in every draft going back to 1966.

What Perez does on the field over the next several years will determine that. Not what he may have done in a bathroom or a trainer’s room when he was in high school.