The Runner Sports

‘Stro Wars: Shattered Empire…The Blight Of Houston’s ’13 Draft

In June of 2013, the Houston Astros had the 1st overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft. Passing on Kris Bryant, they decided to use their pick on 6’5″ Houstonian, RHP Mark Appel.

Bryant went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2015 with the Chicago Cubs, the team that had the second overall pick in the 2013 Draft. One wonders if the Cubs would’ve chosen Appel had the Astros selected Bryant first. Everything else being equal, Houston’s somewhat murky third base situation would’ve been solved, and the Astros would’ve had the left side of their infield competing for AL Rookie of the Year, an award shortstop Carlos Correa took home last year!

Related: Yankees’ ROY-To-Be Aaron Judge Another Astros 2013 Draft Whiff

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few…

After two short years, it appears the Astros swung and missed twice with one pick in that 2013 Draft! Now, while having to watch Bryant ascend to the heights of Wrigley magic with some regret, they’ve now added Appel to the list of players they hope won’t come back to bite ’em in some future inter-league match-up or….gulp, a World Series appearance.

The Astros, already dodging occasional fan and media brickbats at having whiffed on the apparently sure-thing Bryant, have now admitted their 2013 first pick was a mistake, as well….that’s if actions really do speak louder than words.

Philadelphia Freedom

Appel, the Astros’ 2nd-ranked organizational prospect, was unceremoniously sent packing and shipped off to Philadelphia in the December 12th seven-player swap the Astros made with the Phillies to acquire perceived missing-piece closer Ken Giles. Along with the heat-hurler, the Phillies sent 17-year-old SS Jonathan Arauz to Houston, in exchange for Appel, right-handed pitchers Harold Arauz, Thomas Eshelman (himself a Top 15 Astro Prospect, and 2015 2nd-round pick), and Vince Velasquez, and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer.

“It’s every kid’s dream to be drafted by your hometown team,” said Appel shortly after the trade. “Some of the — not really bitterness — but some of the sadness is knowing that my Major League debut most likely won’t be in Houston in front of my friends and family in my hometown. Definitely, my friends and family will still be there when that time comes, but it will be in a different city.”

Freedom Has a Price

The man responsible for this apparent 2013 Draft gaffe is Houston General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who’s been in charge of Houston’s player procurement since December 8, 2011. He had this to say about the 5 players it took to pry Giles away from Philadelphia:

“It’s a high price to pay, but we do feel like in order to take the next step next year and get back and win the division and go further in the playoffs, we needed to continue to improve the bullpen.”  “We made big strides last year,” Luhnow continued, “but another big arm in the bullpen was an important part of the equation.

“In order to get a guy like Giles, who is early in his career and already established, he can be dominant, you have to pay a price. We expected that going into the discussion, and the reason it took so long is we were going back and forth on exactly how high of a price we were willing to pay. We found a spot that made sense for both clubs, and that’s where the deal got done.”

…But Then Again, Too Few to Mention

After many years as an engineer, tech mogul, and management consultant, Luhnow was hired in 2003 to the St. Louis Cardinals’ front office. For the next eight years, his roles included Vice-President of baseball development, VP of player procurement, and veep of scouting and player development. At his hiring by St. Louis, some old-school baseball people threw Luhnow snide nicknames like “The Accountant” and “Harry Potter.”

He nurtured a solid reputation for scouting and player development with the Cards, and he’s given much credit with improving St. Louis’ minor league system during his tenure. St. Louis had the best system-wide record in 2010, while accumulating 5 minor league championships during his time there.

From 2005-’07, the first three Cardinals drafts were overseen by Luhnow, and resulted in producing two dozen future Major Leaguers, the highest mark of any team during that time span. Several weeks before his Houston hire, the Cards won the 2011 World Series.

Many Astros fans may not know that the first player Luhnow drafted for the Cards in 2005 was current Houston left fielder Colby Rasmus (1st-round, 28th overall). This may help to understand why Rasmus was signed as a free agent (from the Toronto Blue Jays) in January ’15, and why he was offered $15.8 million (nearly doubling his 2015 salary), and why, 6 days later, he became the first player in MLB history to accept a qualifying offer.

Pencils and Pens to Bats and Bullpens

Clearly, Luhnow is a player’s administrator, or is at least in the process of building that element of his desk-side manner. But, it came with a clear and studied intent. His playing days peaked in high school, and several years of pencil-pushing and number-crunching might have led him away from being a “people person.”

Luhnow, in a Houston Chronicle interview following his Astros hire, described that particular challenge: “They (St. Louis) gave me a chance of a lifetime to come into the organization and really take a look at, top to bottom how we were doing things and make recommendations,” Luhnow said. “Every time I made a recommendation, they would put me in charge of an area.”

“I quickly realized, if I’m going to have an impact, I’ve got to get out in the field. I’ve got to get out in the development and scouting side. I’ve got to figure out the international side of the equation.” At the time of bringing Luhnow on board, Astros owner Jim Crane gave this assessment: “I’m big on leadership, people skills, in getting the group working closely together. We felt he has a calmness that’s going to work for us. There are a lot of qualified candidates, but he had all the boxes checked.”

I’ve Had My Fill, My Share of Losing

Due to Houston’s abysmal record for three years, the Astros had the first overall pick in the Draft from 2012 through 2014 (and the 2nd overall in 2015). Luhnow’s first Astros draft, in 2012, can even now be evaluated as an unqualified success, yielding as it has Correa (#1 overall) and Lance McCullers (#41 overall), as well as versatile infielder Nolan Fontana (#23 Astro Prospect), Astro OF Preston Tucker, and highly touted 6th-round OF Brett Phillips (traded to Milwaukee in the Carlos Gomez trade last July).

Houston’s first overall in 2014 turned into an unfortunate glitch with the drafting of Brady Aiken. He became the first #1 overall Draft Pick to remain unsigned by the drafting team since Tim Belcher (1983). But, the drafting and signing of the three who followed look to be solid and productive choices, based on early minor league performances from OF Derek Fisher (#37 overall, #7 Astro Prospect), 1B A.J. Reed (#42 overall, #4 team Prospect), and 3B/1B J.D. Davis (#75 overall, #11 Prospect).

My Way

So, the “Blight of the ’13 Draft” is an easily excusable bump in the road for the Astros and Jeff Luhnow. He and the Astros brass have moved the team–through free agent signings, trades, but mostly…and enviably, through the Draft–from baseball’s doormat to a legitimate and even feared playoff contender.

Houston fans should be more than satisfied with Luhnow at the helm of the Astros’ Starship, particularly with regards to the First-Year Player Draft.

I don’t know about you, but I know where I’ll be next June: Seeing whom the Astros will select with their 1st-round pick. I’m even happy to wait til the 21st overall pick. It means their 86-76 record for 2015 was pretty good! Drafting first overall? The Philadelphia Phillies. Welcome to Houston, Ken Giles!

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Here I am, meeting with Nolan Ryan at Dell Diamond in Round Rock, TX. One of us is trying to convince the other to take his 90 mph fastball, and get back into the game.

Needless to say, I've decided to spend my golden years, instead, crooning Sinatra at nursing homes, while reflecting on a life well-lived in the classroom, spinning rock'n'roll in '70s radio stations, and peddling wax in the record biz.

I'm a Houston native, having attended 'Stro games in Colt Stadium, the beloved Astrodome, and Minute Maid.

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Brad Kyle