For the Houston Astros, the 2015 season represented some sort of near-redemption, an almost-coronation that brought them back into the good graces of fans across Houston. They finished 86-76, won the Wild Card game against the Yankees, and while they fell to the eventual champion Kansas City Royals in the American League Division Series, the Astros remain a promising team in 2016.

Hou Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013  .315 (30) 85 (29) 118 (26) 123 (30 -43 (24) -62 (28) -9 (24) 28 (30)
2014 .432 (26) 96 (15) 100 (13) 125 (30 -16 (21) -64 (29) 4 (9) 51 (30)
2015 .531 (10) 105 (4) 92 (4) 81 (6) 30 (4) -3 (19) 8 (7) 81 (25)

 

One-One

Righthander Mark Appel, the 2013 No. 1 pick who arrived in the big league rotation in ’16, was a Cy Young contender. And when ’14 top pick Brady Aiken, moonlighting as one of Houston’s four closers in his rookie season, ended Game 4 of this World Series by retiring Cubs slugger Kris Bryant on a pop-up to Carlos Correa—the second baseman playing shallow in left in one of Porter’s typically extreme defensive shifts—the transformation was complete.

Sports Illustrated, Astro-Matic Baseball, June 2014

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be like that.

Since the start of the Major League Baseball amateur draft in 1965, fourteen teams have had the number one pick multiple times. The Astros have had the number one pick FIVE TIMES, and three of those came in consecutive years: 2012, 2013, and 2014. (Other teams to have had the number one pick five times: New York Mets, San Diego Padres)

The prizes for going 162-324 over three seasons were those three consecutive number one picks meant to bring the Astros a World Series by 2017, or thereabouts. It had been foretold by Sports Illustrated! It was Meant To Be!

Teams across North American professional sports come to be defined by how well they hit the top picks of their respective leagues’ drafts. Sam Bowie or Michael Jordan? Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf? Matt Bush or Justin Verlander? Draft the GOAT or be the goat, or something like that.

Drafts are meant to be the equalizer. Balancing talent in the league by enabling the poor performing teams from the year before to acquire the top incoming talent for a price much lower than if that player hit the open market. In other words, it not only attempts to evenly distribute talent, but it does so while also depressing wages. In all, a decent deal for the teams who don’t get the notoriety or financial benefits of success (for the players that’s less of a good deal). That doesn’t mean the team drafting at the top can’t screw up, though in baseball especially, teams can dig themselves out of a bad number one draft pick, perhaps even two. The Astros have the second best farm system according to Baseball America, so it CAN be done.

Sports Illustrated put together the ideal, almost fantasy scenario: three straight number one picks coming up to the Majors, being contributors, and taking a team All The Way. Almost feels like a Baseball Movie.

The reality: For their troubles, the Astros hit on 33% of their number one overall picks during The Rebuilding Years. Yet, things still look fairly rosy.

The One Who Was Never Really Here: Brady Aiken

Brady Aiken will not pitch for the Astros in 2016. Brady Aiken never did, and probably never will, throw a pitch for the Houston Astros.

We need not rehash ALL of the gory details behind the Brady Aiken non-signing, but he and the Astros probably aren’t on good terms. (For more information check out here, here, and the 2015 Baseball Prospectus Annual essay on the Astros).

At the time of The Aiken Episode, the Astros had started to turn the corner, ever so slightly. They had gone from complete laughingstock to merely “regular bad” (they would finish 70-92 in 2014). Drafting Aiken first overall had a feeling of being the last chapter of the worst days, and he would be part of the team’s transition from good to great in a matter of seasons.

Then the 2014 draftee signing deadline came and went. Playing hardball over Aiken’s health not only cost the Astros the player they had drafted 1-1, but also bonus pool money that would have been used to sign additional high level talent later in the draft.

Any rebuilding team will say that they take a holistic approach to the team-building Process, and the Astros certainly have. They take advantage of using their full bonus pools (amateur draft and international), they explore the trade market, find value in free agency, and develop players at all levels. Taking this varied approach mitigates the risk of just relying on the amateur draft. However, in terms of what a team actually gets for being bad, it’s pretty much only draft positioning.

In some ways, the Astros had been well positioned to overcome losing out on Aiken and the bonus pool money that came with the top pick. Losing Aiken (and the pool money, and taking a PR hit) was bad, but by the time of the 2014 draft, many of the long term pieces had already fallen into place, including a player development system and top prospects almost ready for the Majors.

The Traded One: Mark Appel

Mark Appel, the Astros’ number one pick in 2013, was not one of those prospects. He sports a career 5.12 ERA in the minors, which could explain some of the feelings on display when other players found that he had been promoted a level, and given an opportunity to throw a bullpen session with the big club. The fact has not changed that, as a 1-1, treating Appel a little differently comes with the territory – his promotions could be a little more aggressive, and he gets a little more attention within the organization because so much had already been risked. Kris Bryant was the pick immediately following Appel, after all.

