The Astros came around a few years too late. They have the first overall pick in this year’s Major League Baseball draft for the second year in a row, a consequence of their unfortunate lack of success on the diamond the past two years, but also a byproduct that recently worked as a quick turnaround for the Washington Nationals, who were in the same position in 2009-10. Unfortunately for the Astros, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg weren’t sitting there as choices so obvious they almost negate the need for a year-long scouting process. Almost.
So instead, the Astros, in dire need of as much talent as possible to the point that they have voided veteran players like weights on a sinking ship, took a quantity-over-quality approach to last year’s draft. That may be an unfair label, as it implies that the players they selected, most notably first overall pick Carlos Correa, weren’t worthy of their draft slots, but it does best describe their approach. They spread out their money under the new collectively bargained draft spending limits in an effort to land as much talent as possible.
Unlike in Harper and Strasburg’s draft classes, there was no consensus top player in the draft, and the one who was atop most people’s lists, Mark Appel, came with signing concerns, a result of having Scott Boros as an adviser. So instead of having to potentially use the majority of their pool of money on the first pick, the Astros worked out a deal with Correa before the draft at a below-slot price, thus giving them additional money to use on later picks.
Baseball America explained the Astros’ strategy well:
“Though the consensus had the Astros taking Stanford right-hander Mark Appel at No. 1, they opted instead for Puerto Rican prep shortstop Carlos Correa. Houston signed him quickly for $4.8 million, $2.4 million less than the assigned value for his pick, and used the savings to sign supplemental first-round right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. ($2.5 million) and fourth-round third baseman Rio Ruiz ($1.85 million) to above-value bonuses.”
In addition to Appel, Byron Buxton was also in consideration for the top slot in the draft. While Appel went back to Stanford and is once again a possibility to go the Astros, Buxton was selected second overall by the Minnesota Twins and has since become perhaps the game’s top all-around prospect (at least he will be once the Cardinals call up Oscar Taveras). More on Buxton in a minute.
Correa was worthy of the top pick in a moderately down year in the draft, and he’s performing quite well in full-season ball this year. He is hitting .282/.391/.411 for Low-A Quad Cities while playing a fine shortstop and is on the way to becoming everything the Astros hoped he would be. But he’s already been passed by Buxton in the eyes of most scouts (if he wasn’t already viewed as a better prospect at draft time) and would be by Appel as well had he signed. Basically, even though Correa is a fine prospect and the best player in the Astros system, if money had been no object, he wouldn’t have been their pick. Either Appel or Buxton would have been the choice.
But this wasn’t about the Astros being cheap. It was about spreading the wealth. Going with Correa in a pre-determined below-slot deal allowed them to go above-slot on McCullers and Ruiz. So it’s not just as simple as Correa vs. Buxton vs. Appel. It’s Correa, McCullers and Ruiz vs. Buxton or Appel and the two guys they would have selected with the later picks. That makes it hard to evaluate.
But for argument’s sake, let’s look at McCullers and Ruiz.
McCullers worked primarily as a reliever in high school but has been starting more as a professional. Still, even with eight starts in his 13 appearances this season, he’s averaging fewer than four innings per appearance. He has pitched well, striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings, but his control issues (4.2 BB/9) scream reliever for the time being.
Ruiz has been at Quad Cities alongside Correa and McCullers, but the power-hitting third baseman hasn’t been exactly that. He’s done some things nicely at the plate (like walk 23 times in 38 games), but the power hasn’t come out yet (just three home runs) and he’s hitting just .209.
Writing off either McCullers or Ruiz after such a short period of time would be as foolish a reaction as evaluating the Astros’ philosophy of spreading their draft bonus around based on the particular players they’ve selected. The jury is still far from in on both. McCullers and Ruiz could both turn into stars, but both could also fail at this point. It’s simply too early to tell. Additionally, as easy as it is to say that Buxton would have been a better choice than Correa, it would be said in complete hindsight. What it comes down to, as with all draft picks, is the development.
If McCullers and Ruiz turn into usable major leaguers and Correa is the starting shortstop on the Astros’ next playoff team, than it will be hard to argue with their approach, even if Buxton goes on to be the next Willie Mays. What can be argued with, however, is the Astros’ plan to take the same approach this year.
Entering last season, the Astros farm system, although on the way up, was still in great need of an influx of talent. Their biggest need now, however, is impact talent, specifically on the mound.
WIth Correa, Jonathan Singleton and George Springer all in the fold, the Astros have the making of a solid core of major league position players. Primarily through trades, they’ve done an excellent job of rebuilding their pitching depth as an organization. What they lack is a potential front-of-the-rotation starter.
Mark Appel is that guy.
The Astros passed on Appel last year in an effort to build to their overall organizational depth in a strategy that I can’t argue with. It was needed at the time, and early indications suggest that they were able to add depth while also drafting their franchise shortstop. That’s solid execution.
But front-line starters who are only a year or so away from the major leagues don’t come around too often. The Astros are going to get a second chance to pick Appel and let him lead their rotation, and are likely going to pass on it in favor of the same strategy they used in last year’s draft. But they shouldn’t. They’ve build up their depth impressively in a short period of time. Now it’s time to add high-end talent to the mix.
There is one last-minute caveat to their decision, however. On Monday night, it was announced that Jonathan Gray, a right-handed pitcher out of Oklahoma who was also in discussion to be selected first overall, tested positive for the drug Aderall, an ADD medication for which he does not have a prescription. The consequences for the failed test could be nothing, other than enough embarrassment to allow the Astros to nab him cheap. Gray is the only pitcher with a comparable upside to Appel, and now, because of his misstep, could be signed for a discount.
If this becomes true, and the Astros can nab a front-line starter and once again save money for later in the draft, then that’s a bonus they’re likely to take. Regardless of which polished college right-hander they select, he’ll immediately jump to the top of their organizational pitching depth chart and become their ace of the future. But if they selected a less-talented hitting prospect simply to continue to add organizational depth, they’ll be missing out on an opportunity to add one of the most valuable commodities in the game—a front-line starter.