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The Relative Value of SuperDraft Picks

With the 2018 edition of the SuperDraft just around the corner, The Blue Testament takes a brief look at just how much Sporting Kansas City’s two first-round picks are worth.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Toronto FC
Lawrence Olum was traded to Portland Timbers FC for what ended up being the 18th overall pick in the upcoming SuperDraft plus $50,000 in allocation money. Was it a good deal?
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 MLS SuperDraft is this weekend, and players report to preseason training in Tucson, Arizona, almost immediately afterward. We’ve already profiled three different players who might be attractive picks for Sporting Kansas City, and my colleague Mike Kuhn just posted a great write-up on how the #13 and #18 picks have been used in past drafts, but what if Sporting KC doesn’t pick anyone and instead elects to trade its pick?

There is some recent precedent for this—in 2016, when the club went all-in on planning to draft goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, only to see Tarbell get swiped off the board by the San Jose Earthquakes, the club jettisoned its #11 overall pick to D.C. United for what was believed at the time to be about $125,000 in targeted allocation money.

At the time, that was not how I would have wanted to see such a pick used; it came across as a panic move necessitated by the lack of a plan B, so sure the front office seemed that Tarbell would still be on the board at #11 overall. But it does encapsulate both the crapshoot nature of the SuperDraft, and the rapidly diminishing value of its picks once you get outside of the top five or so.

So, what if Sporting KC elects to trade either its #13 or #18 picks on draft day? What would represent a good return? There are a few analogues from the 2017 SuperDraft that give us some good indicators:

The #3 pick went from Chicago Fire to New York City FC for $250,000 in general allocation money.

The Portland Timbers traded up with the Houston Dynamo from #10 to #4 to get Jeremy Ebobisse in exchange for said #10 pick, an international roster spot for a year, and $100,000 in GAM.

And the #16 pick went from Seattle Sounders to New York City FC for $75,000 in GAM.

Additionally, in 2018, Sporting KC holds Portland’s #18 overall pick, along with $50,000 in GAM, in exchange for Lawrence Olum during the last offseason. Based on last year’s #16 pick going for $75,000, it’s reasonable to assume that the #18 pick is of approximate worth, meaning SKC got the equivalent of a $125,000 fee for a 33-year-old journeyman center back—not a bad bit of business.

From the #3 overall pick to the #16 overall pick in 2017, then, is a decline in value from $250,000 to $75,000, or $175,000 overall. This is not evenly divided between picks--the loss in value from the #3 pick to the #4 pick is much greater than the loss in value from the #15 pick to the #16 pick. With the success of the academy system in MLS has come a substantial decline in value of the mid-to-late first round SuperDraft picks, and at #13 overall, SKC are right on the bubble of potentially getting an impact player or long-term starter.

Based on the 2016 trade, I would guess that SKC again values its #13 pick at right around $125,000 in targeted allocation money. You could make the argument that this year’s draft represents a potentially more promising crop than the class of 2016, but the most talented players who might have a chance to fall all the way to #13, like Tristan Blackmon or Alan Winn, will probably need to change positions as pros, and that in all likelihood will necessitate some time at Swope Park Rangers.

In other words, it probably a mistake to hope that any player Sporting KC select this weekend will make an impact in 2018. This, again, probably devalues these pair of picks should the club wish to trade away one or the other.

There is one other scenario to consider when valuing these first-round picks: what if the route SKC takes out of its #13 or #18 picks is by trading up, not down? This scenario may feel more unlikely on a gut level because of how rarely Peter Vermes has done it (for any noteworthy trade of this nature, you have to go all the way back to 2008, when the team dealt club captain and fan favorite Nick Garcia to San Jose in exchange for the #1 overall pick, which was then used on Chance Myers).

However, if Vermes and co. strongly felt that, say, Joao Moutinho represents the long-term replacement for Seth Sinovic at left back (thus freeing Jimmy Medranda to remain in the midfield), what would be an appropriate price for the club to trade up to, say, #3 or #4, where they would likely still be able to snag Moutinho? Based on the trades of those picks last year, and the roughly $125,000 value pegged to the #13 pick, SKC would have to offer another $125,000 in allocation money to make such a deal happen. In the case of Moutinho, a Generation Adidas player, the fact that his salary would be off the books for two or three seasons helps mitigate such a price tag, but that allocation money may be needed elsewhere to buy down a Designated Player contract if SKC ever finally gets the new #9 they have been searching for this offseason.

That’s purely a hypothetical, by the way—draft boards are one of the most carefully-guarded secrets in any sport—but it hopefully gives you an idea of what SKC might be expected to shell out in order to obtain a player it really wanted to get, in addition to what it might want in return if it trades its pick to another franchise.

I’ve got a shortlist of about ten players who I think it would be fantastic for Sporting Kansas City to take. Some of them, like Moutinho or Tomas Hilliard Arce, I fully expect to be off the board long before Sporting KC gets on the clock. But if one of those players is still available at #13 overall, I’d like to see the club pick them and, if not, to get as good a return as possible in allocation money for the pick. Not because it would be a desperation move like in 2016, but because it would be the right choice for the franchise.

Who do you think SKC will, or should, pick in this weekend’s SuperDraft? Or would you rather see them trade the pick up for a different player, or down for more allocation funds?