Houston Astros: Getting Better In A Hurry?

Troy Taormina-US PRESSWIRE

In our next installment of the Designated Columnist series, Sports Illustrated's Cliff Corcoran explores whether having back-to-back top overall picks will help the Astros.

In 2013, the Houston Astros will become just the third team in the 49-year-history of baseball’s Rule 4 amateur draft to have the top pick in the nation in consecutive years. In fact, just five other teams have even had two number one picks over a three-year span. Given that, I thought it would be interesting to see what impact having those top picks had on those other teams, and if there is a precedent for the presumed prospect windfall to speed up a team’s turnaround.

The previous two teams to have consecutive number-one picks won’t come as a surprise as both instances occurred in the last six years: the Rays had the top pick in the 2007 and 2008 drafts and the Nationals drafted first in 2009 and 2010. Both of those teams experienced dramatic improvements at the major league level soon after making those top picks but only the Nationals did so with the help of their top picks.

In Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the Nationals had the tremendous fortune of having the top pick in the nation in consecutive years at a time when two of the top amateur talents in recent memory entered the draft. Strasburg was routinely referred to as the top collegiate pitcher of all time while at San Diego State, and Harper made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old a year before entering the draft. Both have lived up to the hype thus far, though it’s worth noting that Strasburg did require Tommy John surgery a mere 15 months after being drafted, a development that cost him a year of development and has prompted the team to be more careful about his workloads than they might otherwise have been.

Still, the Nationals went from the worst record in baseball in both 2008 and 2009 to the best in 2012, and Strasburg and Harper, the compensation for the former, were significant reasons for the latter, combining to be worth 7.7 wins above replacement in 2012 per Baseball-Reference’s bWAR.

The Rays went from the worst record in baseball in 2007 to the World Series in 2008, but that improvement had far more to do with the string of top picks that preceded their consecutive number ones than with those number-one picks themselves, and not just because the second of those number-one picks came during their pennant-winning 2008 season. David Price, the top pick in the 2007 draft, threw just 14 regular-season innings for the Rays in 2008, and though he did throw some key innings in relief in the postseason, they totaled just 5 2/3 additional frames.

Price has been a key part of the Rays’ ability to sustain their success over the past three seasons, during which he has emerged as one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, but the Rays turnaround owed more to top picks that preceded him: B.J. Upton (second overall in 2002), Evan Longoria (third in 2006), Delmon Young (first in 2003 and the primary trade bait for starting pitcher Matt Garza), and James Shields, a 16th-round pick in 2000. Meanwhile, their top pick in 2008, high school shortstop Tim Beckham, fell off Baseball America’s list of the top 100 prospects after the 2010 season and hit a mere .256/.325/.361 at Triple-A in 2012, a season shortened by a 50-game suspension for recreational drug use. Beckham won’t be 23 until January, but he already looks like a significant overdraft and a potential bust.

Take those four picks together and the Rays and Nationals seem to have struck gold on three of their four combined picks. That’s an encouraging rate for the Astros, but it’s not one that’s properly representative of the success rate of number-one picks. Though prior to Beckham, just three of the first 43 top draft picks failed to reach the major leagues (Steven Chilcott, 1966; Brien Taylor, 1991; Matt Bush, 2004), 13 others (counting Danny Goodwin, who was taken first overall by the White Sox in 1971, didn’t sign, and was taken first overall by the Angels in 1975, twice) have lower career bWAR totals than the five wins Harper contributed as a rookie in 2012. Five others saw their careers end with lower bWAR totals than Price’s 14.3. That leaves 20 of the 42 drafted prior to Price with career bWAR totals in excess of Price’s, which suggests that number-one picks are more of a 50/50 proposition.

If we dig a bit deeper, we find those three other teams that had two number-one picks over the course of three seasons. Things get even more discouraging there. The Mets had the top pick in 1966 and 1968, but their miracle season of 1969 had nothing do to with drafting Chilcott or Tim Foli (career bWAR: 3.4), though the pick they made in between, Jon Matlack (fourth overall 1967) did help them reach the World Series in 1973.

The Mariners had the top pick in 1979 and 1981, but the former pick, outfielder Al Chambers, was a bust who played just 57 games in the majors. Their 1981 pick, college righty Mike Moore won 161 games over 14 major league seasons and was part of the A’s world championship rotation in 1989, but he never played for a winning Mariners team in seven seasons in Seattle. The Mariners would later make two of the best number-one picks in major league history, drafting Ken Griffey Jr. first overall in 1987 and taking Alex Rodriguez with the top pick in 1993, but were unable to build a winning team via the draft in the 1980s despite never drafting lower than seventh from 1978 to 1985.

Finally, the Padres had the number-one pick three times over a five-year span, drafting first in 1970, 1972, and 1974. They spent those picks on catcher Mike Ivie, third baseman Dave Roberts, and shortstop Bill Almon. Ivie, who spent most of his major league career at first base, led that trio with a career bWAR of 6.2. The Padres also had the second-overall pick in 1971 and 1975, but the latter pick, high school lefty Mike Lentz, never made the majors, and the former, high school righty Jay Franklin, never won a major league game. From 1970 to 1978, the Padres had nine consecutive picks no worse than eighth overall, eight of which were in the top five and only one of them produced a player who exceeded Ivie’s career bWAR, that being Dave Winfield, the fourth-overall pick in 1973.

History suggests that the Nationals are the exception, not the rule. Though there have been a limited number of prior cases, only the current Nationals have produced multiple All-Stars from a cluster of number-one picks. There doesn’t mean the Astros picks can’t have a big impact, only that they’re not guaranteed to do so. That is simply the nature of player development in baseball. The bright side of the above history for Astros fans is that not every team picks the best available player with the number-one pick. Budgetary concerns, college commitments, low risk-tolerance, insufficient scouting and research, bad gut feelings, and even racism* have all played a part in teams opting to take someone other than the top amateur talent in the nation with the number-one pick.

*Reggie Jackson, whom the A’s took second overall in 1966, claims the Mets didn’t draft him because he had a white girlfriend.

There’s also not always a consensus about whom that top talent might be. The Astros declined to take Stanford University righty Mark Appel with the top pick this past June in part because of concerns about his bonus demands, but many think that the high school shortstop they drafted instead, Carlos Correa, has as much major league potential, if not more. Indeed, Kevin Goldstein, who then was the top prospect watcher for Baseball Prospectus but has since been hired by the Astros as their pro scouting coordinator, had Correa as the top talent on the board on the day of the draft.

Correa just turned 18 in September, and we’re still more than seven months away from finding out who the Astros’ next number-one pick will be, so whatever impact Houston’s top picks might have on the franchise’s fortunes, it will be years before we see it. What seems clear from this distance is that simply having the top pick in consecutive drafts is no guarantee of a successful rebuild.

Cliff Corcoran is one of SBN’s Designated Columnists. His work also appears at SI.com. Follow him at @cliffcorcoran

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