Pipeline Perspectives: Astros look like best system
Successive No. 1 Draft picks, trades for solid prospects give Houston promising future
There's a good amount of subjectivity regarding baseball prospects. With the evaluation of talent being in the eye of the beholder, finding a consensus is often difficult. Even Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo at MLBPipeline.com don't always see eye-to-eye. They'll be discussing their viewpoints regularly in a feature called Pipeline Perspectives. Submit a topic for them to debate.
The Astros haven't given their fans much cause for joy lately. They've posted the worst record in the Major Leagues and set a new franchise mark for losses in each of the past three seasons. Houston, 51-111 this year, is the first team to finish at the bottom of the big leagues for three straight years since the 1962-65 Mets, who set the standard for futility.
Those Mets underwent an amazin' transformation, however, winning the World Series in 1969. I won't go on record as predicting the Astros will capture a championship in the next four years, but I will say this: Their future is undeniably bright because they have baseball's best farm system, with potential standouts all over the diamond. (Jonathan Mayo has a dissenting opinion; his choice is the Pirates.)
It wasn't always like this. Entering both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Baseball America rated Houston's system as the worst in the game, which proved to be a harbinger of doom at the Major League level. But since then, the Astros have drafted much better and engineered several trades, pumping some much-needed young talent into the organization.
Houston spent more than a decade either blowing first-round picks in the First-Year Player Draft or giving them away as free-agent compensation. From 1999-2009, it hit on just one first-rounder in Jason Castro and had only two others -- Chris Burke and Brian Bogusevic -- reach the Majors. The Astros got nothing out of Robert Stiehl, Derick Grigsby, Maxwell Sapp and Jiovanni Mier, and went without a first-rounder in four separate Drafts.
By contrast, Houston has had five first-round selections in the past four Drafts, and all of them have the look of franchise cornerstones. In 2010, it chose second baseman-turned-center fielder Delino DeShields Jr., who might be the best leadoff prospect in the Minors, and right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, who regularly touched 100 mph in his starts during the second half of this season. The Astros grabbed center fielder George Springer in 2011, and this season he nearly became the first 40-40 player in the modern history of the Minor Leagues.
The Astros' consolation prize for having the worst record in 2011 and 2012 was the No. 1 overall pick in each of the past two Drafts. Last year, Houston used the top choice on shortstop Carlos Correa, who has drawn some comparisons to Alex Rodriguez (or Manny Machado, if you prefer to be more conservative). This June, the Astros opted for college right-hander Mark Appel, who combines polish and stuff and should headline their big league rotation before too long.
Other important building blocks plucked from recent drafts include right-handers Lance McCullers Jr. (supplemental first round in 2012) and Vincent Velasquez (second in 2010), shortstop Nolan Fontana (second in 2012) and third baseman Rio Ruiz (fourth in 2012).
The Astros also have been active on the trade front. Their most important deal was made in July 2011, when they sent Hunter Pence to the Phillies and got three blue-chip prospects in return: right-hander Jarred Cosart (who graduated to Minute Maid Park this year), first baseman Jonathan Singleton and outfielder Domingo Santana. Other trades have landed left-hander Josh Hader, right-handers Kyle Smith and Asher Wojciechowski and outfielder Danry Vasquez -- not to mention since-graduated big leaguers Chris Carter, Matt Dominguez, Robbie Grossman, Brett Oberholtzer, Brad Peacock and Jonathan Villar.
Though winning isn't the priority in the Minor Leagues, it can indicate depth of talent. The Astros' U.S. based-affiliates led the Minors with a .570 winning percentage this year and six of them qualified for playoffs, a feat no organization had accomplished since the Pirates in 2003.
In the four seasons from 2008-11, a total of just four of Houston's domestic affiliates managed to finish above .500, and none of them were able to do so two years ago. The big league club may need more time, but the Astros are headed for a similar turnaround.