Sooner Or Later, This Pick Will Count

added 6/1/2012 by Bob Hulsey

It is the normal bent of fans and the media to overemphasize. All 40+ picks in next week's June draft are important for the Astros, certainly the first ten picks will be. But the focus is on the first overall pick - as it ought to be - because whomever this pick becomes will be an early indicator of what type of leadership the Astros have in Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow.

For most of their short time in the spotlight, both have preached that tomorrow is more important than today - that the Astros will be rebuilt through solid drafting, not quick fixes.

The Astros have been in this position twice before. In 1976, the Astros had the first overall choice. The franchise had just been sold from Judge Roy Hofheinz, who was in declining physical and economic health, into a faceless stewardship group backed by Ford Motor Credit and other investors. Tal Smith had become the new General Manager.

Players then had few options so the draft centered mostly on talent rather than agents and money. Smith chose lefthanded pitcher Floyd Bannister from Arizona State. Bannister was rushed to the majors the following year, traded to Seattle in 1978 (for Craig Reynolds) and enjoyed 15 big league seasons, a 134-143 career record and a 4.06 ERA, pitching mostly for underwhelming teams.

Was it a good choice? If you look at the first round selections from that year, it was as good as anything out there. One could argue that Leon Durham and Mike Scioscia had careers of roughly the same success and that Bruce Hurst won more games but there was no superstar out of that group.

Did it help the Astros? Yes, if you consider Reynolds a key part of the success Houston had in the 1980s. Had Bannister not been traded, the Astros would probably not have shipped Enos Cabell for Bob Knepper after the 1980 season so you could argue trading Bannister did more than drafting him.

Houston was again at the top of the draft board in 1992. Drayton McLane had just bought the club from John McMullen. Bill Wood was the General Manager.

Once again, the Astros hoped to find a player who could make an immediate impact. The debate was largely between infielder Phil Nevin of Cal State Fullerton and outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, an outfielder from Stanford. One scout, however, pleaded that the Astros take a young high school shortstop from Kalamazoo, MI who had made plans to attend the University of Michigan if he didn't get the offer he wanted.

Wood chose Nevin, a third baseman, even though he had Ken Caminiti at third and Jeff Bagwell at first - two talented corner infielders in the prime of youth. Nevin wanted to be fast-tracked to the majors but he also didn't want to be moved to the outfield as a price for getting there quickly.

Nevin fought with coaches and management while not producing when he had chances to stick with the parent club. Bagwell and Caminiti soon became All-Stars and Nevin was traded to Detroit in 1995 as the player to be named later for reliever Mike Henneman.

Nevin did not start to blossom until he joined the Padres in 1999 - his fourth organization. He made one All-Star team and finished 12 big league seasons with a .270 average and 208 career homers.

Was it a good choice? Probably better than Hammonds who was also somewhat of a disappointment despite a .272 average over 13 seasons. One could argue that the Astros might have been better off with Charles Johnson, Jason Kendall, Johnny Damon or Preston Wilson although there were also several busts in that draft.

However, the kid shortstop from Michigan we all know today as Derek Jeter could have cemented a position the Astros have found hard to fill for the past 20 years. Imagine what he could have done in a lineup with Bagwell and Craig Biggio all those years. Ouch.

Did choosing Nevin help the Astros? Not really. Henneman was the sort of late-season rental that was meant to win now and the Astros did not make the playoffs in 1995. Henneman signed with the Rangers as a free agent the following season.

So the Astros have twice stood in their history where Luhnow stands now. The pressure is to find the player who can get to the majors quickly to revive a flagging franchise under new ownership that perhaps lacks the capital to sign the best player despite the new salary slotting that began this year with the new collective bargaining agreement.

Luhnow's choice is among a group of college pitchers, led by Stanford righthander Mark Appel, college catcher Mike Zunino of Florida, high school outfielder Byron "Buck" Buxton of Georgia and high school shortstop Carlos Correa from Puerto Rico.

None of them would be a bad choice. All would fill a need with the parent club by the time they are expected to arrive in Houston. But can the Astros wait 5-6 years for Buxton or Correa to get to the majors when they have so many challenges ahead in the next two years?

I believe that not only should they take the long-term view, they are better served by doing so. Appel and the other pitchers have upside but they don't have that "superstar" or "can't miss" label that followed Washington's young stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. If Appel or another pitcher is the selection, the pressure will be there to compare them to Strasburg.

Buxton and Correa could be superstars but it is way too early in their development to know. The margin for error is certainly greater with these two but the possibility they could be a future Jeter or Ken Griffey Jr. is there too.

Does Luhnow take the risk? If he does, it will show a steely nerve and an eye for the long term that the Astros claim to possess. Luhnow might not be around when Buxton or Correa reach stardom. He might have taken the arrows for several bad years in the AL West while the Rangers do victory laps around the Astros while Houston fans are asked to be patient.

And while there will be pressure put on a high school product taken with the overall number one choice, it might be tempered with the years of patience required to watch a high school kid blossom as a professional star. It won't be the same sort of pressure that Appel or Zunino would see to produce right away.

Talent evaluators bemoan the lack of players in the Astros system with star potential. The only guy with that label now is Jonathan Singleton (himself an eighth-round choice and proof again why all rounds, not just the first, are important).

Drafting first overall is presumed to be the one place where Luhnow can choose a real stud, not just a prospect. That's why there should be more pressure on Luhnow to make the right choice, not the safest or most expedient choice. If it takes a few more years for the best player to reach the majors, the Astros ought to be willing to wait for him.

Whoever the choice is will say a lot about Luhnow and a lot about Crane. Are they willing to take the short-term pain to develop a true superstar or are they under pressure to get a marketing asset before the public as quickly as possible to help keep the franchise afloat?

Stay tuned.