Homegrown talent paves way to WS ... again

October 29th, 2021

The most efficient way to build a winning baseball team is by developing talent from within. So it should come as no surprise that the Astros and Braves are squaring off in the World Series.

Houston had nearly twice as much homegrown bWAR on their postseason roster as any of the other nine playoff teams. While Atlanta ranked sixth, it would have placed second with a fully healthy Ronald Acuña Jr.

In each of the previous four years that MLB Pipeline has tracked bWAR among postseason teams, at least one of the top Division Series clubs in its league in terms of homegrown production has advanced to the Fall Classic. That group includes the 2017 Astros and 2020 Dodgers, who both won championships.

Astros: Study in contrasts

Houston's huge homegrown core represents a balance between Draft and international talent, though those two groups are markedly different. The majority of its significant draftees were premium picks, while almost all of its international signees were bargain finds.

The Astros had the No. 1 overall pick for an unprecedented three consecutive Drafts from 2012-14 and parlayed two of those choices into stars. They kicked the tires on Stanford right-hander Mark Appel in 2012 before opting for Puerto Rican prep shortstop Carlos Correa, who had wowed them and several other clubs in pre-Draft workouts. Two years later they selected California high school left-hander Brady Aiken, who failed to sign after a dispute about the condition of his elbow and left the club with the second overall choice in 2015 as compensation.

That consolation prize became Louisiana State shortstop Alex Bregman, who still carries a chip on his shoulder because his Team USA double-play partner (and current World Series foe) Dansby Swanson went one pick ahead of him. In 2015, Houston became the first team ever with two of the first five choices. They used the No. 5 overall selection on Florida prep outfielder Kyle Tucker, giving them the best pure hitter in the high school class to go with the best in the college ranks (Bregman).

The Astros' best pitcher this season was Lance McCullers Jr., a supplemental first-round selection in 2012, though he was dropped from their playoff roster after straining his right forearm in the Division Series. The only draftee on their playoff roster who wasn't highly regarded when he turned pro is Chas McCormick, who batted .373/.441/.524 in four years at NCAA Division II Millersville (Pa.) before signing for $1,000 as a 21st-rounder in 2017 -- and going on to become the first position player in school history to reach the Majors.

By contrast, most of Houston's international success stories received no acclaim as amateurs. The most famous of these is Jose Altuve, whose small stature scared off clubs before the Astros relented and signed him for $15,000 out of Venezuela in 2006.

As the Astros have seen former aces depart via free agency (Gerrit Cole) or slowed by injuries (Justin Verlander) and age (Zack Greinke), they've adapted by showing a knack for signing older international pitchers for a pittance and turning them into assets. They landed Cristian Javier and Framber Valdez out of the Dominican Republic for $10,000 apiece on the same day in March 2015, and potential American League Rookie of the Year Luis Garcia turned pro for $20,000 out of Venezuela two years later. They also purchased José Urquidy's rights from the Mexican League's Mexico City Red Devils in March 2015 for $400,000, of which he received $100,000 as a bonus.

Houston's only extravagant international expenditure paid off handsomely too. Scouts coveted Yuli Gurriel for years before he defected from Cuba in February 2016, and he signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract five months later, requiring just 15 games in the Minors before he arrived at Minute Maid Park to stay.

Braves: Exceeding expectations

The Braves can't match the Astros' quantity of homegrown key contributors, but they did sign and develop four of the six best players on their World Series roster: Austin Riley, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Ian Anderson. The common thread among those four is that Atlanta saw more in them than the rest of the industry did.

Though Freeman was a second-rounder as a California high schooler in 2007 and Riley went in the supplemental first round as a Mississippi prepster in 2015, many clubs preferred them on the mound than in the batter's box. Freeman pitched well as senior but wanted to be an everyday player, making that decision easier for the Braves, but they stayed on Riley even though his stuff dipped and he lacked much track record as a hitter. They were convictd that both could be impact position players and have been proven correct.

Albies is Atlanta's version of Altuve, though he cost significantly more ($350,000) to sign out of Curacao in 2013. He stood just 5-foot-7 when he turned pro, creating questions about how much damage he could do at the plate, but the Braves had faith that his bat speed and foot speed would translate into production.

Atlanta also believed much more in Anderson than any other club, falling in love with the New York high school right-hander the summer before the 2016 Draft. It didn't waver when pneumonia and an oblique injury affected his stuff the following spring, as the Braves selected him at No. 3 overall -- higher than all but nine prep righties in the 56-year history of the Draft.

Braves scouts also uncovered two more relatively unappreciated gems who would be playing prominent roles in this World Series if not for injuries. Acuña, who was headed toward the National League MVP Award before he tore the ACL in his right knee in July, signed for just $100,000 out of Venezuela in 2014. Atlanta was the only team that viewed Canadian high school right-hander Mike Soroka as a first-rounder in 2015, and he made the All-Star Game as a rookie in 2019 before missing most of the last two years with a pair of Achilles tendon tears.

The Astros and Braves demonstrate that there are different ways to stockpile homegrown talent. And that doing so leads to success.