The Cardinal Nation blog

Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

The Cardinal Nation Blog top stories of 2010 #16: Zack Cox’ major league deal

The St. Louis Cardinals’ first pick in the 2010 draft received near-record money and a major league contract.

In recent years, the St. Louis Cardinals have been accused by some of being too cautious with their early draft picks. Reasons suggested include reluctance to pay over slot and a preference for finished collegians with higher floors but lower ceilings.

With two sandwich round selections in the 2010 draft due to the free agent losses of Joel Pineiro and Mark DeRosa, the Cardinals added a high schooler plus three college players, two sophomores and a junior, in the first 75 picks.

Three are right-handed pitchers, Seth Blair, Tyrell Jenkins and Jordan Swagerty, along with the organization’s top pick, former Arkansas third baseman Zack Cox. Cox, taken 25th overall as a draft-eligible sophomore, was considered by some to have been the top college hitter in the draft, yet fell to the Cardinals due to signing concerns.

On the August 16 deadline, Cox and the Cardinals agreed to a major league contract that will reportedly guarantee him a total of $3,200,000 over four years. It included a signing bonus of $2,000,000, ranked fifth all-time for an amateur with the Cardinals. It was the first major league deal given by the organization to a draftee since J.D. Drew in 1998.

To avoid using one of Cox’ three or four allowable minor league option seasons in 2010, the organization assigned Cox to the Gulf Coast League, a level of play far below his skill level. With so little time remaining in the season, he suited up for just four games there. The left-handed hitter went 6-for-15, .400, with five singles and a double. Cox drew one walk and collected one RBI.

The organization then assigned Cox to the Arizona Fall League, where his hitting coach was Springfield’s Derrick May. The AFL is considered a showplace for players on the cusp of the majors, with the vast majority having Triple-A or Double-A experience.

Initially, I questioned the Cardinals for making this aggressive move with the 21-year-old, but they really did not have other good options available. Without a fall instructional league camp, getting meaningful professional playing experience elsewhere in 2010 would have required Cox to play in an international winter league. That environment is far less controllable and therefore presents an even higher risk.

After a very slow start, Cox improved as he went along, with a .324 average and a .993 OPS over his last ten AFL games. Overall, his slash line was a middle-of-the-road .262/.333/.446 in 65 at-bats. Cox’ 14 RBI in 18 games tied for 22nd in the league. He also received defensive instruction there from Cardinals minor league field coordinator Mark DeJohn. Fielding remains the biggest question about Cox’ future.

With few third base prospects in upper reaches of the system other than Matt Carpenter, who seems slated for Triple-A Memphis, Cox’ initial 2011 destination remains up in the air. If he has a good spring camp and the Cardinals continue to be aggressive, Double-A Springfield may not be out of the question.

After all, what differentiates Cox from the organization’s first-rounder two years prior, Brett Wallace, is that major league deal. By definition, the sand will be flowing through Cox’ hourglass more quickly.

Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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