During a roundtable discussion with Astros bloggers on Saturday afternoon at Fan Fest, Director Of Amateur Scouting Mike Elias and newly-promoted Director Of Player Personnel Quinton McCracken sat down to discuss aspects of their jobs and to answer questions from those assembled.
Mike Elias opened the session by discussing draft preparations. He mentioned that the Astros had just had a meeting with their amateur scouts the week before and given them their marching orders. In his opening remarks, he discussed some of the interesting jumps and falls that players take on the preliminary draft boards as the amateur seasons progress.
Quinton McCracken discussed his transition from Director Of Player Development to his new role, and the expanded duties he'd be undertaking. In addition to remaining active with the player development side of the equation, McCracken will now be involved in Major League acquisitions, amateur drafting with Elias, and with the pro scouting department with Kevin Goldstein. McCracken was particular about pointing out the search for pitching depth in his opening comments, and indicated that the signing of Wandy Rodriguez to a Minor League Contract with a Spring Training invite was a move he had reasonably good hopes for based on some strong performances in Arlington last season.
After these opening remarks, the floor was opened to questions from the gathered writers.
On Injured Minor League Pitchers:
Kyle Smith, Kent Emmanuel, Derek Velasquez, and Tommy Shirley each suffered injuries last season and are in various stages of recovery at the moment. Quinton McCracken fielded the question and said that Kyle Smith was throwing at around 80 to 90 percent and the team feels like he should be ready to go by Spring Training. Tommy Shirley was pegged at an early May return thanks to a solidly progressing injury recovery, and Kent Emmanuel is recovering well from Tommy John Surgery, per McCracken, and should be primed for a mid-season return. Unfortunately, Derek Velasquez has hit a bit of a snag in his recovery. McCracken mentioned that he could still hopefully return by the end of the season.
On The Change Of Draft Planning And Execution:
When asked about the difference between picking early in the draft versus picking at number 18 overall, Mike Elias had quite a valuable bit of information to share, saying:
"We've actually made some adjustments to the structure of the scouting department just because we're transitioning from picking so high to hopefully picking in this late range for years to come. We've added a couple cross-checkers...so we'll have about ten people that'll be able to see these [amateur players], but we're going to focus a lot more of our cross-checking on the rounds five to ten range, which is a harder area to spend time on, but we're going to invest the time and money to do that. The biggest difference fom picking at the top of the first round to the back end of the first round is it's harder to know exactly who's going to be available for your pick, so you can't spend as much time seeing them multiple times, meeting with the players, it's a lot more difficult to know exactly what you're dealing with. So we're throwing a couple more people at it this year so hopefully we're able to do that."
On The Organization's Success With Later-Round Draft Picks:
On a follow up question, Mike Elias went on to praise the Astros as an organization - with an implied emphasis on giving credit to his predecessor, Bobby Heck - for their late round sucesses over the last five to seven seasons. He noted the success of players like Dallas Keuchel, George Springer, Tyler White, and others while praising Director of Decision Sciences Sig Mejdal for his ability to pinpoint players like White - who, Elias noted, was only seriously scouted by one other Major League Baseball team - and turn the highly-regarded Area Scouts on to such valuable potential prospects that they might not otherwise look twice at.
On The Decision Making With Regards To Player Readiness:
Quinton McCracken weighed in on the process for ascertaining whether players are ready for the Major Leagues by saying that it's a complex decision that is primarily performance based. Of course, whether or not the player in question is blocked at the Major League Level has bearing on the matter too, he notes. With regard to picking the right players who have the right makeup to suceed at the higher levels, McCracken said:
"Guys like [Preston Tucker, Tyler White, Matt Duffy], those are the foundation, I think, from which successful organizations build. As Mike alluded to earlier, just taking quality individuals in the later rounds as opposed to drafting guys just to fill rosters is about eyeing true talent, maybe obscure talent, that may have one or two tools that are extraodrinary and giving those guys a chance."
He also mentioned that their perormance at Triple-A is absolutely going to mitigate Major League opportunities for guys like White and Duffy.
