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Drafting the Astros Dynasty

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*Note: I know you are ready for the Friday Astros Minor Thoughts to return. Hold off for one more week. This story is about the minors and the draft, but it's bigger than the normal Thoughts. So you've got that going for you. Which is nice.

A throwaway comment by Evan the other day gave me a great idea for a story. The Astros glory years were from 1997-2005. That's when they made the playoffs six times in nine years. But, how were those teams built. Everyone harps on how bad the Astros farm system is now, but was it correspondingly good leading up to that dynastic period?

More importantly, how much did a well-perceived system help them win during that time frame? Was it sustained drafting excellence that carried the day, or was it one or two big scores? Obviously, our topics lately have veered into supporting Houston General Manager Ed Wade against all manner of outside opinions. Most observers are skeptical of the strength or effect the past two (pretty strong) drafts will have on the Astros going forward. So, I wanted to both see what caused the Astros success in the late 90's and if the pattern could be duplicated in 2010 and beyond.

In doing my research, I found 54 players who made the major leagues after being drafted by the Astros between 1992 and 2002. I stopped in 2002 because that seemed to be the last season where players would have a realistic chance of impacting the big league club by 2005. 

54 players fit this criteria, both playing in the major leagues and being drafted from 1992 to 2002. Of this group, only 35 played even a single game with Houston. Fifteen were traded, including six who never appeared as Astros, including first round picks Ramon Castro and Mark Johnson. Both, incidentally, were traded to Florida.

For all intents and purposes, we can break up this dynasty into two sections. The first is 1997-2000, when the Astros made the playoffs three times in four years. Then, we have the 2001-2005 section, when the Astros won their first-ever playoff series and made the World Series in back-to-back years.

During that first section, six players who went on to play at least 20 games with the Astros made their debut. That number does include Morgan Ensberg, however, who didn't receive significant playing time until 2002. Of those players, Scott Elarton, Wade Miller, Lance Berkman and Julio Lugo made significant impacts. Russ Johnson, Tony McKnight, Keith Ginter, Ramon Castro and John Halama were all traded during this period.

That last sentence is important. Under Gerry Hunsicker, the Houston farm system wasn't always highly rated, but it was productive enough to swing big-time deals. Castro brought back Jay Powell, who was the primary setup man during the 1999 playoff run. Halama was part of the package that picked up Randy Johnson, while McKnight brought in closer Mike Williams, a key member of the bullpen in 2001. 

What these years (and the previous drafts) lacked in impact, they made up for in trade value. Oddly enough, though, none of the drafted players the Astros gave up during this period went on to be a star. The closest is probably Ramon Castro, who played in 507 games at catcher. Of course, some of the international signees like Carlos Guillen and Freddy Garcia brought back more value for Seattle. On the balance, though, the Astros did very well by these trades.

In fact, these trades helped offset the lack of an impact player from the 1992-1995 drafts. The closest thing the Astros got during this time period was Billy Wagner. While Scott Elarton, Chris Holt and Julio Lugo all played big roles in short bursts, they didn't play for long. Elarton was a reliever for two seasons before having a great 2000 campaign. He promptly hurt his arm and was never the same for Houston. Holt was traded to Detroit after two okay seasons in the rotation for the second coming of Brad Ausmus. Lugo was a good player at short, but played on just one playoff team (2001) before being cut. 

The real core of the later Astros teams were formed in the 1996, 1997 and 1998 drafts. Those three saw Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Tim Redding, Morgan Ensberg and Brad Lidge. Those three drafts also produced the aforementioned Mark Johnson, who was integral to the Moises Alou trade, Ginter (traded for Mark Loretta) and John Buck, who was one of the keys to the Carlos Beltran deal in 2004. 

Of the Astros who played in over 100 games, only Oswalt, Berkman and Ensberg posted double-digit wins from 2002 through 2005. While Miller's best seasons may have scored highly on the WAR list, they didn't track that particular stat until 2002. Jason Lane also was high on this list, but had pitiful WAR numbers and never really had that one great season. Ensberg, on the other hand, posted more than five wins twice and carried the 2005 team until his hand injury.

There were certainly players drafted in the meantime that contributed. Lane, Chris Burke, Chad Qualls and even a guy like Kirk Saarloos had their roles. What was lacking in their performance was an impact on the Astros playoff chances. It's also clear that the Astros never really set out to build through the draft in this period. They lucked into some late round pitchers like Miller and Oswalt. They also made astute trades to supplement the core of the team built during the late 80's (Biggio. Gonzo, Harnish, Finley, Bagwell). That's how the Astros won in the first section, right down to the Alou, Johnson and Powell trades.

On the other hand, as the calendar flipped to the 21st century, the Astros relied more on homegrown players drafted under Hunsicker. While he did make big acquisitions (Kent, Clemens, Beltran, Pettitte), the real thing that hurt the Astros was the perception that they didn't have enough players to make trades. By going through free agency to sign guys like Kent and Pettitte, the Astros lost valuable draft picks. This led to the idea that the system was crummy and meant that they couldn't make impact trades any more. Look at the guys the Astros traded away again. Where are the serviceable players? Hunsicker did all that with smoke and mirrors.

The other positive thing to take away from this study is that Ed Wade and Bobby Heck could be setting the Astros up for big-time succcess again with this draft. A third straight impact-type draft could set up a situation where the Astros are contenders again and very soon. Like by 2014 soon. That may seem like a long time, because it is. I'd still rather another period of sustained success like we saw back then than what Houston looks like now.