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


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.



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



  1. Travis, I agree 100% with you on the draft and international amateur caps. People railed on MLB for being anti-small market with these caps. But what they really did was prevent the large market teams from destroying the system by flooding it with money. The Yankees revenues have swelled so much that they have more money than there is talent available on the free agent market to spend it on. It was just matter of time before they started committing resources to scouting, development, and amateur acquisitions in multiples greater than any small market team could afford.

  2. Your description of Houston outsmarting itself is exactly the situation of when the Pirates drafted the #28-32 listed draftee in the #4 slot when they took Tony Sanchez. (to “free up dollars to overpay draft slots in later rounds” so they said)

  3. NMR says:

    First thing I thought of, Groat.

  4. NMR says:

    This should be an easy question. How?

    How, exactly, would a large market team go about “destroying the system by flooding it with money”?

    Travis, feel free to jump in.

  5. If what John Perotto is reporting is true——that AJ has been offered only $8.5 to sign for 2014——no wonder he hasn’t signed anywhere! What a slap in Burnett’s face! Of course, is John Perotto credible anymore?

    If Burnett was going to retire he would have announced it already.

    He is working out as he has prepared each pre-season before Spring Training, as if he is going to pitch.

    If Neal Huntington thinks AJ is going to blink, he hasn’t been paying attention. Start fitting AJ for that Orioles uni.

  6. The Gunner says:

    AJ won’t be back with the Bucs in 2014. My gut is telling me his defiance will surface & he will sign with Cincinnati.

  7. We can both read the tea leaves even when we’re not drinking tea!

  8. NMR says:

    Couple thoughts…

    -There is nothing wrong with making an $8.5m offer. Low place to start, sure, but you have to start somewhere.

    -If that $8.5m offer is the FINAL one the team plans on giving, then AJ Burnett will not be a Pirate because the Pirates don’t want him to be one. The classic “we tried” offer. The team clearly can afford more.

  9. 21sthebest says:

    I don’t know if the car buying analogy works but I’ve never started anywhere but low.

  10. NMR says:

    Not to mention $8.5m is a logical place to start given that is what they paid him last year.

  11. Travis Sawchik says:

    Without a cap, I think we would eventually see Kris Bryant-types earning Jose Abreu dollars.

  12. NMR says:

    Again, how?

    Are you saying that every big market team will make handshake deals with every decent prospect? That is the only way, logistically, your scenario can even exist.

  13. cmat0829 says:

    Seems plausible the Bucs offered $8.5M to AJ for 2014, don’t see any signs that this means AJ is “to be fitted for an Orioles jersey”… have you any links to actual reports of the Orioles and AJ talking at all? I’ve seen numerous reports on O’s search for pitching and haven’t seen an AJ link since around Thanksgiving.

    We know $14M is ‘no go’ for the Pirates… seems plausible $8.5M is ‘no go’ for AJ… if AJ really wants to pitch for the Pirates in 2014, not sure why the two sides couldn’t meet at $10-11M or so and call it a day. I really do think this is more about AJ figuring out what he wants to do.

    If indeed AJ wants to pitch in 2014, and the Bucs lose him to either retirement or another team because of $2-3M that would be truly sad. Now, AJ has his warts, let’s be clear on that, but he has that type of value to this year’s Pirates. Don’t think he has as much value to the Orioles (hello AL EAST, hello 5+ ERA), but we’ll see.

  14. cmat0829 says:

    Don’t think the Reds have $10M available for 2014 roster, but all the reports on that could be wrong I s’pose.

  15. cmat0829 says:

    Um, maybe I’m missing something, but without a cap on contracts, wouldn’t inflation basically take place in terms of the bar that is set for high draft picks to sign? Like in the NFL before that was bargained in, the price tag for top picks, especially QBs, was insane.

    We’d end up seeing lots more Boras/Appel types of negotiations…either pay what team X did or is willing to do, or we’ll go back to school.