In December, the Astros decided that Appel’s time had come to an end, and in a “future value for current value” move, shipped him to the Philadelphia Phillies as part of a package for hard-throwing reliever Ken Giles. Giles comes to the Astros with a career 250 ERA+ out of the bullpen, and 5 years of team control. Standard warnings about reliever volatility apply, especially one who has basically put it together for two seasons (his pre-2014 minor league stats do not impress), but Giles provides an additional quality arm to an already solid Astros bullpen.

Nothing says Mark Appel can’t one day be a Good Major League Baseball Player, but at this point the Astros don’t have the time to find out. If they thought he could come up to the big leagues and give them the production they’ll get out of Giles, they wouldn’t have made this trade. You don’t usually give up on a 1-1 three years after drafting them, even one who has fallen as far as Appel.

But rebuilding a player like Appel has more appeal to a team entering the cycle from which the Astros just emerged, and Philadelphia is that team. Of course you trade a good Major League reliever to a team in their window of contention for a package of well regarded prospects (a package that might be as good as the one the Red Sox gave up for Craig Kimbrel), and it’s exactly the type of move the Astros were making circa 2012.

The true player development prize is not hitting on a 30th rounder who becomes league average (though this is nice), the true prize is developing first division starters and All-Stars, which top picks are more likely to become. While Appel might not have reached that level with the Astros, they traded him for value. Sometimes that’s the way to go.

The One Who Hit: Carlos Correa

To see Correa swing a bat is to witness both a tornado and a calm winter evening. To see him field is an exercise in eye widening. His arm is a series of bungee cords wrapped around a Dead Sea Scroll…A video of him barehanding a grounder is on display right now at the Louvre.

– Baseball Prospectus Annual 2016 player comment on Carlos Correa

This brings us around to Carlos Correa, the first of the Astros’ three consecutive first overall picks, coming in 2012, and the one still with the team on opening day 2016. Correa, the one who made it to the big leagues with the Astros, the one who has so far lived up to all of the expectations and then some, and the one who seems to lack a ceiling.

In 2015 Correa came up to the Big Leagues, and did so with a bang. He didn’t even need 100 games to win Rookie of the Year, accumulating 4.1 bWAR (2.6 Baseball Prospectus WARP) with a batting line of .279/.345/.512 and 22 homers in 99 games (432 PA). Come the playoff series with the Royals, Correa upped it: an OPS of 1.081 in the 5 game ALDS.

Correa will spend most of the 2016 season at age 21, his 22nd birthday not coming until September. Baseball Reference projects him to maintain rate stats similar to his 2015, while PECOTA puts him at 4.3 WARP, a nice number for a 21 year-old to be certain, but one that seems almost low.

The Astros have other players, and have made other moves, of course. A full season of last year’s trade deadline acquisition Carlos Gomez, the signing of Doug Fister, and the Giles trade, will all shape the Astros’ 2016 season, as will natural progression for George Springer, Jon Singleton, and Lance McCullers (to say nothing of reigning Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel). Jose Altuve, Collin McHugh, and the bullpen are also still on this team. But Correa’s future, growth, and eventual 2016 production will be the driving factor for the Astros repeating and going beyond what they did in 2015. Conceivably these other players have ceilings, and while those ceilings can be high they most definitely exist, while Correa could just shoot right past his.

Sure, draft picks can be a crapshoot, but the Astros of constant ridicule, of tanking beyond all tanking, of the low payroll and 0.0 TV ratings, absolutely needed one of their three CONSECUTIVE number 1 overall picks to hit. You can lose one, and can trade another, but the Astros aren’t the Astros without Correa. You don’t get to be this bad for three straight years and go 0-for-3. Luckily for the Astros, the one who hit is the one who hits.

Prediction

I don’t know if 2016 is the year for the Astros, as in, the year they win a World Series for the first time ever. If the Astros win the World Series in 2017, it still would not surprise me, even without two of their three 1-1s. The Major League core is strong, the farm system is still ranked second overall by Baseball America.

In Effectively Wild episode 835, Sam Miller speculated that the Cubs and Dodgers would be the teams most likely to win 112 or more games in the upcoming season. Given a third choice, Sam would have picked the Houston Astros, though he says they’re probably not the best team in the American League. I wouldn’t pick them that high, but I see the potential for growth and the chance to exceed projections.

Give me 92 wins, and give me an AL West division crown for Houston, and, hell, give me an AL pennant. As for my Bold Prediction That Pokes Upon The Sleeping Goat? The Astros become the first team to lose to both Chicago teams in the Fall Classic.

 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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