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In Luhnow We Trust, Revisited. Part 1, The Draft

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Is a re-evaluation in order?

MLB: Houston Astros at Los Angeles Angels Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t want to kick a man when he’s down. And I know it is tough to argue that a man who inherited the worst team in baseball in 2012, and then turned it into a World Champion by 2017, wasn’t a great general manager.

But in retrospect...hear me out...there were holes in his game, so to speak.

And I’m not talking about the win at all costs, numbers are the only consideration culture he allegedly fostered in the organization that led to the morally questionable Osuna trade, the ridiculous Taubman Affair, and of course the blind eye cast on obvious cheating that brought the whole empire down.

Keep this in mind. Luhnow did not start the rebuild. The Astros under Ed Wade had already begun a radical rebuild, stocking the farm system by trading Roy Oswalt, Michael Bourne, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee and others before Luhnow arrived. Three of the mainstays of the championship roster were already in the organization before Luhnow arrived: Dallas Keuchel, Jose Altuve, and George Springer.

Let’s look at Luhnow’s tenure in four key areas of responsibility: drafting, trades, free agent acquisitions, and player development. Today, drafting.

Part I, Drafting

Luhnow got to draft three #1 overall picks, a #5 overall pick and eight first round picks overall from 2012 to 2016. I won’t try to evaluate drafts after 2016 because it’s too soon to say how they will shake out. To a lesser extent that is true of all these drafts of course. Late bloomers could emerge from even the earlier drafts.

2012

Luhnow’s first draft is famous, when he drafted Carlos Correa #1 overall when most considered him as a 5th or 6th overall pick, signed him under slot, and used the money to draft Lance McCullers in the first round of the compensatory draft. Correa has earned 24.6 bWAR since then and McCullers 6.2. Except for Alex Bregman these are the best draft picks by WAR that Luhnow made during his tenure.

Although there were five other players in this draft who have made appearances in the majors, none have had a significant impact.

2013

In contrast to the boldness of the 2012 pick, Luhnow followed the conventional wisdom in 2013 by drafting Mark Appel. He is the only #1 overall pick in recent history to completely fail except for injury. He never even came close to pitching in the majors.

Some excuse this failed pick saying that everyone else would have picked Appel in the Top 3. But the Astros’ front office was supposed to be better than that, discarding group think when it was wrong. Hard to excuse the first #1 overall pick in history to not make the majors if you want to be remembered as a genius.

The only other MLB contributors from this draft are Jacob Nottingham, Tony Kemp, and 33rd round pick Tyler White. Kemp and White were nice feel good stories for a while, but these three have a combined bWAR of 0.1.

2014

The 2014 #1 overall pick also failed to directly produce a major league player, but Luhnow deserves credit for passing on Brady Aiken, who flunked the physical, and waiting for Alex Bregman as compensation the next year.

The Astros also drafted Derek Fisher in the competitive balance 1st round, who at age 25 has a career bWAR of 0.4.

The 2014 draft was interesting in other ways. The fourth most successful draftee of the Luhnow era, Ramon Laureano, 5.9 bWAR in just more than one season, was drafted in the 16th round but traded to Oakland for an eventual washout, Brandon Bailey. The failure to recognize Laureano’s value has to be one of the failures of the Luhnow era.

Other notable draftees of 2014 were second rounder A.J Reed, who failed in every short stop he made in the majors; J.D Davis, who was traded to the Mets last year and proceeded to hit 22 home runs and acquire 1 bWAR; Josh James, a 34th rounder who has great velocity but has lacked consistency; (0.8 career bWAR) and Daniel Menden, an occasional starter for the A’s. (1.9 bWAR)

A decent haul, but it has mostly helped other teams.

2015

When the Astros gave a low-ball offer to Brady Aiken in 2014 they were hoping he would reject it because they already had their eyes on Alex Bregman as the compensatory pick for 2015. One reason was their belief that he had a “growth mindset.” Not possessed of outstanding physical talents, nonetheless he may be one of the greatest over-achievers of all time. In 3 12 years, at age 25, he has 22.4 bWAR, and has gotten better every year. He fell just short of MVP last year, losing to Mike Trout. Alex Bregman represents a major victory of the Astros’ draft system.

The Astros also drafted Daz Cameron in the first round of the competitive balance draft. He came to the Astros as part of the trade that brought Colin Moran and Jake Marisnick to Houston for Kiki Hernandez, Rio Ruiz ( a 2012 draftee) and Jared Cosart. (The Astros wanted to trade Dallas Keuchel but Miami insisted on Cosart) Cameron was traded to Detroit as a part of the Justin Verlander trade but has so far disappointed, hitting only .214 in AAA at age 22.

