Having now gone where no team had ever gone before, the Houston Astros will hope that their next step is a return to being one of Major League Baseball's premier franchises.
The Astros—losers of over 100 games three years in a row—made history Thursday when they selected Brady Aiken, a left-hander from Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, California, with the No. 1 pick in the 2014 MLB draft.
Naturally, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle that the organization is very pleased with its selection:
“Young, dynamic, high upside lefthanded pitcher that we haven't had in a while and I couldn't be more excited” — Luhnow on Aiken— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) June 5, 2014
After selecting high school shortstop Carlos Correa No. 1 in 2012 and Stanford right-hander Mark Appel No. 1 in 2013, the Astros have now made three straight No. 1 picks. That's an MLB first, and it's hard not to think big about what it means for Houston's future.
A big payoff isn't guaranteed, mind you. Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to MLB's draft, and that's true even if you're picking No. 1 multiple times in rapid succession.
Most of the teams that have done so can vouch (via Baseball-Reference.com):
|Team||Year||Player||POS||Career MLB WAR|
Hitting on one No. 1 draft choice? That can definitely happen. The Mariners did it with Mike Moore in 1981, and the Rays did it with David Price in 2007. But hitting on more than one? That's a lot harder.
However, you might have noticed the glaring omission up there.
In 2009 and 2010, the Washington Nationals selected first Stephen Strasburg and then Bryce Harper. Both quickly emerged as elite young players and were big factors in snapping the franchise's decades-long postseason drought in the 1990s.
Though the two picks came much further apart, we can also recall the Seattle Mariners' No. 1 picks in 1987 and 1993: Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Together, they helped turn the Mariners into a powerhouse in the 1990s.
So yes, hitting on closely packed No. 1 picks and transforming a team in the process can be done. As long as the right players are taken, of course.
And while we won't really know for sure until, oh, about a decade from now, it's hard to argue that the Astros haven't used their three No. 1 picks wisely.
Per the experts, the Astros made the safe pick in choosing Aiken with this year's top pick. The idea is to take the best talent available, and B/R's Mike Rosenbaum, Baseball America, MLB.com and ESPN's Keith Law all agree that Aiken was this draft's top talent.
We're obligated to note that the history of high school lefties going No. 1 isn't encouraging. It's happened twice before, with David Clyde going No. 1 in 1973 and Brien Taylor going No. 1 in 1991. Clyde was broken soon after he was rushed to the majors, and Taylor never even made it that far.
But teams have gotten better at drafting and developing high school pitchers. It's more of an exact science than it used to be, and you can look to recent first-rounders like Clayton Kershaw, Mat Latos, Madison Bumgarner, Shelby Miller and Jose Fernandez for encouraging success stories.
Aiken fits the bill of a guy who could be next. He's plenty big at 6'4" and over 200 pounds, and the book on him from MLB.com says what's already good stuff projects to get better:
He has the chance to develop three above-average or better offerings. His once-average fastball is now topping out at 97 mph and sits 92-94 mph, featuring both run and sink...He gets good depth on his curveball and keeps hitters off balance with his changeup, which usually comes in around 10 mph slower than his fastball.
Watch the video above, and you'll hear Mike Rosenbaum compare Aiken to Kershaw when he was coming out of high school in 2006. That's not just one man's opinion, as Baseball America's Clint Longenecker also noted the comparison:
Appel then provided an encouraging tease in 10 starts in the low minors following the draft:
This earned Appel a spot at No. 14 in the preseason rankings at MLB.com, which praised him for looking like "the complete package, combining stuff, size and pitchability."
Granted, the Appel hype train has cooled recently. He had to take it slow in spring training following a January appendectomy, and he's now rocking an 11.93 ERA through five starts with High-A Lancaster.
Luhnow, however, isn't worried.
"I'm confident that Appel is going to pitch in our rotation and he's going to be a top-of-the-rotation guy," Luhnow recently told MLB.com's Brian McTaggart. "He's got everything you need to do it. He's got a good delivery, he's got electric stuff and he's got command of all of his stuff."
It's an exciting enough thought that the Astros were already looking at having one homegrown ace in Appel. That they're now looking at having two in Appel and Aiken is all the more compelling. Before long, the Astros could have one of the top one-two punches in the American League.
And said one-two punch could be backed by perhaps the AL's elite shortstop.
Unlike in 2013 and 2014, the Astros went a little off the generally agreed-upon board when they took Correa No. 1 in 2012. MLB.com, for example, had him as the draft's No. 5 prospect; Baseball America had him even lower at No. 6.
The top 2012 draft prospect was widely considered to be a toolsy high school outfielder named Byron Buxton. He was taken second overall by the Minnesota Twins and went on to enter 2014 as baseball's No. 1 prospect, according to Mike Rosenbaum, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and Keith Law.
But Correa performed well enough in 2013 to crack the top 10 of those lists. And where Buxton's stock has taken a hit in 2014, Correa's is rising.
While Buxton has been sidelined for much of the season with a troublesome wrist injury, here's how Correa's follow-up to an excellent 2013 is shaping up:
Furthermore, Luhnow spoke highly of the defense the 6'4", 205-pound Correa has been playing at short.
"There were questions in the scouting community about whether or not he would be able to play shortstop, and we firmly believed he would," Luhnow told McTaggart. "We continue to believe that and have more evidence now that he's playing it, not only well, but at a really high level in A ball."
Correa is shaping up to be a good defensive shortstop who can also hit, hit for power and run the bases. Shortstops like that were plentiful in the late 1990s but have otherwise been extremely rare. When Correa arrives, Houston could have a weapon unmatched by any other team.
And Correa will have company. Jason Castro, Jose Altuve and Matt Dominguez have youth and talent, and Houston has since added George Springer and Jonathan Singleton to the mix. The former is a Rookie of the Year candidate, and the latter has already been signed long term.
The starting rotation Aiken and Appel are fixing to join also isn't without young talent. Jarred Cosart, 24, has a live arm. Collin McHugh, 26, is a quiet success story with a 2.52 ERA in eight starts. And then there's 26-year-old Dallas Keuchel, who is on an All-Star track with a 2.70 ERA through 11 starts.
Given the degree to which the statement rings true, it's worth repeating that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to MLB draft picks. That's true no matter how high they are.
But with a 16-16 record since the first of May, things are looking up for the Astros. That's largely owed to the young talent that's already arrived, and that's a testament that, yeah, Luhnow knows what he's doing. That's a heck of a thought knowing how the three crown jewels of his rebuilding effort haven't even arrived yet.
When they do, Houston's going to be a problem for everyone else.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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