364 days ago, I made a post giving my opinion on what the Astros draft board should be just before the draft. If you don't mind me bragging a bit, I had their ultimate pick, Springer, ranked 5th--the highest player left on my board when the Astros picked.
I feel a lot less confident about this year's draft. I've been following all the great work our writers here at TCB have been doing, and also following the work of many other analysts, as well as watching video. And I still don't have a very clear picture of how I'd rank the top of this year's class.
However, I don't think it's as weak of a draft as some have said. It may not have a clear consensus number one pick, and it may not have quite as much depth, but is it really that dissimilar from last year's draft? Only time will tell, but I don't think it's that much worse. I just wish there were a Bryce Harper (2010) level talent available for us to pick.
With all of that said, allow me to run down some caveats, as I did last year. Before I start, this ranking is influenced by the needs of the Astros organization. I believe in taking the best player available, but sometimes two or more players are so close in talent level that there is no clear BPA. When that happens, that's when you start to factor in things like need and ETA to the majors. That's especially relevant this season, given the muddy nature of the top of the class.
I rank the Astros' organizational needs as follows:
- High-ceiling pitching. Ideally, the addition of Jarred Cosart would have helped with this, but he's having a mediocre season and demonstrating some personality issues, while also having all the same concerns as before (poor mechanics, consistency problems). The Astros really don't have a guy in the organization you can point to as a future top of the rotation starter--not even a number two, let alone an ace.
- Quick to the majors players. This one is going to be controversial, but I'm going with it anyway. I think the Astros farm system already has many toolsy projects to work with; it has been a strong focus for Bobby Heck's scouting regime. I also think the Astros are closer to contention than some think, thanks to the salary soon coming off the books, the emergences of Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie as possible impact players, and Jonathan Singleton beginning to elevate his stock into the elite range of prospects. It is beginning to look more likely that the Astros could compete around 2015 rather than the latter half of the decade, so picking a player who can be making a solid contribution at that time would be very useful.
- Third base/corner outfield impact bats. I've combined these three positions into one, because traditionally you see a lot of transitions between all three (particularly from third base to an outfield corner). Thanks to Heck's focus on athletic up the middle players, that has become a relative strength of the Astros farm system. Where the system is still weak is in slotting guys into the corners who can hit in or near the middle of the batting order. Unfortunately, the top of this draft is weak on these types of players, but it may be something that can be filled in the supplemental or second rounds.
Below the jump is my final draft board for the first overall pick. I'm not going deep enough to address other rounds because that would take all morning.
1. Mark Appel. After months of talking bad about him and weeks of slotting Gausman over him, I suppose Appel has finally convinced me. He came on strong late in the year, and Stanford working him so hard actually has some advantages. He's already accustomed to pitching very deep into games, a trait of most true ace starters. Statistically, he's done a good job of closing the gap between himself and the other two top college arms. Notably, he actually reduced his walk rate below that of Gausman's, and his strikeout rate is now extremely close to Gausman's at 9.66. In fact, his strikeout rate is so close it's probably within the range of sampling error. Appel averaged just shy of 8 innings per start pitched. I'm also seeing late reports that his velocity is back up to touching the high-90s, even late in starts. I think the last tiny thing which pushes me over the edge is that Appel came from Houston and grew up as an Astros fan. It doesn't affect his stock unless every single other thing is equal, which it just may be in my eyes. Sentimentally, it's pretty neat.
2. Kevin Gausman. Gausman's secondary pitches are better than many have given him credit for. Like Appel, I believe he has the potential for three plus pitches and a fastball which flirts with triple digits. There was a period this season when Gausman was perfectly treading the line between statistical dominance and excellent scouting reports, with Appel trailing in both, in my eyes. However, Appel has put on steam lately and caught up. Honestly, they're so close in both statistics and scouting that they are basically tied at the top of my board. Think of them as 1A and 1B. Gausman does have the lead in FIP, but Appel has an even bigger lead in ERA. What a tough choice. Edge goes to the Houston kid, I suppose.
