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Who’s No. 1?, Houston’s gamble, and how much is young talent really worth?

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SOUTH HILLS – Happy polar vortex, folks. To warm up your day, ESPN’s Keith Law has released his rankings of the game’s 30 farm systems. It’s premium content, but what I can tell you is the Pirates rank third behind the second-ranked Twins and No.1-ranked Astros.

The Pirates will be ranked No. 1 in Baseball America’s organizational rankings when they are released next month.

Baseball Prospectus had the Pirates with seven top 10o prospects, Minnesota with eight, the Cubs with seven and the Astros with five.  In consensus rankings, the Pirates, Cubs, Astros and Twins are considered top-five organizations.

But for the purposes of today’s conversation I’m going to focus on the Astros. If the Astros had drafted differently they could have been a clear No. 1 on all organizational ranking lists.

Because of major league baseball’s new draft caps, some teams have become creative in how they allocate their limited spending pools of dollars.

In 2012, the Astros bypassed the No. 1 rated talent in the draft, Byron Buxton, in favor of shortstop Carlos Correa. Now, Correa is a promising young player, a top-10 overall prospect by most accounts. But in prospect land there’s Buxton and everyone else. He’s a clear No. 1 choice. And while it’s a bit premature and optimistic to place a Mike Trout ceiling on Buxton, he has four 70-plus rated tools and the power is at least a 60, according to scouts. That’s an incredible player who had an incredible 2013, raising his floor.

The Astros in part bypassed Buxton because Correa could be had for a lesser signing bonus and they could then allocate those savings later in the draft. They spent some of those savings – about $1.2 million – on comp round pick Lance McCullers, who is a not a consensus top 100 prospect.

In 2013, the Astros selected Mark Appel 1-1, who is thought by some to lack an ace ceiling. Appel signed for 18 percent below the slot value, $6.35 million. The second overall pick, Kris Bryant, signed for $6.7 million and there were concerns about the asking price of the third overall pick, Jonathan Gray, who had the best arm in the draft.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game - World Team v United States

Houston will likely regret passing on Buxton even if Correa turns into a star

The Astros front office is headed by some really smart folks. Astros GM Jeffrey Luhnow helped the Cardinals build an incredibly rich system.  And while the Astros have not made any significant blunders, they might have been over-thinking things in the last two drafts.

With premium picks, best player available approach has stood the test of time and this is particularly applicable when drafting at 1-1. The first round is where you’re most likely to find future All-Stars and Hall of Fame talents. Had the Astros gone BPA they could be enjoying Buxton and Jonathan Gray pairing or a Buxton and Kris Bryant duo. Appel-Correa is good, yes. Very good, in fact. But they bypassed potential greatness.

For me, the Twins have the No. 1 system in the game. The Buxton-Miguel Sano duo has been described as the next-best equivalent to possessing both Trout and Byrce Harper. The Twins also have depth and potential impact arms.

I think the lesson to be gleaned from the Astros is if you’re seeking savings with the new draft limits don’t pursue savings with your premium pick, rather, perhaps target some low-leverage college seniors in Rounds 5-10.

The Cubs, Astros and Pirate are a close call for me. All these systems are great. No doubt. They all have impact talent and depth. But with a BPA approach the Astros could have been a clear No. 1 — something which would have aided their quest in a tough AL West.

 

HOW MUCH IS YOUNG TALENT REALLY WORTH? 

What’s interesting to me about the Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka signings is if these international  players were included in the 2013 draft I don’t think either would have been selected – or considered – a top three prospect. I could be wrong about that but my sense is the baseball world will still have had Bryant, Appel and Gray, and perhaps Clint Frazier, ahead of the top international prospects who have their own translation questions.

Of course Bryant ($6.7 million), Appel ($6.3 million) and Gray ($4.8 million) signed for relatively paltry sums when comparing them to the contracts signed by Abreu ($68 million-6y) and Tanaka ($155 million/7y).

If Bryant, Appel and Gray were in an open-market system, their values would have been far greater.

This is important for small-market clubs to consider in future CBA negotiations.

As teams more and more understand the inefficiency of the free agent market place, more dollars would have been flowed to the draft before the spending pools and caps were put in place.

Again, as I wrote last week that’s why I think the draft caps were imperative for small-market teams. Just as small-market teams had no chance to sign top international talents they eventually would have been priced out of top amateur talent.

The game would likely be better with a salary cap on MLB payrolls. But baseball has a cap where it matters most: the amateur draft.

– TS

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