Baseball America’s Perspective on the Astros

What a difference a year makes. As the Houston Astros begin to harvest their farm system for contributing players, for a first place club, the national pundits can’t help but notice.

“Last year at this time they had bad publicity from the whole Brady Aiken thing and the way the whole 2014 draft went,” said John Manuel, the Editor in Chief of Baseball America this week from Durham, North Carolina. “Mark Appel was struggling. Kris Bryant was breaking out and they were in last place. Now here 12 months later, it just feels like the whole momentum of the organization is just so different.”

This year’s draft contributed to the momentum Manuel speaks of.

“If they get everybody signed from this year’s draft, I think they had a great draft and the best first day of the draft of any team. I love that haul of Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Daz Cameron.”

Manuel feels that the Astros are really good at acquiring hitting prospects. The pitching aspect of the organization has another key ingredient.

“In my mind, pitching wise, in Brent (Strom) we trust. Brent Strom is fantastic. I think he is the single best thing Jeff Luhnow has done coming over to the Astros was bringing Strom with him from St. Louis. Brent can make Dallas Keuchel from good to great or Collin McHugh from decent into a front line guy and he has really helped Lance McCullers, so if anybody can fix Mark Appel it is Brent Strom and Appel is starting to get going so there are a lot of up arrows for the Astros organization.”

The wildcard of this year’s draft, especially Day 1, was being able to select Daz Cameron at 37.

“They tried to force him down 32 spots and that is hard,” Manuel continued. “There were a lot of teams in between them at five and 37 and they made it work and Daz’s advisors, the Scott Boras Corporation, helped make that work, putting a big number on their player and saying you need to properly value this player if you are going to draft him because he isn’t just going to automatically sign.”

Amateur players can have advisors and not agents. The Brady Aiken, Jacob Nix saga reinforced the tap dancing act involved. Manuel describes it as uncomfortable even discussing the “advisor” role on television or in interviews.

“In my mind, an amateur player should be able to have legal representation in contract negotiations with a multi-million dollar company,” he said. “I don’t want to be the person to make Daz Cameron to not be NCAA eligible, so I play by their semantics, but he is being well advised in my mind. We had him in the Top 10 in talent in this draft. If he signs the Astros would have three of the top ten players, no other team will do that.”

The emergence of Carlos Correa has also worked out. There was a time when the number two pick in the 2012 Draft, Byron Buxton, who went to Minnesota looked to be the future star of the class. Baseball America sent a reporter to cover Buxton in 2013 and the writer said he wouldn’t trade Buxton for all three of the players the Astros procured with the savings of taking Correa number one.

“Now I don’t think that is true,” Manuel said. “I don’t think the Astros would trade Correa for Buxton. If Correa can stay at shortstop long term, which certainly looks like he can, he might be a difference making athlete, a franchise changing kind of player- he could be that good.”

Still the almost instant success of this year’s talented rookie class, including Correa surprises Manuel.

“It is a group of prospects that have broken through, whether it is Kris Byrant or Addison Russell in Chicago, but Carlos Correa is towards the front of that and I think the entire industry underestimated him a little bit. If he didn’t go number one to the Astros in 2012, he might have gone as low as six or seven.”

More Major League organizations seem to be willing to jump their top prospects to the majors with little Double-A or Triple-A seasoning.

“All sports are copy cats,” Manuel explains. “One team runs a zone option or spread offense and suddenly everybody is doing it. Now with baseball, it is go all in on the draft and control your players. These things go in cycles. When you do see the young players have instant success that does embolden other teams I think, to try and follow that example. Ultimately it comes down to the players. If Carlos Correa hadn’t shown it in AA or AAA, the Astros wouldn’t have jumped him.”

Manuel credits Luhnow for some other picks, such as Preston Tucker who has also graduated to the majors this season but he didn’t want to leave former Scouting Director Bobby Heck out from required praise.

“I think Bobby drafted Keuchel, George Springer and a lot of the difference making guys the last few years, were Bobby guys. I am not taking anything away from the current regime, but I think Bobby deserves his credit too.”

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