On the Astros: Why No. 1 overall picks weren't part of The Plan

Mike Stobe

We've now written more about this mythic Plan than there were pages in the Plan itself

If there's one thing we've talked about most during Houston's three-year rebuild under Jeff Luhnow, it's The Plan.

A story circulated after Luhnow took the job that he walked into Jim Crane's office for his interview with a 20-plus page plan on how to systematically rebuild the organization. The Plan consisted of multiple parts, possibly one for each page. We don't know what it involved, but we do know it was complete enough to impress Crane.

In turn, Crane offered Luhnow a one-page plan of his own: a blank sheet of paper, authorizing Luhnow to enact his Plan in any way he saw fit.

The Plan explains the shifts.

The Plan explains the out-of-the-box hires.

The Plan explains the farm rebuild that was part volume.

The Plan explains all the new trends we've seen in Houston's system, trying to create the Astros Way.

We'd have to ask someone like Mike Fast or David Stearns to be sure, but I can almost guarantee that one thing the Plan did not include was a section on getting the No. 1 pick in consecutive years.

Last summer and into this winter, there were a vocal number of people on Twitter complaining about the Astros fans who advocated tanking. It made them furious that fans would want to lose for a chance to draft Carlos Rodon.

The problem has already become apparent. Carlos Rodon has fallen off his lofty perch at the top of this draft and we still have a month left to go. #AikenWatch2014 doesn't have the same ring to it, if only because it could be referring to a new Clay Aiken concert tour.

The reason those No. 1 overall picks probably weren't part of the plan is that one or two players won't save a franchise. What's more, the chances of a No. 1 pick being a transformative guy at the major league level are pretty small.

For instance, take a look at the last two teams to have back-to-back picks. Washington won the draft lottery by picking Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in back-to-back drafts. They were impact players, franchise cornerstones. If Houston were lucky enough to get two guys like that, the rebuild would be a success.

Except that Strasburg has been good, but not great over the past four years. In the last two years, Strasburg has the 20th-best WAR total in the majors. Two of the guys ahead of him on the list, though, are Yu Darvish and Chris Sale, both of whom the Nationals could have had without a No. 1 overall pick.

In 2009 alone, Mike Leake has almost out-WARed Strasburg after being picked at No. 8 and Mike Trout has blown Strasburg away in WAR. In 2010, Sale has outpaced Harper's WAR totals while No. 3 pick Manny Machado is nipping at Harper's heels with Matt Harvey just below him (despite playing in just 36 career games).

Now look at those back-to-back picks. Harper is hurt yet again and has shown himself to be an extremely young player who's slightly above-average average at his best. He's not even producing at All-Star levels yet. He still has plenty of time and could become one of the best players in the league. But, are the Nationals in the World Series four years after making the second of those back-to-back, sure-fire picks?

If we go back to where the Rays picked in back-to-back years, we find one All-Star in David Price and one bust in Tim Beckham. Still, Price doesn't even lead his own first round in WAR, as Jason Heyward, picked 13 spots below him had more. Three other players picked in that first round posted WAR totals of 10 or more already.

With Beckham, it's even worse. In an underwhelming first round, only six players have posted totals of five WAR or better. Reading stories at the time, people knew Buster Posey could be one of the best players in the draft, but his price scared off the Rays. No one said that about Wade Miley or Brett Lawrie, though, and they both have posted decent WAR numbers.

My point?

Trusting in the draft process is much more important than where you pick. In major league history, only 17 players drafted No. 1 overall have posted 20 career WAR or better. It's just as easy to get a top player at No. 5 as it is at No. 1, if your scouting department is solid enough (and a little luck goes your way).

Drafting is not a science, but Luhnow and Co. will make it as close to one as humanly possible. That doesn't mean part of the plan is picking No. 1 overall. The Nationals are just the latest example of that folly.

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