Jeff Luhnow is smart, measured and savvy. He won't blow this pick … will he?
Luhnow was a budding executive with the St. Louis Cardinals when we met in 2005 at Major League Baseball's scout development program in the Dominican Republic. I was chasing a story and he was learning to scout so he could round out a résumé heavy on analytics. Bright guy with a bright future in the game, I thought.
Now, after helping the Cardinals to two World Series titles, Luhnow is in his first year as general manager of the Houston Astros, who by virtue of finishing with baseball's worst record in 2011 have the top pick in the amateur draft Monday.
The selection comes down to a distinct choice: a hard-throwing, polished college pitcher who could bolster the Astros' starting rotation as soon as 2014, or a hugely talented prep center fielder the Astros could begin to build around in 2015 at the earliest.
What to do?
Stanford right-hander Mark Appel would send the organization in one direction; Appling County (Ga.) High School five-tool specimen Byron Buxton would send it in another. Everything about the players is different – an Appel and an orange, really – yet it's a very difficult decision. Scouts and executives across baseball are evenly split.
Luhnow and his staff have done the research. They know that a college pitcher of Appel's ability usually reaches the big leagues, and relatively soon. They know that prep position players of Buxton's level are scarcer and a bigger gamble; he could become the next Justin Upton or Adam Jones or Matt Kemp – or be a complete bust.
If the Astros aren't sold on Appel but still want a college pitcher, Kevin Gausman, an even harder-throwing right-hander from LSU, could be their pick. The choice still comes down to a proven 20- or 21-year-old starting pitcher or a raw 18-year-old outfielder with stunning tools.
Luhnow and the rebuilding Astros can't afford to whiff, not after losing 106 games last year. Not when they showed great camaraderie all spring and maintained a .500 record well into May. And certainly not after a recent slide provided a reality check, reminding the Astros they need to upgrade the roster, and fast, if winning is to be more than a mirage.
Their choice should be Appel or Glausman. I'll leave the determination of which pitcher's name to announce to Luhnow. Just don't take Buxton. And don't even think about the next-best high school player, Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa.
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Starting pitchers are the most valuable and expensive commodity on the free-agent market. A homegrown starter under team control for six or seven years after he breaks into the big leagues is the biggest bargain in baseball – even when he commands a high first-round draft bonus.
Stephen Strasburg (first overall pick, 2009, San Diego State) and David Price (first overall pick, 2007, Vanderbilt) are the most obvious recent examples of college starters making a swift and strong impact. And there are others.
After Strasburg in '09, the next three college pitchers taken were Mike Minor, Mike Leake and Drew Storen at Nos. 7, 8 and 10 overall. All quickly became established big-league pitchers. The first college pitcher taken in 2010, left-hander Drew Pomerantz, notched his first big-league victory in September, 2011.
The 2006 draft provided a bumper crop of college pitchers. Seven were taken in the first 11 picks: Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow, Andrew Miller, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer. All reached the big leagues, and Lincecum, Morrow, Scherzer and Hochevar are rotation mainstays. Lincoln and Miller were disappointments as starters, just now reinventing themselves as relievers, and Reynolds is a starter in Triple-A. Another college pitcher, Ian Kennedy, was the 21st overall pick in '06 and last year was a Cy Young candidate.
Last year, the first three picks were college pitchers: Gerrit Cole of UCLA went to the Pirates at No. 1, Danny Hultzen of Virginia went to the Mariners as a surprise No. 2 and Trevor Bauer of UCLA went to the Diamondbacks. It's too early to tell whether they'll be stars, but all three are pitching well – Bauer in Double-A and Triple-A, Hultzen in Double-A and Cole in high Single-A.
Could Appel or Gausman flame out like Brian Bullington, the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft? (Taken by Pittsburgh, Bullington went 1-9 in five short big-league stints and is now pitching in Japan). Of course. No pick is a sure thing. But recent history illustrates that a high-echelon college starting pitcher stands a strong chance of making an impact in the major leagues, and sooner than a high school pick.
Buxton is the rare talent scouts salivate over. His running speed and arm strength earn the top grades scouts give out. But because he hasn't played against elite competition and has split his time between football and baseball, his hitting ability is largely untapped. It could easily take him three to five years to develop into a big-league hitter, and he might never get there. That's not a risk the Astros should take.
Buxton, Correa or another from a cluster of premier outfielders – Albert Almora, Courtney Hawkins, David Dahl, Joey Gallo – make more sense for teams not in desperate need of a quick fix on the mound.
Nobody was as bad as the Astros in 2011, but eight teams lost 90 to 99 games. The draft order following Houston: Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres, Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins.
The Cubs, Padres and Marlins certainly could go the prep route, and Buxton is too enticing to last even that long. If the Astros don't take him, look for the Twins or Mariners to do so.
The first round and a compensation round begin Monday at 7 p.m. ET. Here are the names you will want to know:
• Mark Appel, RH, Stanford: He's got big-league stuff and big-league maturity. His fastball stays in the mid- to high-90s even in the late innings, and he has an excellent hard breaking pitch and a deceptive changeup. He also grew up in Houston and rooted for the Astros, for what that's worth. If Appel isn't the No. 1 pick, it will be because the Astros are concerned Stanford overused him, that he's an arm injury waiting to occur.
• Kevin Gausman, RH, LSU: Three years in the high-powered LSU program transformed Gausman from a thrower to a pitcher; it's hard to imagine him having developed any better in a pro organization. He's developed a devastating split changeup to go with a fastball in the high-90s, a slider and a hard curve that is inconsistent but on some days is his best pitch. He also bulked up his 6-foot-4 frame from 160 to 195 pounds.
