Genius At Work

added 6/8/2012 by Bob Hulsey

Some folks are already calling this the best draft in Astros history and it could certainly turn out that way. There's an overall first choice that some compare to a young Alex Rodriguez, a pitcher with big league parentage who posted an 0.18 ERA this season in high school plus a couple of guys who might be hard to sign but will be viewed as draft steals if they do.

Unfortunately, even the most promising drafts tend to fail at an alarming rate. While we welcome all the new talent coming into our farm system, let's not get too attached to them.

The superlatives attached to this draft class made me wonder which draft should currently own the title of best draft in franchise history. You must first ask if the goal is quantity (how many reached the majors) or quality (what did they do when they got there) and whether it matters if the players drafted contributed more for some other club than Houston.

I decided the 1987 draft class should be judged the best. It started with a likely Hall of Famer in Craig Biggio, added a lefthanded reliever, Al Osuna, in the 16th round and a no-hit pitcher who was a three-time All-Star in Darryl Kile, selected in the 30th round. A handful of other players reached the majors and had short stays. Take a bow, Dick Wagner.

Far fewer Astro heroes were draftees than you might think. J.R. Richard, Lance Berkman and Billy Wagner are among the few notables like Biggio who lived up to their first-round billings. Many of the early stars were in the system before the first draft in 1965. Others came by trade (Jeff Bagwell, Mike Scott) or free agency (Nolan Ryan) or were cast-offs from other clubs (Jose Cruz, Joe Niekro). No doubt the next generation of Astros stars will be a combination of all of these as well as players from the international market.

While I'm reviewing drafts, let me correct an error from last week's column. I incorrectly put the drafting of Phil Nevin in June of 1992 as occuring while Drayton McLane was the owner. The club was actually still under John McMullen's reign. McLane would agree to purchase the Astros a month later.

Back to the present. Most Astro fans are giddy about the way the draft turned out and hopeful, too, that Jeff Luhnow is showing a craftiness as General Manager some would say hasn't been seen in Houston since Gerry Hunsicker left.

As I suggested in my last column, this draft would tell us a lot about Luhnow and Jim Crane. It did. Luhnow is not afraid to take risks and make decisions that may take years to come to fruition and Crane, for now, is willing to let Luhnow do what's best for the long haul instead of opting for the quick fix or the safe choice.

Luhnow realized he had a unique situation that may never come again. The new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) tries to slot the signing bonuses in an effort to keep untested kids from walking off with top-dollar deals that the Players Union thinks ought to be spent on their dues-paying members.

As holders of the first overall choice, Luhnow could allot $7.2 million of a potential $11.2 million cap to get the first player signed. However, if he could sign that first player for less, that money could be used toward bonuses for other draftees so long as the total stays under the overall cap.

Reportedly, Luhnow offered the "safe" pick, college pitcher Mark Appel, a $6 million bonus which was turned down. At the last minute, the Astros then turned to shortstop Carlos Correa, a product of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy who is just 17 years old. Correa's group decided they would sign for less (reportedly $4.8 million) than that which is how they became Houston's selection.

The Astros claim this was a last-second decision but I don't honestly believe them. I think they knew Appel, represented by super-agent Scott Boras, wasn't about to leave $1.2 million on the table. The plan all along was to sign the less expensive but extremely talented Correa instead and the proof is what happened next.

Appel slid all the way to Pittsburgh in the eighth spot of the draft while another Boras advisee, Lance McCullers Jr., was also falling due to fears he wouldn't sign.

Luhnow drafted McCullers - who some had ranked as high as the top ten - with the supplemental 41st pick. Having saved signing bonus money by not drafting Appel, Luhnow now had the extra cap room to go after McCullers whom he believes he can sign.

So the Astros walk away with two of the best high school talents available for the price of a top college prospect. It's a risky move but it looks, at least for now, like one that will pay off belatedly but handsomely.

Not only this, but the Astros gambled that there might be some cap room left over to lure a few other high school players who fell below their talent level - third base prospect Rio Ruiz (4th round), pitcher Hunter Virant (11th round) and shortstop C.J. Hinojosa (26th round).

All may choose to play in college and be drafted again in three years but one or more of them might decide a big bonus is the better way to go. A university sheepskin can wait.

As part of the new CBA, a team that exceeds their cap is subject to fines or the loss of future draft choices. The team may also be punished if they fail to sign a player and have their cap adjusted downward. While I doubt they would admit it publicly, Luhnow and his team of decision scientists may also be pondering whether to intentionally exceed the cap and suffer the punishment in order to give their farm system a needed shot in the arm.

Imagine, for a moment, that they come out with big offers to McCullers, Ruiz, Virant and the others and get them all under contract. I'm sure they've read the rules and know what punishment might await if they exceed the cap. Perhaps they'll decide it's worth it. After all, they're not spending much on the parent club, so why not?

Even if it meant the loss of their first round pick next year (which means they save that money), that pick might be around the 10th overall, not the first overall. Might a mother lode of signees this year at above cap be worth it?

What if the punishment is only a second or third round choice or maybe just a fine? Is it worth it? The rocket scientists will have all the angles figured out.

Some geniuses are smart and some simply do quirky things so you'll believe they're smart. Some think "outside the box". Some see the universe of options and choose what's most advantageous rather than what's safest and are not afraid to ruffle a few feathers along the way.

We all know what happened to McLane when he tried to be a good boy and follow Bud Selig's slot rules while others didn't. It makes me angry just thinking about it. If Luhnow and his decision scientists conclude that thumbing their nose at the draft cap while they have the opportunity is the smart thing to do, and they get Crane's blessing to do so, it means there's a new attitude in town and Astros fans are going to love it when this gang gets some momentum behind them.

We've seen Luhnow is willing to take some risks. Those risks, like draft choices, don't always work as planned. But there is an appetite in Houston for a team that will play smart as much as play hard and want a front office that will match that effort. Perhaps the Astros now have the beginnings of one.