In 2012, the Astros used the first pick to choose Carlos Correa, now their superstar shortstop, who homered and doubled in the winning run in Game 2 on Saturday. But in 2013, they chose Mark Appel, a Stanford right-hander who has not appeared in the majors. In 2014, they took a high school pitcher, Brady Aiken, who turned out to be injured.
In a way, those picks illustrate the finicky nature of baseball prospects. In a typical collection of three, one will blossom, one will fade and one will get hurt. The difference is the Astros knew when to bail on the two busts and how to salvage value from them.
When a physical exam revealed trouble in Aiken’s elbow, the Astros backed off their plans to sign him for a $6.5 million bonus. Negotiations fell apart, and the team used a compensatory pick in the next draft on another shortstop, Alex Bregman, now their starting third baseman.
And after their bullpen collapsed in a 2015 division-series loss to Kansas City, the Astros traded with Philadelphia for closer Ken Giles, putting Appel in a five-player package.
“Everybody knew who he was,” Giles said. “When you’re a No. 1 overall pick, everybody’s going to know who you are. For me, he was just another player that got his opportunity, and I was another player that got my opportunity. I just took a different route.”
Treating a No. 1 overall pick as just another player is not easy. So many people in the organization commit to the choice, Luhnow said, and everyone pays attention.
“You want so desperately for that to work out, to validate all the people involved in making that decision,” said Luhnow, who holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. “But there’s a concept in business school called ‘forget sunk costs,’ an economic concept that if things change, you can’t continue to invest in that outcome improving if it’s not going to get better. There’s certain times you just have to change your strategy. We did that in both cases.”
Appel needed elbow surgery last year and had a 5.27 E.R.A. in Class AAA this season. Aiken had Tommy John surgery within a year of being drafted by the Astros. The Cleveland Indians still selected him 17th over all in 2015, but he had a 4.77 E.R.A. in Class A this season, with more walks than strikeouts.
Giles, meanwhile, converted 34 of 38 save chances this year and has averaged 13 strikeouts per nine innings over two seasons with Houston. Bregman hit .284 with 19 home runs and 17 steals in his first full major league season. He quickly found his place in a lineup he feared would have no room for him on draft day.
“My first reaction was that they already had a really good shortstop, so I didn’t know where I was going to play,” Bregman said, referring to Correa. “Then they told me to play short in the minor leagues and then move to third base. But I thought it was a fun organization, so much youth. It was just kind of ahead of the curve in the analytical department and an organization that works really hard.”
The chances of finding a high-impact player drop significantly from the first pick to the second. In the history of the draft, which started in 1965, 21 players picked first have compiled at least 20 career wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Just 12 players picked second have done so.
But Luhnow said the Astros viewed Bregman as the best player in that 2015 draft class, ahead of Dansby Swanson, who went first to Arizona. Bregman played at Louisiana State, and Swanson — who is now with Atlanta — played at Vanderbilt. A senior scouting adviser, Charlie Gonzalez, vouched for Bregman’s passion.
“They both put up really strong numbers in strong conferences on good teams, and they both had similar track records and they both could play shortstop,” Luhnow said. “But there was really that extra baseball-rat element to Bregman.”
Had the Astros made a different choice in 2013, though, they would have already had a third baseman. When they took Appel — who had a clean medical history and sound mechanics and had been chosen eighth over all by Pittsburgh the year before without signing — they passed on Kris Bryant.
The Chicago Cubs eagerly used the next pick on Bryant, who was the National League most valuable player last season and helped the Cubs win the World Series. Bryant hit 54 homers while batting .353 over three years at the University of San Diego, but he also fanned once every 4.7 at-bats. That scared off the Astros.
“Bryant had a higher-risk profile just because he struck out at a rate that we didn’t have a lot of people to compare him to,” Luhnow said. “We had George Springer in our system, who was striking out at a pretty high rate but hitting for high power, and was an exciting player. That was probably the biggest uncertainty that we had. We knew he would hit and hit with power. The question was, with that kind of strikeout rate, what that would turn into in the big leagues?”
As badly as they missed on Bryant, though, the Astros made an inspired choice in Correa, who was 17 and playing at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. The Astros did not consider Correa among their top eight or so possibilities in January of his draft year. But that May, acting on a tip from Mike Elias, now an assistant general manager, they flew him to their Florida complex and used him in a scrimmage at extended spring training.
The Astros were struck not just by Correa’s skills, but by his presence, poise and confidence. In third grade, Correa had asked his parents to enroll him in a bilingual school so he could conduct interviews in English when he reached the majors. After signing with the Astros, he paid no attention to the other No. 1 picks who followed.
“I don’t even remember who it was,” Correa said. “I didn’t follow the draft after that. I was more focused on what was going on at the big-league level, because that’s where I wanted to be. I would keep up with every single game, I would read every box score, see how the shortstops were doing. I was trying to get there as soon as I could.”
Correa reached the majors within three years and won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2015. He hit .315 with 24 homers this season, and his on-base plus slugging percentage, .941, was the best in the majors for shortstops with at least 450 plate appearances.
Just as Bregman wears Uniform No. 2 for his draft position, Correa wears No. 1. He has fully embraced the burden.
“Oftentimes we care about how players handle failure; I care about how players handle success,” Manager A. J. Hinch said. “There’s never been a day that I’ve been his manager that he hasn’t talked about trying to get better.”
Hinch added: “We’re just scratching the surface. This kid could bona fide be the best player in baseball when all is said and done.”
Correa and Bregman offered more to the Astros than potential. Both accepted bonuses below the recommended value for their draft slot, allowing the Astros to redistribute the savings to other premium picks whose demands scared off other teams.
In Correa’s draft, the Astros paid above the slot value for pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. and infielder Rio Ruiz. In Bregman’s draft, they used their savings to help afford outfielder Daz Cameron. McCullers was an All-Star this season, and Ruiz and Cameron have been traded — Ruiz to Atlanta in a deal for catcher Evan Gattis, and Cameron to Detroit in a deal for the ace starter Justin Verlander.
This was all part of Luhnow’s plan, the reward for suffering while adhering diligently to a blueprint. The Astros’ strategy bothered some other teams, who grumbled that they were not trying to field a competitive major league roster. Yet the Astros were using the rules to their advantage, and this is the result.
“It is satisfying to know that we stayed the course, we made adjustments when we had to, and we executed the strategy that was best for the Houston Astros, given our market size, our revenue, and where we started,” Luhnow said. “It wouldn’t work for everybody, but it would certainly work for us.”
Now Luhnow’s challenge is sustaining a winner, and finding a way to beat a system that helped him succeed. In that 2012 season, the five worst teams were the Astros, the Cubs, the Colorado Rockies, the Minnesota Twins and the Cleveland Indians. All made the playoffs this year. In the 2012 World Series, the San Francisco Giants played the Detroit Tigers. This season, they were the worst teams in the majors.
Picking first over all can rejuvenate a franchise. But the Astros would rather not do it again.
“We’re going to do everything we can to avoid that cycle,” Luhnow said. “We feel more of a sense of urgency, now that we’re having success, to make sure that doesn’t happen to us.”