A few years ago, our own Anthony Boyer compiled a list of “Very Luhnow” draft prospects based on college statistics to identify just what players the Astros G.M. would be interested in every June. It was an exercise to almost reverse-engineer the Astros draft process: Which college players are undervalued by teams? What do their underlying peripheral statistics say that they can do at the professional level, instead of their tools?
Anthony’s exercise drew the best K% and BB% for both pitchers and hitters to identify these players and was a well-received entry into our draft content every year. Though we don’t have that exact post for 2017 draft prospects, I’ll be identifying a few college players based on tools - or one tool, to be exact.
Luhnow’s draft history has been marked by high bonus pools and heavy investment in the first night of the draft. This necessitates under-slot deals later on, usually college players. Many of these players have been noticed and drafted due to one plus-to-elite tool they possess. They’re not always flashy, high-upside players, and as you’ll see below, many haven’t found real success in pro ball. Additionally, we can be certain that other scouting departments and general managers look for similar players in the draft.
I’ll be posting a short list of “one-tool” guys to know for the 2017 draft tomorrow. Today, we’ll look at Luhnow’s first five Astros drafts for players who fit this “one-tool” M.O. Keep in mind that other players drafted by Luhnow certainly apply here, and if I missed anyone let us know in the comments.
2012, 2nd Round: Nolan Fontana, SS, Florida
Tool: On-base ability
Then: Fontana was an advanced college infielder with a high floor. If Kevin Youkilis was the “Greek God of Walks” from Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, Fontana was the “Italian God of Walks”, or something: He carried a .406 OBP for Florida’s College World Series team in 2012.
Now: Fontana flew through the Astros system with his ability to get on-base. But the sabermetric darling plateaued in Fresno where he only hit .196 in his second go-around. The Angels picked him up off waivers and Fontana hit his first big league homer last month. He’s currently on their Triple-A roster and profiles as a back-up infielder in the majors if he can hit.
2012, 7th Round: Andrew Aplin, OF, Arizona State
Tool: Centerfield defense
Then: Another high floor pick in Luhnow’s first draft, Aplin hit well at ASU but was drafted as a glove-first guy with elite centerfield defense. He received a lot of John Jay comps as he performed well early in his pro career.
Now: Aplin was noted for some insane highlight-reel catches in the minors and would still be an elite outfielder at the major league level. He received some intense praise from noted minor league optimist Morgan Ensberg (see below), but never quite made it to that John Jay comp. Like Fontana, his bat plateaued in Triple-A and was DFA’d by Houston last month. He was picked up by Seattle (and also DFA’d this week) though he cleared waivers and is back in Triple-A Tacoma. Profiles as a defense-only fifth outfielder in the majors.
2013, 7th Round: James Ramsay, OF, South Florida
Tool: Centerfield defense
Then: A year later, Luhnow drafted an Aplin clone in the same round with Ramsay, who posted nice offensive numbers for USF but was mainly known for his outfield defense.
Now: Ramsay just didn’t hit a ton in the minors - his .196 average in Corpus Christi in 2016 just didn’t quite cut it, and he was released this spring.
2013, 12th Round: Chase McDonald, 1B, East Carolina
Tool: Raw Power
Then: McDonald was a bat-first, bad-body first baseman (6’4’’, 265 lbs) out of East Carolina who showed nice power potential. He also didn’t strike out a ton in college, an important data point for a high-power guy.
Now: A deep sleeper in the Astros system due to nice raw power, McDonald’s total offensive ability was another Lancaster mirage (30 homers there in 2015) and he couldn’t quite hack it once promoted to Corpus. Like Ramsay, he was released this spring.
2015, 2nd Round: Tom Eshelman, RHP, Cal-State Fullerton
Then: The rare pitcher on this board, Eshelman didn’t have blow-away stuff but walked just 17 hitters in his entire college career. He was picked mostly as an underslot guy in the Bregman/Tucker/Cameron draft, but the elite BB% stood out.
Now: Eshelman was traded to Philadelphia in the Ken Giles trade. He doesn’t have quite the impeccable walk rate he did in college, but he’s starting games in Triple-A and profiles as a back-end MLB starter.
2016, 3rd Round: Jake Rogers, C, Tulane
Tool: All-around catching defense
Then: Rogers certainly wasn’t the most exciting third round pick of the Luhnow era. He only hit .233/.333/.309 in three seasons with the Green Wave, but was considered one of the best defenders at any position in the 2016 draft.
Now: Luhnow has drafted a plethora of college catchers in the hopes of finding one who could reach the majors as an elite defender. Rogers doesn't project to hit much, but his recent promotion to Buies Creek and .284/.376/.566 line suggests he could be the guy Luhnow’s been looking for. If Rogers’s offensive development is for real, he’ll be a backup catcher or a borderline starter on a major league roster just with his elite defense behind the plate.