The current Astros roster is peppered with home-grown talent acquired under Jeff Luhnow, including Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Lance McCullers Jr., among others, earning their front office a reputation for shrewd drafting ability. With six drafts under their belts, we’ve had enough time to determine just how good the early classes of the Luhnow era were. We at Crawfish Boxes will be reviewing these classes in the coming days, giving the Astros updated grades. Here is a look at how Houston did in 2013.
Round 1, Pick 1 - Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford
If you’re reading this piece, I’m confident that you are familiar with the story of what happened at the top of this draft. Coming into the year all of the buzz for 1.1 centered on Mark Appel and high school outfielders Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows. While the latter two had strong years and became top 10 picks, some unexpected risers pushed them down boards a bit by the time it came time for the Astros to make their selection. Two of those risers were Rockies starter Jon Gray and former MVP Kris Bryant, who had a lot of support from Astros fans as potential selections.
There has been a lot of revisionist history when it comes to this selection. Contrary to what some might tell you, virtually every outlet ranked Appel as the best available prospect, and there were plenty of reasons for this. Appel had four major league pitches of which three were presently plus, a clean delivery, command and a workhorse frame. His profile was free of blemishes and he was seen as an easy #2 starter. As good as Gray was for Oklahoma as a junior, there were persistent concerns about his third pitch and command, and it would’ve been a risk to select him over a complete package starter in Appel. Kris Bryant was a legitimate option here after a monstrous season with USD, but there were real questions about his ability to hit for average as a pro at this point. Those concerns have been silenced several times over, and Bryant has gone on to become by far the best player selected in picks 1-31 of the 2013 draft (Aaron Judge was selected 32nd).
Bryant would’ve been a much better pick here in hindsight, but the Astros can’t be faulted for picking a comparable talent who was seen as safer. Bryant blew away projections early in his pro career, and Appel’s failures had much more to do with his own love of the game than it did a flaw in his profile. Appel never had so much as two good starts in a row as a pro, but the Astros were able to package him in the Ken Giles trade, salvaging a scrap of value from the pick. Players also selected in the top 10 included Kohl Stewart, Trey Ball, Hunter Dozier and Phil Bickford.
Pick Grade: C While the Astros whiffed, they made the down the middle selection based on the information available at the time, and most of the other options considered seriously have also had limited-to-no success.
Round 2, Pick 40- Andrew Thurman RHP, UC Irvine
While both are college righties, the Astros 2nd rounder had a very different profile from Appel on draft day. The UC Irvine Friday starter had a more compact frame and threw in the lower 90s, backing up his heater with a big breaker and lively changeup. Though he lacked the overpowering stuff that made Appel a two-time first round pick, Thurman was coming off of a monster season in college ball and looked like a quick-rising #3 starter. I had a first round grade on Thurman at the time and was thrilled to see the Astros get him here, but his tenure with Houston would be short-lived
Though he was seen as an advanced arm, Thurman’s performance in A ball was middling as he posted a 5.38 ERA in 115.1 innings and a mediocre K rate of 21.5%. As the Astros prepared to take a step forward as a team, Thurman became one of the first prospects that Jeff Luhnow shipped out of town as part of the Evan Gattis trade. In the Atlanta system, Thurman continued to struggle to miss bats, and his command backslid in a big way, leading to his release in 2016. He pitched in the Dodgers system briefly in 2017 and has been out of the game since.
Pick Grade: C Much like Appel, Thurman was a value based on information available on draft day. He completely failed to live up to his billing, but the Astros moved on quickly enough to get some value out of the selection.
Round 3, Pick 74- Kent Emanuel, LHP, UNC
This represented the first real surprise of the draft for Houston, as they plucked Emanuel well ahead of his projected range. Emanuel anchored the staff for a UNC team that was among the best in the country, but had middling stuff that held back his pro projection. Scouts praised his pitchability and his status as an advanced college lefty appealed to Houston, but he failed to live up to his modest billing in the minors. The former Tar Heel failed to to miss bats at any minor league level as a starter, and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery during the 2015 season.
The next two campaigns brought more of the same, with the Astros finally throwing in the towel on his future as a starting pitcher in 2018. Emanuel took surprisingly well to the pen given his profile, missing more bats than he has at any stop in the minors as a starter, but he fell victim to hard contact and his ERA remained north of 5. At this point Emanuel is little more than organizational depth, and his only hope to reach the bigs is as a middle reliever for a needy team.
Pick Grade: D Unlike Thurman and Appel, Emanuel was not seen as a strong value at his draft position, and he never looked like a professional pitcher in the Astros’ system.