    Yes, I can see your point on how ‘logistically’ it would work, may take a few cycles, unsigned top picks, etc. but inflation would ultimately set in.

  16. Andrew says:

    NMR I agree, I do not understand this supposed scenario. Free agent spending and draft spending are not substitutes. One there is the time factor and two the uncertainty. Long term free agent contracts are structured to have surplus value in the first years, knowing that back end will be a loss, free agency provides value now. Draft spending provided future value at a fraction on the dollar but with huge variance on the amount of return.

    Let’s not kid ourselves the draft far more resembles a lottery than and financial or engineering problem. I think Travis is grossly overestimating the ability of the baseball industry to project drafted players.

  17. Andrew says:

    Travis Sawchik ‏@Sawchik_Trib 2m

    A.J. Burnett will return to pitch in ’14, per source. Burnett will be open to pitching for a club other than the Pirates

    That is all.

  18. NMR says:

    Inflation is a whole different story, cmat. None of our kid’s kids, let alone us, will be around to see the day when a guy gets $60m+ in the draft through inflation alone.

  19. National Mart of Records and Clemente,

    I agree with starting low . . . . . but it’s 15 days until Spring Training starts, It’s no longer November.

    I used to run a car store: I NEVER responded to a ridiculously low offer at all . . . . unless it was to give them a ridiculously HIGH offer.

    ****When movement occurs, then negotiations begin.********

    I agree with your evaluation of the “classic we tried offer.” Seems Pirates by their actions do not really want Burnett.
    That’s a BIG, BIG, BIG mistake. He moves that whole rotation down into slots where the pitchers would be set up to excel or be more successful.

    It makes me shake my head in sadness by BMTIB approach. Losing #1 Starter. Losing 1st Base platoon who hit 100 homeruns in last 5 seasons, with 2 of last 4 seasons having 86 RBIs. Replaced either by unproven or proven bad options.

    Seems like BMTIB is ceding division to Cardinals already, while hoping to compete for the 1-game Playoff. Fatal approach.

  20. 21sthebest says:

    The source said, “I suspect he is going to open himself up to the market.”

  21. NMR says:

    Not sure who you consider part of the BMTIB, but this would seem to have Clint Hurdle’s hands all over it. He is, after all the guy who has to manage AJ.

  22. NMR says:

    I’m disappointed.

    Travis scoops something and we’re not the first to know? :)

  23. 21sthebest says:

    I’m not sure what the month has to do with it.

    ” I used to run a car store: I NEVER responded to a ridiculously low offer at all . . . . unless it was to give them a ridiculously HIGH offer.”

    Correct. It’s called a negotiation. :-)

    This team improved when they non tendered Garrett Jones, IMO. He looked to me like he aged about 5 years in the last 3 months of the season. We’re gaining 30 starts from Cole, Liriano, and Morton that we didn’t get last year and we’re not getting 10 starts from Sanchez and JMac. I like Walker, Cutch, Pedro, Mercer, Marte to improve as a group. I think we’re solid in the bullpen and behind the plate. First base is an issue as is right field. Hopefully Polanco will be up and be solid but if not, I still think we’re in contention for the division.

  24. NMR says:

    Let’s even forget the nature of the draft, which you very correctly point out is far from easy to predict.

    Let’s assume there is so much money in baseball that big market teams make handshake deal with all the top players. All it takes is a team to draft that guy and your handshake deal becomes worthless. It’s then up to the player to negotiate with the team that drafted him or go school for three years.

    Let’s even assume that scenario plays out. You’re left with multiple years of completely broken drafts followed by annual drafts loaded with college guys who once again are open for any random team to draft. Bye bye handshake deals, once again.

    Let’s even further assume the college kids decide not to sign once again and go back for their senior year. You’re all smart enough to get it by now, but you inevitably end up pushing the glut of prospects down the road once again.

