Examining impact of Houston’s lost Draft picks

January 14th, 2020

Major League Baseball doled out the penalties for the Houston Astros on Monday as a result of the team’s illegal sign-stealing. Some of them will be felt immediately, like the suspension of manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, which led to their dismissal by the organization. But the impact of some of the punishment, the forfeiture of Draft picks, won’t truly be felt for quite some time.

The Astros will not have a Draft pick in the first or second round of the next two Drafts. Their first pick this year will be No. 72 overall -- the pick they received as compensation when Gerrit Cole signed with the Yankees. That won’t impact the big league team in 2020 or 2021, or even for a couple of years after that. But it can’t be underestimated what the effect will be on the long-term health of the organization.

“Those are tough penalties. Those are really, really bad,” a scouting executive from another team said. “I’m not here to say what’s right or wrong, but their scouting director just took a gulp. You can look at the success rate of the third round. The lower you pick, the harder it is.

“You’re their amateur scouting department and you start in the third round two years in a row? That’s difficult.”

Just look at the current makeup of the Astros' postseason roster for a glimpse of how important early Draft picks are. They got Carlos Correa No. 1 overall in 2012 and Alex Bregman No. 2 in 2015. Kyle Tucker, who is just establishing himself now, was the No. 5 pick that year. They also got George Springer in the first round (No. 11 in 2011). It’s true the Astros won’t be giving up a top of the Draft pick like that -- they were slated to pick 30th in 2020 and with a solid big league roster, chances are their 2021 first-rounder will be late as well -- but going from picking No. 30 to picking No. 72 this June will vastly impede their ability to find top talent.

There have been elite-level players taken in and around the picks the Astros will be forfeiting the next two years. Notable players selected around the 30th pick in previous drafts include Hall of Famers Lee Smith (No. 28 in 1975), George Brett (No. 29 in 1971), Mike Schmidt (No. 30 in 1972) and Greg Maddux (No. 31 in 1984). Pick No. 63, what would have been the Astros’ second-rounder in 2020, produced players like fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Murray (No. 63 in 1973).

“You know how hard it is to know if you have the 28th pick who the top 26 or 27 are, and the Draft is harder than it’s ever been,” the scouting executive said. "There’s so much information out there. Knowing who’ll be there in the third round? Traditionally, it’s harder to find impact later on.”

With the current Draft rules, where each team has a limited signing bonus pool to spend on its selections in the first 10 rounds, this penalty goes beyond just the picks. There’s serious impact regarding the bonus pool. In 2019, pick No. 30 had a value of $2,365,500. Pick No. 63, where the Astros’ second-round pick was going to be, had a value of $1,076,300.

Those numbers will only increase -- bonus slots went up 3.9 percent from 2018 to '19 -- so assuming there's a similar increase in 2020, the Astros will lose approximately $3.5 million from its bonus pool for the top 10 rounds this June, and more than that in '21. Prior to these penalties, the Astros were looking at a total bonus pool of around $6.87 million for the 2020 Draft. Subtracting that estimated $3.5 million would remove more than half of their pool, leaving them with roughly $3.37 million for their remaining nine picks (they have a compensation pick for losing Gerrit Cole to free agency).

So not only will the Astros be unable to add talent at the end of the first round, they will also have a hard time hoarding bonus pool money to lure top talent that might have fallen in the Draft due to concerns about their willingness to sign. For example, in last June's Draft, the Mets selected and then signed high school right-hander Matthew Allan -- the top-ranked prep pitcher in the Draft -- in the third round, but that was because they strategically used their bonus pool and signed Allan for a bonus of $2.5 million -- nearly four times the allotted amount for that pick ($667,900).

That limited bonus pool -- not just the lack of first- and second-round picks -- is going to make it very difficult to add high-ceiling talent to a system that’s been thinned out over the past few years by the trades for Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, as well as high-end prospects graduating to the Majors.

“They’ve made a lot of trades to keep that thing going,” the scouting executive said. “You went and got Verlander, you went and got some other guys. They’ve been very aggressive in pursuit of winning. I get it. They tried to add and they did. But there was a cost there.”