Two other draftees in this pick are contributing at the major league level, Trent Thornton and Myles Straw. Pitcher Thornton, a fifth round pick, went to Toronto in the Aledmys Diaz trade and contributed 1.7 bWAR in 27 starts, compiling a 4.84 ERA. Of course, Straw, a 12th round pick out of Junior college, figures to be the fourth outfielder and base stealer extraordinaire for the Astros if baseball resumes this year. He has accumulated 1.2 bWAR in only 138 major league plate appearances. Real value here for a low draft pick.

Another pick, Garret Stubbs, figures to be a 3rd catcher in the Astros system.

Which leaves the most controversial pick of this draft, #5 overall, Kyle Tucker. In two partial seasons at ages 21 and 22, Tucker has 0 bWAR. But in 67 AB’s last season he showed considerable improvement, hitting .857 OPS. He was drafted mainly for his bat, but he has decent tools, including a talent for stealing bases.

The jury remains out on Kyle Tucker.

2016

The first round draft pick, 17th overall, was 6’7” high school pitcher, Forrest Whitley. At age 22, it is too soon to say he is a bust, but there are those who do. In limited time last year, and battling injuries, he had a 5.56 ERA in AA, and a 12.21 ERA in AAA.

In faint whispers, some people wonder, “is Whitley Appel?” As with Tucker, it would have been fun to watch Whitley’s growth this year. But of course, we haven’t had that opportunity.

The only other contributor from the 2016 draft so far is Abraham Toro, he of the game-winning-homer-during-Verlander’s no-hitter fame. In 89 PA’s at age 22 he had 0.2 bWAR last year.

The cream of the 2017 and 2018 drafts, first rounders J. B. Bukauskas and Seth Beer, and second rounder Corbin Martin, were traded to Arizona in the Zack Greinke trade. Bukauskas was still floundering last year in AA at age 22 (5.75 ERA) although no-defense outfielder Beer shows greater promise, hitting OPS .859 at AA. Corbin Martin had a brief stint in the majors, flashing brilliance at times, but ending up back in the minors. He later required Tommy John surgery.

Evaluation

Luhnow’s reputation as a savvy drafter was established in St Louis and confirmed by his brilliant moves in the first round of the 2012 draft. He also gets A+ for drafting Alex Bregman. (instead of signing Brady Aiken) Of course, #1 overall picks are supposed to bring high rewards, and the total swing and miss on Mark Appel can’t be ignored.

Besides these three, the only other impact player drafted by Luhnow in the amateur draft was Ramon Laureano, later gifted to the A’s. J.D. Davis should pay nice dividends for the Mets, or maybe an AL team that needs a DH.

The only pitcher on the Astros 25-man roster drafted by Luhnow in the amateur draft besides McCullers is 34th round pick Josh James, who at 27 years old is probably about as good as he is going to get.

The best Luhnow pitching draftees to be traded are Daniel Mengden (1.9 bWAR) and Trent Thornton (1.7 bWAR) On the current staff these could conceivably be 5th starters. Tom Eshelman, 26, second rounder in 2015, debuted with the Orioles last year. (-0.4 bWAR)

The Astros are one of only four teams currently with one or no prospects in the MLB Top 100 list. That one is the erratic Forrest Whitley. Furthermore, none of the many prospects that the Astros have traded over the years are currently in the Top 100 either, although eight prospects were rated Top 100 at the time the Astros managed to unload them. (not all Luhnow draftees) As MLB.com put it:

“After going all in to win the last three years, resulting in a 2017 World Series triumph, two pennants and an MLB-best 311 victories, the Astros have a strong big league club and one of the game’s thinnest systems.”

But even as late as 2019, the only Luhnow draftees to make substantial contributions for the Astros were Correa and Bregman, #1 and #2 overall picks. Of course, McCullers was injured last year. And we still await the imminent breakouts of of first rounders Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley.

The only two Astros traded draftees to earn more than 2 WAR are Laureano and Brett Phillips (2.3, but he hit .138 last year).

Meanwhile, the Astros were the second-oldest team in baseball last year, and with the cream of the 2017-18 drafts traded, there is very little new blood entering the system. With Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel and Lance McCullers eligible for free agency by the end of 2021 or sooner, and with no first or second round draft picks available in the 2020 or 2021 drafts, Luhnow has left the future of the Astros in great doubt. New GM James Click has his work cut out for him in the coming years.

So, with eight first round draft picks between 2012 and 2016, three #1 overalls and a #5, and getting the first pick in each round for three years, the Astros amateur draft has produced four legitimate starting players, only two since the first round of 2012, with the futures of Whitley and Tucker still questionable. And out of all those draftees who are still in the minors, only one, Whitley, is a Top 100 prospect.

Except for two big hits at the top of their respective draft classes, not a good draft record. Luhnow must have done something right in the other departments.

Next up: Luhnow trades.

(Note: I will not analyze the Astros work in obtaining international talent. But on the current 40 man roster there are eight prospects who were signed in the international market, including #2 Astros prospect Jose Urquidy, and #5 Bryan Abreu. None, however, rate as Top 100 MLB prospects. The Astros do appear to be having greater success in this arena.)