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Perception and Reality: Astros Draft Spending

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Baseball America recently released two lists, showing both how much the Astros spent over slot in the 2010 draft and what their bonus money totals were for the past three years. As Astros County pointed out, Houston spent slightly under slot this year.

Seeing the three-year data, I'm struck with how little the Astros have actually spent since 2008. If the data went back further, 2010 would probably be pretty high on the list, but 2008 still tops it. Couple that with them not really exceeding slot expectations the past two seasons and we're left with a conundrum.

Leading up to the 2010 draft, it was widely publicized that the Astros had a budget of 10 million. Of course, they only spent 3.5 million less than that. The perception, though, was that Houston was spending money in the draft again, even if it's not entirely true.

I know not everyone on this site was on board with the Astros spending. We've gotten quite a few comments over the past three months to that end. The majority of fans, though, probably felt pretty good about this year's draft class.

There's two parts to this, but they are so very intertwined. You're going to be shocked by them, so be ready...

Money and talent.

Talent and money.

Most people don't follow the draft and minor leagues as much as me and some of the other writers on TCB. We call these people "normal." Most fans, then, care about how much money the Astros spend (more expensive = it must be better!) and how much talent they got.

Take the 2007 draft. The Astros didnt' have a first or a second-round pick that season, so they were automatically going to be lacking in the talent department. Still, they drafted two kids with a lot of potential (Brett Eibner and Derek Dietrich) in the third and fourth rounds. One of them was even local, which helps the perception of talent, if no the reality.

When the Astros failed to sign either of those top two picks, they didn't spend money and didn't get much talent. Losing both meant there was a huge public backlash. Lots of articles and editorials were written in the Chronicle. The general manager lost his job. Owner Drayton McLane is very conscious of the perceptions around his team. He reacted to this backlash by throwing a ton of money into player development.

The Astros tarted scouting aggressively in Asia. They got reinvolved in the Dominican Republic, building a shiny, new, expensive facility there. They also spent a ton of money in the 2008 draft.

Suddenly, the public perception changed.

Think about that. One draft changed the perception that the Astros are cheap in the draft, largely because the Astros spent some money. Heck, they even failed to sign their third round pick (Chase Davidson), but foudn no backlash from losing that talent, since they went overslot to sign Ross Seaton and Brad Dydalewicz. They gave out bonuses worth over 8 million and brought in both high ceiling talent (Jay Austin, Jordan Lyles) and MLB-ready talent (Jason Castro).

What does that have to do with this season? Houston was in a similar situation as in 2008, having extra picks early in the draft. Those picks were going to be expensive and might push their costs up above what they spent in 2008. They added quite a bit of top-tier talent this season, but didn't end up breaking the bank or coming close to the previous high bonus total. They also didn't really go over slot very often.

It's that talent aspect that I think drives our perception of this year. The Astros added DDJ, Folty, Kvasnicka and Vincent Velasquez for a bunch of money. They signed Austin Wates at the deadline, taking away any chance of griping about Plutko or JaCoby Jones, since they did accomplish something at the last minute. By setting up the expectation of a 10 million dollar budget, Houston avoided looking cheap. By signing a top amateur out of the Dominican (Ariel Ovando), the Astros can claim to be investing all over the work and not just in the draft. They're still being the good soldiers and toeing MLB's line a year before this draft could be drastically changed in collective bargaining, but they're bringing in players, darnit!

The thing is, I don't really care about the money. I just want good players. Would I have preferred they spend a little for a guy like Nick Castellanos? Sure, but I don't know that his talent level is much different than Kvasnicka. The Astros shouldn't be spending money just to spend it in the draft. It has to be for players they like.

There was a Jerome Solomon blog post a while back about athletes and money that has really made me think. I don't begrudge an athlete their salary. I could care less what Roy Oswalt or Lance Berkman or even Carlos Lee makes. I don't care how much money they spend in the draft.

I do care about the product on the field.

If the Astros add talent in the draft, I'm happy. If the high-salary guys are the worst on the team, I'm upset because they're terrible, not because they're paid handsomely. When we play GM for the team in the offseason, it matters what the budget is, but only if spending it helps put a better team on the field. We can probably all agree that Houston could have spent that Pedro Feliz 4 million better last winter, but that Brandon Lyon contract doesn't look so onerous as he saves game after game.

It's always all about the money, but only in the context of past and future performance. As I said, I don't want the Astros to spend for spending's skake. I just find it very interesting that the suggestion of a big budget is enough to change how we think about the draft spending.