Baseball's annual amateur draft offers no sure things, and this year, the uncertainty goes right to the top. With no clear consensus on the best player in the draft based upon sheer talent, no one is 100 percent sure whom the Astros will take. They've narrowed the list to five players, and are believed to be leaning towards drafting Stanford righthander Mark Appel, a Houston-area native who is generally considered one of top three college pitchers in this draft. For a team whose long-overdue rebuilding effort just got underway in the wake of the past winter's sale from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane, such a move could produce a frontline pitcher with a local connection, an obvious potential gate attraction.
Any payoff, either on the field or off, won't come immediately, however. Unlike the pitchers taken at 1-1 in the past half-dozen drafts — Luke Hochevar (Royals, 2006), David Price (Devil Rays, 2007), Stephen Strasburg (Nationals, 2009) and Gerrit Cole (Pirates, 2011) — Appel is expected to need two or three seasons in the minors before he's big-league ready. By comparison, Hochevar, Price and Strasburg all debuted in the majors the season after they were drafted, and Cole could be up by next year. That really shouldn't be a big deal for the Astros, since the rebuilding phase is going to take a few years, and since the other college pitchers that some teams have above him on their draft boards — the University of San Francisco's Kyle Zimmer, and Louisiana State University's Kevin Gausman — project to require a similar amount of time to develop, while the top high school players, pitcher Lucas Giolito and outfielder Byron Buxton, will likely need longer.
Appel is a 6-foot-5 righty with a power pitcher frame, and a fastball that sits 93-95 MPH and can touch 98. His change-up and breaking ball are considered average to above-average offerings, depending upon whom you ask. "Appel has the most complete arsenal" of that trio of college pitchers," says Baseball Prospectus prospect expert Kevin Goldstein. "Gausman needs to find a breaking ball, Zimmer a change."
In other words, Appel isn't going to turn a franchise around by himself. The history of the draft, which began in 1965, only underscores that fact. None of the 15 pitchers taken at 1-1 has ever produced more than 28.5 Win Above Replacement in his career, according to Baseball-Reference, while nine hitters have exceeded that mark:
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The 11th player on the list, Adrian Gonzalez (picked first by the Marlins in 2000) has 25.8 WAR at this writing, and should overtake Benes by the end of the year, given that he averaged 5.8 WAR from 2009-2011. Meanwhile, it'll be a long time before any pitcher challenges Benes for supremacy atop the list of pitchers:
Price, who arrived in the majors in time for the Rays' first playoff run in 2008 and has helped them reach the playoffs twice since then, is the closest thing to a franchise-turner, though Strasburg is building a case for himself after a mere 28 starts. Those two were obvious overall first picks, while Hochever was less definitively so. "It's years like this — 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008 — that are the norm," says Goldstein.
Meanwhile, some of the biggest draft busts can be found among pitchers taken first, reflecting both their higher attrition rate due to injuries, as well as the larger uncertainty that comes with projecting pitchers. David Clyde (Rangers, 1973) was rushed to the majors straight out of high school to help boost sagging attendance, and wound up compiling just 0.2 WAR in a career whose major league phase was over before his 25th birthday due to shoulder woes. Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991) injured his shoulder in a barroom brawl and never made the majors. Matt Anderson (Tigers, 1997) could dial it up to triple digits, but the so-called "closer of the future" had only one season in which he saved more than three games, and his career WAR was −0.9. Bryan Bullington (Pirates, 2002) was a signability pick who made just 26 major league appearances with a 5.62 ERA and −0.4 WAR before heading to Japan following the 2010 season.
Headed by general manager Jeff Luhnow and scouting director Bobby Heck, the Astros have almost certainly absorbed the lessons that turned those picks into busts, in that they're unlikely to choose a high schooler, a reliever or a pick whom they can't afford. On that last note, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement places harsh penalties on teams that exceed their prescribed bonus pool (around $11.2 million for the Astros, to cover their first 10 picks), and even with Appel represented by überagent Scott Boras, his leverage isn't all that high; going back for his senior year means risking injury before payday, and the money available isn't likely to be higher next year.