Round 4, Pick 107- Conrad Gregor, 1B, Vanderbilt
Entering the 2013 season, Gregor was seen as a likely first round pick as one of the most advanced hitters in the NCAA game. While his power was limited for his position, the Vandy star had an elite approach and made consistent contact, and there looked to be untapped power in his frame. He had drawn comparisons to hitters like Nick Swisher and looked like one of the safest prospects in the class. Gregor faltered in 2013, however, with his modest power evaporating and his hit tool taking a step back. His approach continued to be excellent, but an approach is not a carrying tool and his projection took a hit.
Even with his struggles for the Commodores, Gregor projected to go higher than the top of the fourth round on draft day, so this represented a value for the Astros. In the end, Gregor fared as most fourth-rounders do, never reaching the majors. He was able to reach base as a pro but never hit an especially high clip and the power remained dormant. He’s been out of the Astros’ system since 2016, playing sparingly in the Red Sox organization since. Gregor will never reach the big leagues.
Pick Grade: C- Gregor was something of a “fake value” in the fourth round in hindsight. While he was once projected as a first rounder, the concerns surrounding him were vindicated in the end.
Round 5, Pick 137- Tony Kemp, OF, Vanderbilt
The Astros went back to the Vandy well with this selection, popping undersized speedster Tony Kemp, a draft twitter darling. Kemp was a dominating performer for Vanderbilt, hitting for absurd batting averages and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. Kemp picked up where he left off in the minors, and rose quickly through the Houston system. While Kemp continued to show no power, he became a fan favorite with his loud statistical performance on the farm.
The diminutive outfielder debuted for the Astros in 2016, and has made valuable contributions as a role player since. While his baserunning at the big league level has been something of a disappointment considering his straight-line speed, Kemp is a legitimate big league hitter and has even developed a modicum of power. He could likely start for a weaker team, and is a valuable bench piece on the Astros contending roster.
Pick Grade- A- It doesn’t get much better than this in round five. Kemp exceeded expectations both in terms of his major league play, and the time it took him to reach the show.
Round 6, pick 167- Jacob Nottingham, C, Orange Lutheran HS
After selecting five consecutive college players, the Astros projected to have some bonus pool money to work with and elected to pop prep catcher Jacob Nottingham in round six. With scholarship interest from football programs, Nottingham was seen as a tough sign, but the Astros were able to get a deal done ahead of the signing deadline. Nottingham was lauded for his plus power and athleticism, and though his bat was a tad slow his offensive projection was far ahead of the typical catching prospect.
Nottingham, like Kemp, quickly became a fan favorite and performed quite well for his age in the Astros’ organization. His power was present, and his contact rates were better than expected early on. In the end, his time with Houston would be short lived, as he was packaged with Daniel Mengden and shipped to Oakland in the Scott Kazmir trade, and was subsequently flipped to Milwaukee as part of the Khris Davis deal. Since then, his contact ability has fallen apart, and he appears destined to be best known for his part in those trades rather than his own playing accomplishments.
Pick Grade- B+ The Astros got real value out of this selection, both in terms of the player’s talent relative to his draft position and his role in bringing in Scott Kazmir.
Other notable selections:
James Ramsay, 7th round- A defensive wiz, Ramsay was a ranked Astros prospect early in his career before lacking offense ended his ascent.
Jason Martin, 8th round- Perhaps the best value of the Astros’ first ten rounds, Martin looks like a future big league outfielder, but was sent to Pittsburgh in the Gerrit Cole trade. An A grade pick in round eight.
Chris Cotton, 14th round- Short, soft tossing reliever from LSU was a multi-inning experiment for the Astros in the minors. Didn’t have the stuff in the end.
Daniel Pinero, 20th round- Didn’t sign, headed to Virginia and was a notable piece for strong college clubs. Now in Tigers organization as fringe prospect.
Tyler White, 33rd round- Unheard of value deep on day 3. White has produced more big league WAR than the rest of the class combined and is poised to contribute to the big club again in 2019. Jeff Luhnow was known for finding late values in St. Louis, and White represents a feather in his cap from the early Houston days. On production, White could’ve been a first-round pick in this class.
Final Thoughts/Overall Grade
The Luhnow front office’s first draft was a home run, but the follow up in ‘13 now looks like a swinging bunt. The Appel selection was a complete flop, though one that really couldn’t have been predicted at the time, and the Astros got minimal value out of their ensuing high selections. That said, they were able to salvage the draft on day 2 and beyond by finding Tony Kemp and Tyler White, and brought talent into the organization through trade with the help of players like Martin and Nottingham. To date, this is comfortably Luhnow’s weakest draft, and regardless it can’t be seen as a total failure. Tyler White will go down as one of the better 33rd round picks in history, and Kemp and Martin look to have careers ahead of them as role players. It’s without a doubt a disappointing class for a team that was picking in the #1 spot, but Appel and Thurman were seemingly safe picks that did not pan out whatsoever, and that can doom any class.
Overall Grade: C-