  25. cmat0829 says:

    I’d be disappointed if and when AJ signs with another team for 2014, and no doubt the Pirates rotation is better with him than without him, but let’s not forget AJ got throttled when it counted last year and has his warts.

    That said, AJ better be thinking about how to maximize his effectiveness in 2014, and should try to steer clear of the AL East and maybe the AL in general.

    If NH is listening, I’d ask him to make one more call to AJ, with one final offer that is the max the budget can afford for one year of AJ… to me that’s about $11M. If AJ says yes, then fine. If he says no, then fine. But let’s now let a lowball offer of $8.5M be what drives AJ out of town.

  26. cmat0829 says:

    wonder who the ‘source’ is… any guesses? does AJ have an agent? Is it AJ himself? Russell Martin?

    regardless this is classic negotiation tactic… Pirates kept intimating that AJ was planning to retire but they’d ‘love it if he called them and said he wanted to pitch”… AJ turns the tables and says ” I’m gonna pitch, just not sure it will be with the Pirates”… now it’s the Pirates turn… what do they say now? Assume Travis is working the phones for a NH or FC comment on this news… do Bucs still want to ‘welcome AJ back’? Have they made an offer to AJ , exchanged $$ figures with his camp?

  27. NMR says:

    John Hart.

  28. Don’t think so, National Mart of Records.

    Clint Hurdle is a very smart baseball guy. He gave AJ his head when he needed to vent and he toned him down when Hurdle needed to take control. Moving Burnett off ONE START against a team he had trouble with does not mean he would jettison his #1 Starter during 95% of last season.

    Any manager who only wants players who are easy to manage or who always agree with him is NO MANAGER AT ALL. I have never heard Hurdle even imply that he does not want Burnett back.

    Clint Hurdle wants to WIN!

  29. Bizrow says:

    No matter what Slick Frank may say

    The PBC cannot complete for the higher tier FAs, they gotta roll the dice with guys like RMartin and Liriano.

    I think AJ will stay in the NL

  30. Everyone thought it was cute when the Pirates were going overslot $4 or $5 million for Taillon and Josh Bell. What would have happened when the Yankees floated the idea they would go overslot $25 million? You’d end up with most impact prep players holding teams hostage.

  31. Just what I’m holding my breath for——a NH or FC comment . . . obviously full of truth, justice, and the American way.

    If Frank Coonelly’s lips are moving, he’s lying or there is BS flowing over your socks.

  32. NMR says:

    Very much agree.

    The team heading into 2014 isn’t much worse than the one that finished 2013, and clearly better than than team that started the season.

    I’ve still been critical of the direction this off season has taken because championship-contending baseball teams play within the margins where the Pirates currently find themselves. A couple wins right now mean far more than a couple of wins three years ago, and I could care less if those wins are acheived with deals that follow some stupid $/WAR valuation (that not a single Major League team even uses, fwiw).

    But the bottom line is this is still a good team.

  33. “but let’s not forget AJ got throttled when it counted last year”

    So, you are going to let one start allow you to throw away Burnett’s performance for the whole season, a season in which he led Major League starting pitchers in two different categories?

    Holy Cow, what do you propose when Pedro strikes out 4 times? When Marte dropped that fly ball against the Cardinals? Castration?!?

  34. NMR says:

    If there is money available that is not being offered, then SOMEBODY doesn’t want this guy around. Given the Clint Hurdle has been given a say in roster decisions in the past, I have no idea why he wouldn’t have a say in this decision.

  35. NMR says:

    “You’d end up with most impact prep players holding teams hostage.”

    And what is their leverage?

    The hypothetical prep player has to go through three years of college ball before being draft eligible again, at which point he finds himself back in the same exact position (generously granted that his health and skill have remained high).

    The MLB team that drafted him, on the other hand, gets another 1st round pick the following year.

    The Draft Cap hurt small markets, but it unquestionably hurt high school kids even more.