3. Carlos Correa. The late surge Correa has enjoyed is mainly the result of some amazing workouts in which he's blown away everybody watching him play. He's the youngest player anywhere close to the top of this draft class, and is right up there with Byron Buxton for best tools. He's become a TCB favorite over the last week, and many are hoping the Astros will pick him. I think it would be a fine selection, as Correa's ceiling profiles to play well at almost any position on the field. He could stay at shortstop, in which case Lowrie probably won't be any obstacle, because Correa is 3 to 4 years out. Or he could slide over to third base or right field, and his bat and defense could play well at those positions as well. All of that said, when you talk about Appel and Gausman's ceilings, I think the upside is a bit closer here than some think. Appel and Gausman could both fall in the mid-range of #1 starters if they reach their maximum potential. They might not be likely CY candidates, but I don't think they will be far off. Correa's ceiling is as an MVP candidate. That value is very close. And Appel and Gausman are closer to realizing their potential, and closer to contributing in the majors. Are five wins in hand worth more than six in the bush?
4. Byron Buxton. Buxton is the other ultra-toolsy prospect in the conversation for 1-1, and like Appel, he has been talked about as potentially the best prospect in this draft class all year. I like him a lot--he has all the tools to project as a perennial gold glove center fielder, and we all know how valuable that is from our time watching Michael Bourn. The bat is where his question marks lie, especially his power potential. He has strong wrists and a loose swing with an adjustable, uncomplicated path, but he hasn't shown much homerun power in game and hasn't been a ton better in that area in workouts. When I look at his swing, I see contact hitter more than I see a homerun hitter. Maybe that can be adjusted, but when you consider that Buxton isn't very young for a high schooler, I'm not sure how confident I am that those adjustments can be made. I don't really think he's a Billy Beane style bust--he has good makeup--but he could easily fall more into a Michael Bourn type outcome than a Justin Upton one. I don't know how much I buy into an MVP-caliber ceiling, here. Besides, we already have George Springer, whose ceiling may not be much shy of Buxton's. Actually, we also have Delino DeShields, who came out of high school as basically a poor man's Buxton. He's even from Georgia. Maybe I'm just sick of hearing about toolsy speedy Georgia high schoolers. Get over it, Bobby Heck! (I'm kidding.) Buxton would be a reasonable pick, just not my favorite one.
4. Kyle Zimmer. There was a brief period at the beginning of the season when Zimmer blew up and for a short time was the best pitcher in college ball. He was touching 99mph and showing off plus secondary pitches and an almost uncanny ability to throw strikes with everything in his arsenal. For that brief time, he may actually have been my favorite for the Astros to pick 1-1. The big concern with Zimmer is that he just converted from being a position player, and that often goes hand-in-hand with injury problems. Sure enough, Zimmer missed a little time later in the season, and when he came back, his velocity was down into the low 90s. He may actually have the highest ceiling of the three college arms, but his injury concerns scare the hell out of me. I don't want a Mark Prior. Appel may be overworked, but in the process of being overworked he has shown the ability to sustain his velocity deep into games and has stayed healthy the entire time. Zimmer... not so much. I still like him, but I don't think the Astros should take him first overall.
5. Mike Zunino. Zunino too enjoyed his time as my #1 prospect, before he had an iffy start to his college season at the same time as the three college arms were having amazing starts. My problem with him is that I just don't feel like he took the step forward I wanted to see this year. There were always questions whether he had a high enough ceiling to justify being the first overall pick, and he didn't really do anything to prove the doubters wrong this year. He still performed quite well, but his strikeout rate was still a little high, his walk rate a little low, and his throwing arm a little weak. Sure, he could still become a poor man's Brian McCann, but that type of player will never get any run for an MVP award. He'll probably get to the majors fast and become a solid regular for somebody, but I don't see a star here, and call me greedy, but I'm with Luhnow: I want a homerun from the first overall pick.
6. Lucas Giolito. In terms of ceiling, Giolito is right up there with Buxton and Correa. What Dylan Bundy is doing this year? Early on, that's what it looked like Giolito might be capable of doing after being drafted. Then he got injured. I'm sorry, but it's hard enough to justify taking a high school righthander first overall (it's never been done before) without them already losing their pre-draft season to arm problems. Subber has been quite clear that Giolito's problems could easily portend a TJ surgery in his near future, and for me, that's unacceptable. Even if he came back strong, it would still mean losing a whole year out of his development at a crucial time. I don't think the Astros should borrow trouble, not when there are plenty of other high-ceiling guys to choose from.