On The Difference Between Scouting High Schoolers vs. College Players:
When asked about the difference in scouting between high schoolers and college players, Elias stated that generally speaking, more can happen - both positively and negatively - to high school players. So it's a bit like comparing apples (18-year-olds) and oranges (21-year-olds), and that's where the experience of the scouts comes in to play.
On Daz Cameron:
When asked when the realization that Daz Cameron might fall to them hit them, Mike Elias had this to say:
"I think once we got past like the fifteenth pick in the draft, we started to think 'Wow, this actually might come to us.' The morning of the draft, there were a lot of reports on the internet and Twitter that this might happen, and I was surprised to read them - I think we were a little surprised by it, but it certainly worked out well. The same thing happened in 2012 with [Lance] McCullers. With the way the system is set up now, occasionally you're going to get these high school players that have a large price tag because of the college commitments they have and their backgrounds, and if they don't go extremely early in the draft, they're content to go to college and they're going to fall through and get to a much later round in the draft than their talent dictates. With our draft position and our bonus pool the last several years, we've been the club that's been able to take advantage of that, and that's going to be an advantage that probably is going to disappear to a large degree moving forward."
On Draft Pick Loss Mitigating Against Free Agent Signings:
Elias went on to address a question about how the potential loss of a draft pick - and the attendant dip in available bonus pool funds - might weigh in the decision making when it comes to free agent acquisitions:
"We're not opposed to making a free agent signing just because it's going to cost us a draft pick. Obviously it's a penalty when that happens, and losing the pick isn't desirable, but we're aware of the value of that pick, and if we feel like the free agent acquisition offsets the value that we're losing with the draft pick, we'll do it. The bonus pool aspect, that does add a little wrinkle to it. I think it's tough to use the draft money as freely as you would like, just because it's not a free agent system where it's like 'Okay, I've got $6 million to spend in the draft, I'm going to sign this guy for $1 million and this guy for $2 million.' You can't pick and choose that freely; they've still got to get through the draft and survive all the way to your pick. So it definitely hurts to lose some of your draft pool, but it's a small consideration, I think, relative to having actual picks."
On The Pain Of The Ken Giles Trade:
A question was directed to Quinton McCracken about whether it was painful to see so many young players that he'd helped to develop shippd out. In reponse, McCracken gave a small smile and said in his characteristic sotto voce that it was a case of mixed emotions for him. On the one hand, it felt like having his sons traded out of the organization after having spent years working with these players and helping them develop. On the other hand, it was a source of pride to have these players whom he and his team had helped along their path to the big leagus all develop to the point where they were so valuable to another organization. And Quinton McCracken also pointed out that in many cases, these young men were blocked by other players or might have a more immediate opporunity to make a greater impact in Philadelphia, so he felt happy for them as well to be able to go to an organization and get that chance.
On The MiLB Players To Watch In Coming Years:
The duo was asked whether there were any hidden gems (like Tyler White, whom Jeff Luhnow told the bloggers two years ago to keep an eye on) this year. They were understandably loathe to disclose too many details of their own internal values of the players, but Quinton certainly reiterated that Tyler White was kind of the "poster boy" for the sleepers of the system - noting that White can "flat out rake" and that McCracken feels it is likely that he gets a serious look at the Major League level this year. Beyond White, McCracken felt that Tommy Shirley and Jordan Jankowsky are two arms that were later round picks who have both made noticeable strides and should be watched carefully by Astros fans. He also made it a point to highlight Chris "The Dragon" Devenski, citing him with the other two pitchers as the real trifecta of sleeper arms to watch this next season. Both Elias and McCracken spoke highly of Jonathan Arauz, acquired from the Phillies in the Ken Giles trade, as a player they were legitimately excited to have whom they feel is "going to make some noise" in the Astros system.
So ends the high points of the roundtable discussion, which, on a personal note, was one of the highlights of this writer's baseball fandom thus far. Hopefully, it will be the first of many attended by yours truly, as it is an exceptional experience from which a baseball fan, even a rabid one, can learn so much.
Quinton McCracken is seeing his job duties and responsibilities expand exponentially this season, and he and Mike Elias are working to change their approach to the draft to suit their new, and hopefully long-term, lower drafting position. But amidst all this change, there is one goal which they aim to see unchanged:
The Astros Minor League system continuing to produce top-notch talent for the forseeable future.