  36. Despite your frequent characterization of me as a doom sayer of this team, I desperately want them to win. My days are ruined when they lose!!!

    However they are NOT as strong as they were at the end of 2013!

    So many of the players had CAREER years——Liriano, Morton, Grilli, Melanson, Watson, Marte, Pedro, MVP McCutch, Walker with HRs. Can they even duplicate a Career Year?

    Will Cole, Wilson, Mercer, Morris, Melanson have the League catch up with them, as it did with Jeff Locke and Jared Hughes and even James McDonald last season? Will the Sophomore Slump attack Cole and Wilson? Can Jordy Mercer field well enough at short to play 80 % of games there?

    Cardinals went to World Series. They still acquired the best fielding Center Fielder in baseball, who is also a base stealing threat, and a new offensive starting shortstop. Wacha can match Gerrit Cole pitch for pitch. Cardinals have #2 Minor League prospect set to start in rightfield as another addition. (that’s 22 spots better than our great rightfield hope, Polanco!) Cardinals picked up Ellis as insurance at 2B in case super prospect Wong doesn’t cut it at 2B.

    Pirates, coming off strong year, have not added, only subtracted. If every player repeats his Career Year, with Cardinal additions that may not be enough.

    Pirates do not have to compete with Dodgers and Yankees and Angels and Red Sox for players and money spent, but they DO have to compete with the Cardinals.

    The old saying in sports is: “If you’re not cheatin’ you’re not trying.”
    Well I say: “If you’re not trying (to improve the team), your cheatin’ the team, the fans, the area.”

  37. macchamp74 says:


  38. Having listened to Hurdle being queried about Burnett on the Fan and other sites, he wants his #1 Starter back. Even if he eventually becomes his #2 Starter.

    However, Clint Hurdle does not control the purse strings. The Ghost of Christmas Past does.

  39. macchamp74 says:

    Agree…..he had 9.8k’s/9 and lead league in ground ball rate.
    Volquez is not coming close to those numbers.

  40. macchamp74 says:

    Hey don’t worry.
    Neal signed a back up catcher, back up infielder and number 5 starter this off season.
    Maximizing all the good will and extra cash 2013 season brought.

  41. I think you are grossly underestimating the ability of the filthy rich to throw money at an issue. Had the Yankees not been late is discovering the true value of young talent and prospects, Gerrit Cole would not be a Pirate. When they drafted him out of high school they would have asked “Cole, how much do you need to skip college and play in our farm system?” These kids with signability issues that teams passed on would have wound up with the Yankees and Red Sox. They could have thrown enough money at them to change their minds. That is where it was headed.

  42. Travis,

    This is just a procedural question:

    Dejan used to say that his Editor demanded 2 sources——a corroborating source to the original message——before they/he would print or “run with” the “rumor.”

    Do you not have that same restriction? You have mentioned “single source” a number of times during your time here.

  43. The Gunner says:

    Now we’ll see how big the BMTIB’s cogliones are in their approach to sign AJ.

    I want him back with the Bucs, despite all his personality issues. Plain & simple, this guy can freakin’ pitch!!!

  44. Travis Sawchik says:

    Haha. I can confirm this: it was not John Hart.

  45. Travis Sawchik says:

    The Golden Rule is two. The more the better. And we do need editor approval for unnamed sources. All that is true … But there are special cases. It’s also about your trust level in a source.

  46. Andrew says:

    I maintain my position that these scenarios are based on the assumption that MLB teams possess scouting and projecting value they do not have. The idea that teams would give Abreu money or $25 million to a player in the entry level draft is board line absurd. Additionally, there are only so many major league players available that teams quickly run into steep diminishing returns.

    I know I have linked to quite a few things recently but this article is probably the most important thing I have read regarding the player development.

    (Also it appears that John Hart did know something.)

  47. Foo says:

    Travis……you wrote:

    “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.”

    You mean like our ‘cheap’ FO did? :) :)

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