Astros offseason: Should Houston give up a draft pick to sign a free agent?

USA TODAY Sports

How much is a draft pick worth? What's the opportunity cost of giving up the pick to bring in a free agent?

As free agency kicks off and rumors start flying around the hot stove league, the Astros will be linked to free agents large and small.

Well, maybe not. They may get mentioned along the edges of free agency, but even though they're trying to spend, spend, spend this winter, don't expect them to make any big splashes. To do that and sign a player who received a qualifying offer from his former team, Houston would need to give up a draft pick as compensation.

Is it worth it? Common baseball wisdom right now is that giving up picks for older, worn-down players is fool-hardy. It's how the Astros got into trouble last decade, signing the Jeff Kents and Woody Williamses of the world while not having any productive first-round picks until Jason Castro.

But, has the pendulum swung too far? Do teams now overvalue those picks to the detriment of improving through free agency? Let's look at what exactly the Astros might give up and whether it makes sense for them to pull the trigger on a big signing.

The pick

If Houston signs a free agent, they lose their first round pick. If said pick falls in the top 10 of that draft, the Astros lose their next pick. If it happens to be in the supplemental first round, then that's the pick that goes instead of the second pick.

The only time a draft pick is exempt from being forfeited here is if the team received the pick for not signing a draft pick from a previous season. Think what happened to the Pirates when they didn't sign Mark Appel. So, if Houston signs a free agent, they lose the No. 40 overall pick.

That's the pick they received from Baltimore in the Bud Norris trade last summer. At the time, it was viewed as a smart asset to grab and maybe the key to the deal.

The value

Let's play a little game with Baseball Reference. We can look at players who were picked at specific points in the draft through this handy tool. Let's take Houston's 40th overall pick and look at the five picks immediately after it to see how many valuable players get drafted in that area over the past 20 years. That's 120 picks we're looking at to see how many players turned into reliable big leaguers.

Of that group. there's only one true superstar in Joey Votto, who was drafted 44th overall in 2002. Other names of good but not great players taken in that range are Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker (who may turn into a superstar but isn't one yet), Clay Buchholz, Marlon Anderson, Joba Chamberlain, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Tyler Skaggs and Huston Street. Add in Lance McCullers, Jr., too, if you'd like.

Lots of pitchers, in other words, and not a lot of position players. But that doesn't mean a whole lot, because it doesn't consider the recent draft rule changes. A guy like Nick Castellanos (who fell into our range) fell because he was too expensive. Those fears are going away a bit with the new draft slotting system. Sure, the Royals may take Hunter Dozier so they can draft someone who falls later on, but only one team is in on that instead of the four or five who used to take advantage of draftee slippage.

It's still an imperfect value here. Draft picks are wild cards. They have a high bust rate even this close to the top of the draft. But, that pick still has plenty of value for its potential. What if it turned into the next Joey Votto? Could you forgive the Astros for giving it up to sign Brian McCann?

The draft pool ramifications

Except there is a more quantifiable way to look at Houston's supplemental first round pick. It affords them more money to work with in the draft signing pool. For those who haven't kept up with the nuances of the new CBA and the draft, teams get more money in the draft based on when they pick and how many picks they have.

The pools haven't been released yet (that I've seen), but Houston probably will be one of the top monied teams again in 2014. That means they can pull off moves like in 2012, when they went and got Rio Ruiz, McCullers and more. Losing even $1 million of that hurts their chances of pulling off everything successfully.

So, there is plenty of opportunity cost outside of just the pick itself here. Losing this pick to free agent compensation hurts Houston's strategies in the draft.

Balancing the equation

What would it take to make losing that pick worthwhile?

Well, for starters, it doesn't look like it pays to sign a pitcher and lose that pick. Even with the inherent volatility of pitchers, it appears the range Houston pick falls into is mostly likely to yield a young pitching prospect. That means signing an older pitcher and giving up the chance to get a young, controllable one doesn't make a lot of sense.

But, that pick has typically not produced many position players. Of the ones that did fall into that range, not many of them became productive big league players. So, it seems like if Houston wanted to go after an everyday player, it might make sense to give up this pick.

Know this, though. Houston absolutely has a price set on this pick. They know how much it is worth, how much a free agent should bring into the team and will balance the scales accordingly. If the decision scientists don't think it is a good tradeoff to give up the pick, then the Astros won't do it. But, if they see the value of someone like Choo as being greater than the 40th overall pick, then that asset gets cashed in.

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