Looking back at past drafts can be both an amusing and frustrating experience. Every team has a guy they passed on who turned into a star (Mike Trout, anyone)? or a guy who was drafted by that team, but was later traded and turned into a star (Jeff Bagwell). The Astros have no shortage of those guys; did you know Eric Byrnes and Jason Varitek were drafted by the Astros? To build the winning teams 90s and early 2000s, the Astros had to hit on some drafts. Here's a look at the five best drafts from 1987 onward. (Drafts are ranked by total major league WAR accumulated by each player over his entire career. Totals from Baseball Reference.com).
1988- 121.2 WAR
The '88 draft was notable for two outfielders whose dominance elsewhere left the "what could have been" question for the Astros. Luis Gonzalez, drafted by Houston in the 4th round out of South Alabama, posted a 51.5 career WAR. He played with Houston until 1995, when he was dealt to the Chicago Cubs. Gonzalez finished in the top 25 of MVP voting three times, including a third place finish in 2001. That was a pretty successful year for Luis; he won the All-Star game Home Run Derby in Seattle, belted 57 homers, and won the World Series for Arizona with his bloop single off of Mariano Rivera.
Kenny Lofton was drafted in--get this-- the seventeenth round out of the University of Arizona. He posted a WAR of 68.1, good for first all-time among Astros draftees. (Yes, more WAR than Craig Biggio-let the debate begin). Lofton has a great story that I somehow didn't know of before doing research for this post; he attended Arizona on a basketball scholarship, and didn't play a full season of baseball in college until his senior year. His raw tools and speed got him noticed, and the Astros took him in 1988.
Lofton only took 78 at-bats with the Astros in 1991 before being traded in the offseason to the Cleveland Indians. He proceeded to make everyone in the Houston front office immediately regret that decision, as he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Lofton played the first half of his career with Cleveland, finishing in the top 15 of MVP voting thrice. He won four straight Gold Gloves and led the league in steals five consecutive years. He finished his career bouncing around the majors, playing for the Giants, Rangers, Dodgers and Cubs, among others. He's a career .299 hitter, amassing 2428 hits in 17 years in the majors.
1987- 110.6 WAR
The '87 draft was headlined by a future Hall of Famer and two very productive starting pitchers. Craig Biggio was the first round pick out of Seton Hall, totaling a 64.9 WAR in his twenty years with the Astros. Scott Erickson was a 34th round pick who didn't sign, and was drafted by the Twins two years later. Erickson won 142 games over his career and finished second in the 1991 AL Cy Young Voting. Darryl Kile was a 30th round pick who anchored the top of the Astros rotation for most of the 1990s. He won 19 games in 1997, then signed a free agent deal with Colorado. He had two rough years at Coors, but regained his form the next year as a St. Louis Cardinal, where he won 20 games. Kile tragically passed away in 2002, when he was playing for the Cardinals.
1996- 65.6 WAR
This was the first draft under new GM Gerry Hunsicker, and it paid major dividends with two starting pitchers who anchored the Houston rotation. Roy Oswalt, drafted in the 23rd round out of Holmes CC in Mississippi, was one. He finished in the top six of Cy Young voting six times, appeared in three all-star games and won 20 games in 2004 and 2005. Wade Miller, drafted in the 20th round, pitched six seasons with the Astros. He won 16 games for the division-winning Astros in 2001, and posted a 3.28 ERA a year later. Miller was one of my favorite pitchers on the Astros in the early 2000s and one of the more underrated in the league. His Astros career ended with a rotator cuff injury in 2004, and he was unable to pitch in the postseason.
1997- 62.6 WAR
Hunsicker's second draft was just as successful as his first. He drafted Lance Berkman in the first round out of Rice. Berkman became one of the best hitters in Astros history, finishing in the top five of MVP voting four times. He's hit .295 for his career, which is still continuing with the Rangers. In the fourth round, the Astros drafted an outfielder out of UCLA by the name of Eric Byrnes. The scrappy outfielder didn't sign with Houston, and was drafted a year later by Oakland. He played six seasons for the A's, and had his best year in 2007 for the Diamondbacks, where he finished eleventh in NL MVP voting.
Also notable in 1997 was Tim Redding, a 20th rounder out of Moore CC in New York. Redding was one of the top pitching prospects for the Astros in the early 2000s, though his only productive year came in 2003, when he won 10 games and posted a 3.68 ERA.
2004- 51.5 WAR
2004 was Hunsicker's last draft for the Astros, and he got the last laugh in this one. The Astros enjoyed a productive four and a half years from Hunter Pence, a second rounder out of UT-Arlington. Pence was a fan favorite in Houston and made two All-Star appearances, but he had reach his peak as a player by the time he was dealt to the Phillies. Ben Zobrist is currently the most productive player from this Astros draft, however. A sixth rounder out of Dallas Baptist, Zobrist was dealt to Tampa Bay in 2006 for Aubrey Huff. Hunsicker came out ahead in this one; he left the Astros after 2004 and took the senior VP of player development position for the Rays, and obviously liked Zobrist's potential enough to reacquire him. As a super utility player, Zobrist made the 2008 All-Star squad and has been a valuable part of the Rays' competitive teams for the last few years.
Troy Patton was taken in the ninth round out of Tomball High School in 2004. He was a top pitching prospect for Houston for a year or two, and pitched 12.2 innings in 2007. He was dealt to Baltimore for Miguel Tejada in the offseason, and has been pretty solid in a relief role for the Orioles. We'll probably see him this week when the Orioles come to town.