Brad Lidge announced his retirement from baseball yesterday. This is, of course, is noteworthy for us as Astros fans, as Lidge was a dominant reliever for the Astros in the mid-2000s. However, his retirement is noteworthy for another reason. The Astros have had 3 of the top 17 picks from the 1998 MLB draft play for them. All three are now *currently (Carlos Pena has been DFA'd) out of baseball.
It takes time, and often lots of it, to properly evaluate the MLB draft. With 15 years behind us, I think it is safe to say that enough of it has passed to look back, judge, and marvel at how unpredictable baseball prospects can be.
Carlos Pena, drafted 10th overall by the Texas Rangers, was the first future Astros taken in 1998. Pena was drafted out of Northeastern University and was touted as a high power, low average First Baseman with a good glove. His first year in pro ball he hit .325 in 30 games. This would be his highest batting average by far in his professional career. In 2001, he was rated by Baseball America as the top first base prospect in the game, 31 spots ahead of Albert Pujols. He was traded twice in 2002, once by the Rangers and once by Oakland in a three team deal that sent him to Detroit. After bouncing to the Yankees organization and then the Boston, he landed in Tampa Bay where he had the best years of his career. 2007 was a career year for Pena, his slash line read .282/.411/.627 with and OPS of 1.037 while hitting a career best 46 Home Runs. He spent a year with the Cubs in 2011 before returning to the Rays in 2012. This offseason, Pena signed with the Astros as their first ever Designated Hitter. He was designated for assignment on July 21, 2013. If he never takes the field again, Pena will finish with a career slash line of .233/.348/.465 and 285 Home Runs.
Adam Everett, drafted 12th by the Boston Red Sox, was the second future Astros taken in 1998. Everett was drafted out of North Carolina State University as a speedy, contact hitter with a great glove. in 1999 he was the 3rd best prospect in the Boston Red Sox system, and the 76th best in the game, when they traded him and LHP Greg Miller to the Houston Astros for another Everett, Carl. This deal was regarded as a win-win, as it looked like Carl Everett would not re-sign with Houston following the 2000 season and Adam Everett was blocked at SS in the Red Sox organization by Nomar Garciapara. The Astros' new Everett played 2 seaons in AAA New Orleans where he batted .245 and .249. There was never any doubt that he could play his position as he was always touted as "an outstanding defensive prospect." Everett started 2002 in AAA before being called up after batting .275 in 88 games. He played 6 seasons for Houston, with a very impressive 13.9 dWAR. In 2006, he set the record for Rtot (Rtot explained) with an absolutely ridiculous 40 runs saved at his position. To put that in perspective, the next highest Rtot that year at SS was Clint Barmes, with 15(!). The Astros did not tender Everett a contract after the 2007 season in which he only played 66 games due to a fractured leg. Instead, they traded 5 (FIVE) prospects to the Orioles for SS Miguel Tejada. In two years with the Astros, Tejada was worth 3.8 WAR (1.9 each season). In 4 full seaons with the Astros Everett was worth an average of almost 3 WAR a season. Did I mention that the Astros still had control of Everett and could have tendered him a contract? They literally just let him walk! I'm still a little bitter about that decision. Regardless, Everett would go on to play for Twins, Tigers and Indians before retiring in 2011. Everett finished with a career .242 batting average and a 15.6 dWAR. He was hired this off-season by Houston as an infield coach for both the Major and Minor league teams.
Finally, we have Brad Lidge, selected 17th overall by the Houston Astros with a compensation pick from the Colorado Rockies for signing Free Agent Darryl Kile. Lidge was drafted out of the University of Notre Dame as a flame-throwing starter with a knack for striking people out. Lidge slowly climbed through the Astros rankings, eventually finding himself as the 3rd highest ranked prospect in their system in 2002. He started one game for the Astros in 2002 before making the 2003 club as a reliever. Lidge saw his potential reached as he made use of his fastball and devastating slider to have a K/9 ratio over 10 for six seasons with the Astros. In 2004, Lidge had a career year, striking out a ridiculous 14.9 batters per 9 inning and posting a 1.90 ERA. On November 7, 2007 the Astros traded Lidge, along with IF Eric Bruntlett to the Phillies for Micheal Bourn, Geoff Geary, and Mike Costanzo. Lidge had a great year in 2008, saving all 41 of his save opportunities and recording the final out for the Phillies in the 2008 World Series. He would struggle mightily in 2009, with an ERA above 7. He was released in 2011 and signed with the Nationals in January of 2012, only to be released in June of that same year. Lidge was a dominant reliever when he was on and will retire with 225 saves and 799 strikeouts.
Looking back, we see that all three future Astros had plenty of raw talent. They were all thought very highly of by the teams that drafted them, high enough that they chose them before any other player they could in 1998. They were also thought highly of by the Astros, as evidenced by the Everett(s) trade, the signing of Carlos Pena this offseason, and of course, drafting Brad Lidge 17th overall. Their careers are forever woven together, not only because they were drafted so close to each other, but also because of their involvement with the Astros. Baseball prospects are uncertain, hit-and-miss, and extremely had to predict. In that same 1998 draft we saw Pat Burrell taken number 1 overall. We saw Super Prospect J.D Drew taken at 5 by the Cardinals. We also saw 3 players taken in the first 17 picks would never step foot on a big league field. We saw 19 teams pass on CC Sabathia, who went at 20 to the Indians. We also saw Mark Prior, with all of the talent in the world, go 43rd to the Yankees. Baseball is hard to play, it is even harder to play professionally, it is even harder to be good professionally, and it is unbelievably hard to excel professionally.
Did these three players turn into the next Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr, or Nolan Ryan? No. But that isn't the point. The point is that they COULD have. They all had talent, and talent breeds hope, both for the player themselves and for the fans. I think that is what is so special about baseball. You rarely see what you have in a player until it's too late to appreciate it. For the Astros, will Jon Singleton, George Springer, Jarred Cosart, and Mark Appel become perennial All-Stars? Will they be bench players? Long Relievers? Will they burn out? Or will they lead the Astros to 5 World Series rings, all on their way to the Hall of Fame? I don't know, and neither do you, and neither do they. And that's what makes baseball so great.