Baseball’s Latest Dynasty is Fueled by an Elite Prospect Pipeline
Every December, plenty of baseball fans express extreme frustration with their favorite team’s front office. As the hot stove starts to turn up, most people feel that the success of their team’s next season will be determined by how active the franchise is in the free agent market. While free agent acquisitions are an integral part of any elite team, you don’t have to look very far to find a franchise that has largely depended on their farm system to get them World Series rings. The Houston Astros, baseball’s most successful team over the last 5 years, have only occasionally splurged on a big free agent. Their success has been found internally.
Despite the ongoing carousel of general managers (Jeff Luhnow, James Click, ?), the Astros have managed to maintain their status as a perennial powerhouse in the American League. The main reason for that dominance can be attributed to excellent drafting and player development. As anyone who’s followed baseball for long enough should know, the draft is incredibly volatile, and even with a high draft pick, it’s still difficult to pick a player who will end up thriving in the MLB. Though the Astros certainly haven’t been able to escape the unpredictability of the draft, they’ve managed to hit on multiple superstars through it. For all intents and purposes of this article, I’m going to consider draft picks from the start of the Astros' most recent rebuild, 2011. Here’s a quick look at their first round draft picks since that time.
2011: George Springer
2012: Carlos Correa
2012: Lance McCullers Jr.
2013: Mark Appel
2014: Brady Aiken
2015: Alex Bregman
2015: Kyle Tucker
2015: Daz Cameron
2016: Forrest Whitley
2017: J.B. Bukauskas
2018: Seth Beer
Far from perfect. Aiken and Appel were all-time terrible misses in consecutive years. Aiken didn’t sign with the Astros, and Mark Appel didn’t reach the MLB until this past season … with the Phillies. However, what sets Houston apart from many other major league clubs is that they have been able to find superstars in the draft. Springer, Correa, Bregman, and Tucker aren’t your run-of-the-mill, everyday players. All four are bonafide superstars that have racked up accolades throughout their respective careers. In addition, McCullers has been a weapon and has shown ace-like tendencies when fully healthy. It’s very infrequent to find a superstar in the draft. There are usually about three to five a year, and the fact that the Astros were able to find four stars in seven years is an incredible feat that massively accelerated their rebuild. Possibly even more impressive than their track record of success in the first round is Houston’s ability to pick out late-round sleepers that have ended up making huge contributions to the overall success of the franchise. All three of the following players are likely to be everyday starters for Houston in the 2023 season.
SS Jeremy Pena: 3rd-round pick, 2018 draft
OF Chas McCormick: 21st-round pick, 2017 draft
OF Jake Meyers: 13th-round pick, 2017 draft
The Astros were able to select talented players and integrate them into their elite player development system. It ended up resulting in multiple starters coming out of rounds where the drafted players are generally assumed to be depth pieces. Small things like this end up being critical to championship teams.
International Free Agency
Houston’s draft success is incredible, but it pales in comparison to their remarkable international free-agent signings. IFA is even more volatile than the draft. Most players signed are 16 or 17 years old and have never played in a level above amateur ball. Teams devote a ton of scouting and research to the international market in hopes of finding the next Roberto Clemente, Sammy Sosa, or Miguel Cabrera. While the eventual performance of international signings is a bit of a mystery, when the Astros have many international signings performing at a high level at the same time, it can’t be written off as pure luck. Some of the Astros' various international gems include…
2B Jose Altuve
SP Framber Valdez
SP Cristian Javier
SP Luis Garcia
SP Jose Urquidy
It is incredibly rare for a team to have five international signings simultaneously contribute significantly. It speaks wonders, not only about the Astros’ expertise in amateur scouting but also to their advanced player development system. Four out of five projected starting pitchers for the 2023 season were originally acquired as amateur international free agents. The Astros were one of the first teams to embrace pitch data and use it to find an optimized arsenal for each pitcher. The use of this technology and mentality throughout all levels of player development has been a huge part of the winning product the club has put on the field in recent years.
All this to say, in a world of Twitter and constant notifications, don’t get too worked up when your team is reported to be out on a star free agent, and don’t get worried when your team misses out on yet another player you desperately wanted. The best teams are built on a strong internal foundation and only look outside the organization when absolutely necessary. The Astros have put on a masterclass of how to run a rebuild and find sustained success. The rest of the league needs to start taking notes.
"Astros Angels 2019 (2 of 9)" via thatlostdog-- licensed under CC BY 2.0