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Jeff Luhnow: Thank you, but the show must go on

Hopefully Dana Brown will continue to make quality selections

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The old adage “nice guys finish last” is an old cliché that a**holes often use to justify their poor behavior. But innovators in every industry tend to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior. From Travis Kalanick of Uber, to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, the men who drastically disrupt their fields also tend to have some negative qualities.

Jeff Luhnow is no different. Although he was responsible for one of the worst cheating scandals in sports history, he was also one of the most innovative general managers of his time and the man who is most responsible for the Astros’ current dynasty. While some Astros fans would like to forget parts of his tenure, it is important to note just how much the city of Houston owes to his innovative ways, especially regarding the first-year player draft. This article will chronicle just how impactful Luhnow’s drafts were to the Astros, as well as introduce possible draft targets for next week’s draft (spoiler, I do not think Dylan Crews or Paul Skenes will be available for the Astros).

Unlike the NBA or NFL drafts, even the most refined players selected in the MLB draft will usually take at least two years to make their debuts. Some high school players will even take well over four years to reach the big leagues. Thus, consistently drafting players who will play and contribute at the major-league level is extremely difficult.

Even in the first round, the odds are stacked against players becoming bona fide all-stars. According to an analysis done by Baseball Reference, players picked number one overall have reached the Major leagues 91% of the time and averaged 21.8 career wins above replacement (WAR). Although that seems like a really good success rate, it falls off considerably with every pick. For example, players picked 5th overall make it to the Show at a rate of 65% and average an 11.5 career WAR.

As a whole, from 2005 to 2015, the average career war for a signed first-round pick was approximately 5 WAR. Note that this is significantly higher than even the second round, but it is worth noting that even first-round picks come with significant risk and are far from guaranteed to fulfill their potential. Although Jeff Luhnow certainly missed on a few selections, his first-round picks were well above average.

The attached chart shows Luhnow’s first-round picks with their career fWAR and their draft position. Certainly, many of the drafted players are likely to increase their career WAR totals significantly, but even if they all stopped playing baseball today, Luhnow’s first-rounders have still produced DOUBLE the league average in wins above replacement. And, while tangential to this analysis, many of the players that didn’t pan out were used as trade pieces to acquire valuable veterans. Clearly, Luhnow did a great job drafting players at the top of the draft; however, to confine the analysis to the first round would understate how effective Jeff was at running the draft.

One can argue that Jeff Luhnow was fortunate to have several years of high draft picks pre-2016 and was thus more lucky than good as a drafter, but this argument is flawed for two reasons. First, as previously stated, even top draft picks have a high chance of not panning out. Consider the two players that were drafted between Bregman and Tucker: Brendan Rodgers and Dillion Tate. Both men have yet to experience sustained success in the MLB, with neither achieving more than a two WAR season. No matter where you are making selections, finding all-star selections is very difficult.

Secondly, Luhnow’s late-round picks have been extremely productive as well. Chas McCormick, Hunter Brown, Jeremy Pena, Jake Meyers, were all drafted by Jeff Luhnow and look to be players that will contribute to the Astros for years to come. Chas McCormick, drafted in the 21st round (which no longer exists), has already exceeded expectations. The chances a player who is drafted after the 20th round makes the MLB is a measly seven percent, with a sub .5 expected career war. McCormick is projected to finish the 2023 season with over six career wins, which means that he has already been more valuable than the average first-round pick.

Hunter Brown, Jeremy Pena, and Jake Meyers all have a similar, albeit less extreme, story. The reason why the Astros have been able to sustain the competitive window despite the loss of key free agents is due to Luhnow’s past ability to identify talent and create a farm system that has facilitated maximum development.

Unfortunately, James Click only had one complete draft with the Astros, but the early returns are encouraging. Drew Gilbert, Jacob Melton, Spencer Arighetti, and company have performed well in the minor leagues, and hopefully, they will make an impact with the big club soon.

With 2023 being Dana Brown’s first draft as the Astros GM, it may be helpful to take a look at some of the recent selections he has made. In 2019 he drafted future big leaguers like Shea Langeliers, Michael Harris, and Vaughn Grissom. Although it is too early to accurately assess how the 2020 and 2021 drafts went for the Braves, they have already seen a couple of players make an impact. Especially Bryce Elder, who was a 5th-round pick in 2020 and has performed quite well this season. It appears that the draft is in good hands with Dana Brown. So, who will he pick in next week’s draft? Below are three candidates that have a decent shot at being available.

Yohandy Morales, 3B, U of Miami

Yohandy Morales is a power-hitting third baseman from the University of Miami who has the size and athleticism to play at the big-league level. As a junior, he hit an incredible 408/475/713 with 20 homers. His only potential flaw is that at 6’4” he may be too big to play third base long-term. However, this may work to the Astros’ advantage as it will keep him on the board long enough to be selected. As a high-performing college hitter who has a short path to the big leagues, he seems like the perfect candidate to start the Dana Brown era.

Walker Martin, SS, Colo (HS)

At 6-2, 185 pounds with good speed and a solid arm, Walker Martin appears to be the ideal candidate to play in the middle of the infield. Scouts have raved about his refined swing, and many believe that he has the chance to grow into his power. As a player from a cold weather state, he should also benefit from increased playing time.

There are, however, two downsides to this prospect. First, at 19 years old, he is older than most of his peers at the prep level. Second, he is currently committed to playing ball at Arkansas and will likely require an over-slot bonus. I think this pick would surprise many in the industry, but there is a lot to like about Walker Martin.

Joe Whitman, LHP, Kent State

I personally loathe the idea of using a first-round pick on a pitcher, even a college one. There is just too much risk for injury, and with the Astro’s ability to find good pitchers for cheap in Latin America, it does not seem worth it to use valuable draft capital on such a fragile asset (it sucks when your best pitchers have TJ surgery). However, there is no such thing as a perfect prospect available at 28 overall, and it would be unwise not to at least consider drafting a good pitcher.

After two frustrating years at Purdue, Whitman transferred to Kent State and had a breakout junior season, recording 11.1 K/9 and limiting opponents to a 2.56 ERA. Whitman is 6-5, 200 pounds and throws a fastball, slider, and changeup mix that generates plenty of swings of misses. His slider is his primary strikeout pitch, but his fastball projects to be a plus pitch as well. The biggest area of growth for Whitman will probably be the development of his changeup. The Astros’ minor league system seems to do a fantastic job of developing pitchers, so he may be an ideal candidate for the organization.

The biggest drawback for Whitman is the fact that his only productive season in college was in the Mid-American Conference, which is not exactly the same as the ACC or SEC. However, as previously stated, the Astros are picking behind 27 other teams, and if a player was perfect…. well he wouldn’t be available at 28.