Signing Dexter Fowler as a free agent will have a major impact on the Cardinals' draft next June. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Rob Rains

If the Cardinals had signed a major free agent last winter, they would not have been able to select shortstop Delvin Perez in the first round of the amateur draft, now arguably the second-best prospect in the organization.

They know Dexter Fowler will earn $82.5 million over the next five years, but it could take that long for the Cardinals to really know the total cost for signing Fowler.

What they know so far is that for the first time since 2002, they will not have a selection in the first round of the draft. They originally owned the 19th overall pick but already had moved up one spot when the Rockies forfeited their pick to sign Ian Desmond. The Cardinals could have moved up even more if another of the free agents who received qualifying offers signs with a team which owns the 12th through 17th picks.

If the Cardinals had kept the 18th pick, it would have been their highest selection in the draft since 2008, when they used the 13th overall selection on Brett Wallace. That pick did not work out, but more times than not, the Cardinals’ first pick in the draft has reached the majors within a few years.

Since 2009, first-round picks (not counting compensation picks after the first round) who have made it to the majors are Shelby Miller, Kolten Wong, Michael Wacha, Marco Gonzales and Luke Weaver.

Losing out on the chance to draft another player who could have joined that group hurts the Cardinals’ future, but it is not the only cost of not having that first-round pick.

Losing the pick also means the Cardinals lose the slot money associated with that pick and could have a major effect on the players the organization drafts with the picks they do have in the early rounds next June.

The bonus amounts are expected to decrease slightly this year under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, but last year the slot amount for the 18th pick was $2.44 million. Last year the Cardinals paid their top pick, Perez, the 23rd overall selection, a bonus of $2.2 million, the slot amount for that choice.

The slot amount for the first-round pick is part of the team’s overall signing pool for all of their choices in the top 10 rounds. Teams are able to move that money around, signing some picks for less than their slotted amounts, which gives them more money to give to other picks. It is a strategy the Cardinals have used successfully in the last several drafts.

Losing the bonus amount for the top pick will give the Cardinals less overall money to work with, likely affecting their strategy for which players to draft. The worst picks a team can make are ones which they can’t sign.

Scouting director Randy Flores, preparing for his second draft with the Cardinals, declined comment until he has had more time to study the situation created by forfeiting the top pick.

The good news for the Cardinals is that they will receive an extra pick following the second round of the draft in what is called the competitive balance portion of the draft. The B group of choices, the eight picks which will follow the second round, are awarded because of market size and a team’s overall revenues.

Other teams which will get that extra pick next year are Arizona, San Diego, Colorado, Cleveland, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Although the final order of the draft can still be changed because of free agent signings, as of now the Cardinals have three of the top 95 picks – selecting approximately 55th, 74th and 95th.

Two factors which make the loss of the top pick more palatable for the Cardinals – other than the obvious one of what Fowler contributes to the major-league team - is how their draft unfolded last year plus their decision to be aggressive on international signings. Both resulted in an influx of talented but young prospects into the organization.

Both Perez and the Cardinals’ second first-round pick, outfielder Dylan Carlson, will only be 18 when their first full professional season begins in 2017. Their fifth-round choice, outfielder Walker Robbins, will be 19 for all of the upcoming season.

Among their international signings, 18-year-old Cuban defector Johan Oviedo is already regarded as one of the best pitching prospects in the organization and could begin this season as high as Class A Peoria, a month after his 19th birthday. Outfielder Jonatan Machado, another of their Cuban signings, turns 18 in January.

One of the Cardinals’ international signings from 2015, pitcher Alvaro Seijas, will pitch all of this season at age 18 as well. Two more young prospects who signed last July are catcher Carlos Soto, who will be 18 in April, and outfielder Victor Garcia, who was only 16 when he signed with the Cardinals out of Venezuela last summer.

What will work against the Cardinals adding to their talent base next summer will be the penalties against the organization for going over their international signing bonus pool in 2016. Because they exceeded that cap, the Cardinals will be prohibited from signing any international free agents for more than a $300,000 bonus for each of the next two years.

Under the new CBA, beginning next year teams will no longer give up a first-round draft pick as compensation for signing a free agent. They would lose picks later in the draft, depending on a new set of criteria.

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