No event signaled the start of the Crane/Luhnow era (with all apologies to the Bo Porter announcement) as much as the 2012 draft. With the team already in sell-mode by 2010, the Astros’ farm system was not so bad when Luhnow took over. Especially the Pence trade, which netted Cosart, Singleton, and Domingo Santana, rejuvinated the system. Still, the team was coming off its first 100 loss season after 2011, and there were few young, MLB-ready, controllable pieces who looked like they would be part of a winning core three years down the road.
Bobby Heck liked to exaggerate the contrast between college (safe, high ceiling) and high school (risky, high ceiling) players. So the system still had guys like Telvin Nash, with 80 raw power but no talent for baseball, and Mike Kvasnicka, who didn’t possess a 50 grade tool but somehow was a 1st-round pick. Anyhow, Luhnow was now in charge, and would be doing things better.
With the #1 pick, Luhnow showed his willingness to do things that would get him raked across the coals. Instead of taking Byron Buxton 1-1, Luhnow took Carlos Correa, who had agreed to sign for less. Here were the Astros, being cheap, and not taking Buxton. It didn’t matter that this move allowed them to also sign McCullers, a top 15 talent, who had fallen to 41. They should have taken Buxton, because Ken Griffey went 1-1, and who honestly remembers who went 1-2 in that draft?!?
Luhnow snagged four high-profile HS talents in the first seven selections, and filled out the rest of the draft with high-performing college guys from gold start college programs like Arizona St. (Andrew Aplin, Brady Rodgers), and Florida (Nolan Fontana,Preston Tucker).
Let’s review the high school guys first: Nobody needs to be reminded of who Correa and McCullers are. But a bit on WAR. Per B-Ref, Correa has 18.3 WAR. That was a ridiculously good 1st round of draftees, but the closest performers are Corey Seager with 13.7 and Addison Russell, with 12 WAR. Buxton is at 6.9.
McCullers has put up over 10 WAR on Fangraphs. He’s also made 80 regular season starts on teams that have made the playoffs in 3 of the last 4 years. During this four year stretch of amazing success, only Keuchel has made more starts for the Astros.
Rio Ruiz was a 4th rounder who turned down a Pac-12 QB scholarship to play for the Astros. His tools, especially the arm and the the hit tool, never really translated as he moved up. The Colin Moran trade foretold his numbered days with the Astros, and he was, along with Folty, a headliner in the trade for Evan Gattis. Ruiz got to MLB, looked great when he made contact with his perfect swing, but was quickly leapfrogged by better Atlanta prospects.
Brett Phillips was even toolsier, especially when he tapped into his power. He rose quickly when he got to A-Ball, and was a top 100 prospect when he headlined the infamous Gomez/Fiers trade. He had trouble balancing the trade off between power and contact above A-ball, and was sold at peak. It’s unclear, almost seven years after being drafted, whether he will ever become a reliable member of the 25 man roster.
The high upside high schoolers produced tremendous value for the Astros. The top 2 have been instrumental in the Astros’ success, and the other two had value, a lot of value, as trade chips.
The college players tell a different story, and overall have disappointed. I’ll put the college players into two groups: A) about what was expected, but better; B) holy cow
A. ABOUT WHAT WAS EXPECTED, BUT BETTER
This group includes Fontana (2nd), Rodgers (3rd), Aplin (5th), Tucker (7th), and Tyler Heineman (8th).
Fontana went to Tri City and walked 29% of the time, over 222 PAs. So even though he hit .225 and had no power, he was 44% above league average. He continued to post OBPs above .415 until he hit AAA. Eventually you have to punish pitches in the zone or else good pitchers will stop throwing balls. He got traded to the Angels and has provided 40 man depth, and even got a cup of coffee.
Rodgers is similar, but as a pitcher who controlled the zone with mediocre stuff, Could a guy who struggled to K 20% of minor leaguers really succeed in MLB? Unfortunately major surgery made it hard to answer that question. He’s still around, and pitched 55 IP last year, mostly in AAA. I imagine he’ll need to pass through waivers at some point this season, but he’s now 28.
Aplin was another God of the Walk. Like Fontana, he got to the NY Penn League and destroyed it with a wRC+ of 187, and skipping the MWL (or was it still the Sally back then?) altogether to end 2012 in the Cal League. At almost every stop he walked more than he K’ed, and was getting rave reviews as a defender. He never learned to hit with authority though, and his freaky seasons were usually due to high BABIPs. He’s been stalled at AAA since 2014, and with the Mariners since 2017.
Heineman was something of a mix between the two, controlling the strike zone with supreme contact ability, but not walking much. He dominated Tri Cities, skipped the Sally, and was in AA in 2014. He’s been a below-average AAA hitter for four years now, and his defense must not be good enough to merit a spot as a backup C.
C’mon down, Preston Tucker! Unlike the rest of the hitters on this list, P-Tuck had power. And he raked everywhere with good contact ability and a fly ball swing to dream on. He made it to the Show in 2015, got 323 PAs for a team that made the playoffs, and hit 13 HR with a 104 wRC+ in those PAs. And CPerry loved his bad body. Preston kind of got shafted after that, and eventually made his way to the Braves.
One can’t expect to hit on everybody, but the fact that only one of these five, high-floor college guys have contributed much (and not that much) at the MLB level is a disappointment.
B. HOLY COW
Three guys fit into this group, and they all had moments. They are Joe Sclafani (14th), Aaron West (17th) and Kenny Long (22nd).
Sclafani was a four year guy from Dartmouth. I’d thought they only played quidditch there! He controlled the strike zone like he owned the place. He made it to AAA in two years, and posted a BABIP-inflated wRC+ of 131 at Fresno. He was intriguing enough to give an AFL slot to, and he would have won the batting title there if he had qualified. He was cut in 2015.
Aaron West turned heads with a dominant 2012 turn at Tri-Cities, and a 3.13 FIP, with 9.3 K/9 2013 season at Lancaster, a pitcher’s worst nightmare. Scouting reports had him at 97. He was blowing guys away. He had an arm injury in 2014 and could never really get it back. We’ll always have Lancaster though, when he walked 17 and K’ed 112 in a memorable summer.
Kenny Long. The scouting reports had his curve as a frisbee. In his draft year he dominated Tri Cities, skipped Lexington, and pitched 8 IP at Lancaster out of the BP. He gave up 3 hits and K’ed 18 guys. In 2013 he repeated, still dominated lefties, but couldn’t get righties. And Corpus Christi was his kryptonite. when he couldn’t get anybody out.
Two other guys deserve mention. 33rd and 34th rounders Mike Hauschild and Jordan Jankowski. Hauschild has made it to MLB the past two seasons, pitching 8 IP each season. Jankowski somehow picked up a win in 2017, for a team that went on to win the WS.
2012 produced 9 major leaguers and two All-Stars. It felt in 2013 like this draft might produce 5 All-Stars and 10 MLB regulars. Sadly, nobody but Correa and McCullers turned out to be an MLB regular. But this draft-class made for a lot of fun MILB box scores when the MLB team was losing 100+ games, and it gave us two core players for this great 4-year stretch from 2015-2018. Get well, Lance and Carlos.