• Andrew Heaney, LH, Oklahoma State: Heaney gave up a walkoff home run in the Big 12 tournament, ending his brilliant career on an abrupt and sour note. But he led the nation with 140 strikeouts and he's a top-tier left-hander in a draft bereft of them.
• Mike Wacha, RH, Texas A&M: An outstanding changeup is Wacha's calling card, and scouts believe he's a sure-fire major leaguer. He might only become a back-of-the-rotation starter, though, along the lines of Mike Leake. But, like Leake, he won't need much minor-league seasoning and is appealing to teams needing pitching help in the near term.
• Kyle Zimmer, RH, USF: It's last impressions, not first, that often matter most with draft prospects. That's not great for Zimmer, who came back from a hamstring injury to make one late-May start and did not perform well. At his best, Zimmer throws in the mid-90s and his out pitch is a power curve. At one point he was in the same conversation as Appel and Gausman, and if he slips too far, a team could get a premier arm for a bargain.
• Marcus Stroman, RH, Duke: No Duke player has ever been drafted higher than the third round, and that will change thanks to Stroman, whose polished array of pitches should get him to the big leagues in a hurry. The question mark? He's only 5-foot-9, and the vast majority of big-league pitchers are upward of 6 feet. Many scouts peg Stroman as a reliever.
• Chris Stratton, RH, Mississippi State: Stratton is almost 22, meaning he'll be expected to reach Double-A by the second half of next season and compete for a big-league spot in 2014. He wasn't effective until this season, when he developed into the SEC pitcher of the year.
High school pitchers
• Max Fried, LH, Harvard-Westlake HS, Studio City, Calif.: The nation's top left-hander – Fried's upside is greater than Heaney's – has an especially live sinker that he's able to throw at different speeds. His curveball is also excellent. Fried made a commitment to UCLA but is considered signable.
• Matt Smoral, LH, Solon, Ohio, HS: A stress fracture in his right foot in early April caused Smorel to miss the rest of the season, hurting his draft stock. He'd been projected to go in the top 10 but could slide to the middle or late first round. At 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, Smorel already is an intimidating presence. His college commitment is to North Carolina.
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• Lance McCullers Jr.; RH, Jesuit HS, Tampa, Fla.: His father was a relief pitcher for the Padres, Yankees and Tigers after being a second-round pick in 1982. The younger McCullers went 13-0 with a 0.18 ERA in 2012, striking out 140 batters in 77.1 innings in his first year as a full-time starter. His college commitment is to Florida.
• Lucas Giolito, RH, Harvard-Westlake HS, Studio City, Calif.: At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, Giolito is already man-sized, and his pitches are, too. A few months ago, some scouts projected him as the No. 1 pick in the draft. But a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow sidelined him the entire season and now he's expected to go in the middle of the first round. He might decide to honor his commitment to UCLA and go the draft route again in three years. Yes, he and Fried were high school teammates.
College position players
• Mike Zunino, C, Florida: Polished and mature, Zunino is not only clearly the best catcher in the draft, he's a safe pick. Barring injury, he's going to reach the big leagues. The big question is whether he'll hit well enough to play every day. He batted only .255 in conference play, but did show power, hitting 16 home runs and 27 doubles during the regular season. His father, Greg, is a Reds scout who was drafted in 1981 and played two years in Yankees organization.
• Deven Marrero, SS, Arizona State: A fixture on Team USA and a Cape Cod League star, Marrero's stock slipped after batting .279 this season. His glove is dependable, though, and he should rise swiftly through the minor leagues. The Pirates have long coveted Marrero, and he'll likely be available to them at No. 7.
• Richie Schaffer, 3B/1B, Clemson: A big-time power prospect, Schaffer has 30 career home runs and an OPS over 1.000. Scouts say his pop should translate well to a wood bat. He transitioned from first base to third in 2012 and likely would be given a shot to continue developing at third in the minors. Schaffer didn't do much in the ACC tournament, and again, the last impression counts.
High school position players
• Byron Buxton, OF, Appling County HS, Buxley, Ga.: Nobody runs faster or throws harder, and when the name Willie Mays comes up as a comparison, any team has to seriously consider taking Buxton at the top of the draft. However, he could take a long time to develop as a professional hitter, and he might never become a good one. He's never hit for power and hasn't faced elite pitching because his high school is remote and he played football. Buxton is as intriguing as a prospect can be, but the risk of his bat never developing is real.
• Carlos Correa Jr., SS, Puerto Rico Baseball Academy: His individual workouts for MLB teams have been exceptional, and he's the best prospect from Puerto Rico since Carlos Beltran. The 6-4 Correa hits with considerable power, especially for a shortstop. Scouts are split on whether he'll stay at short or eventually move to third base or the outfield, but whoever drafts him certainly will give him a long look in the middle of the infield. His college commitment is to Miami.
• Albert Almora, OF, Miami Academy Charter HS: Outstanding performances the last six years for Team USA have taken the mystery out of Almora, and many scouts believe he's as close to a can't-miss high school prospect as anyone, including Buxton. Several draft experts have him going to the Cubs with the No. 6 overall pick.
• Courtney Hawkins, OF, Carroll (Texas) HS: An impressive physical specimen with huge power and a huge arm, Hawkins has shot up draft lists as teams' national cross-checkers have watched evaluated him over the last month.
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