Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is now in uncharted waters. For the first time in his tenure, he enters the MLB Draft without a top-2 pick and a huge pool of bonus slot money in which to manipulate the system.
In the last four drafts, the Astros have used savings from their first pick to cash in on elite high school talent with signability questions that fell past the first round. Having that monster slot allotment allowed Luhnow this privilege, much to the chagrin of some of the other team owners.
However, instead of $10-12M to spend on draft bonuses for their first ten picks, the Astros have “only” $5.9M, or, the eighth lowest amount of all the teams, in which to restock the minor leagues after all of the trades last year. Luhnow, to maximize his allotted bonus money, will most certainly need to focus on college players while simultaneously understanding his organizational needs, not to mention holding to his strategy of taking the best player available.
Most mock drafts seem to point to the Astros taking a college arm in the first round, such as Cody Sedlock, Eric Lauer, TJ Zeuch, or Zack Burdi. And this very well may be the way he goes. I believe this would be an unwise use of his $5.9M as these pitchers will almost surely require full slot money, thus robbing Luhnow’s ability to grab high upside college talent in rounds 2-5.
Rather than seeing his limited resources as a hindrance, Luhnow could take an even more aggressive, albeit riskier, approach to landing high end talent. To do this, Luhnow will need to be opportunistic, resist the temptation of drafting and hoping to sign sliding high school talent, and be willing to roll the dice on big upside college players with big question marks.
Here are the picks Luhnow can make (but probably won’t) in the first five rounds that could give him the biggest return:
Round 1, (Pick 17): Bryan Reynolds, OF, Vanderbilt
Last July, the Astros had Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, Kyle Tucker, Daz Cameron, and Derek Fisher atop the organization’s outfield depth chart. Santana and Phillips were the closest to MLB ready but are gone now. Kyle Tucker is doing extremely well in Low-A Quad Cities but is three years away. Daz Cameron will give it another go when Tri-City kicks off their season in a couple of weeks after struggling mightily in Quad Cities. Fisher is putting it together in Corpus Christi but is still a 2017 hopeful at best. At the big league level, only Springer is under contract beyond this year, with a slew of 4th-outfielder types to compete for starting jobs in 2017. Barring a trade or a free agent signing, the biggest hole in Houston appears to be at this position. Reynolds brings solid tools across the board and could rapidly ascend through the lower levels, perhaps joining Fisher full time in Houston by 2018. Additionally, with next year’s draft class expected to be stronger, Reynolds is likely to sign for a reduced price, as he has little to gain by returning to Vanderbilt. Reynolds doesn’t solve the outfield question next year, but he replenishes the upper level talent.
2 (61): Alec Hansen, RHP, Oklahoma
As with our organizational outfielders, our starting pitching in the minors has taken a hit. Gone are Velasquez, Appel, Hader, and Mengden. Sure, we still have Martes, Paulino, and Musgrove close to being MLB ready, but, there’s no denying the system took a shock with the loss of that many quality arms. I think Luhnow begins the process of restocking the position here with Hansen. Most of the prospect rankings I’ve seen rank Hansen in the supplemental round to early third round area. This puts the 6’7″ right hander in the Astros neighborhood in round two. Hansen has elite stuff and was considered a 1.1 candidate coming into the season but had a complete mechanical breakdown this year, finishing 3-5 with a 5.40 ERA and losing his rotation spot in the process, despite a 70-grade fastball and 60-grade slider. Hansen is in dire need of a change of scenery and to be around professional instruction may be what he needs most. The risk is huge here. But the payoff—a top of the rotation starter—is huge as well. If he’s still on the board at pick 61, Luhnow should grab him without hesitation.
3 (97): Nick Banks, OF, Texas A&M
Like Hansen, Banks entered the season as a highly regarded prospect, one that could’ve played himself squarely into the first round of this year’s draft. However, Banks struggled out of the gate with his swing with what one scout referred to as “a mechanical breakdown resulting from too much weight lifting.” When right, Banks has a very nice left handed swing with well above average raw power potential. His arm is adequate for either corner position or even centerfield in a pinch. The raw tools are still very much there. I’ve seen Banks ranked as high as a supplemental first rounder all the way down to a fourth rounder. Scouts are perplexed by him and aren’t sure who the real Banks is. There’s a chance he returns to school in the attempt to regain his prospect status, but there’s also a really good chance he’s ready to begin his professional career. Like Reynolds, Banks would fill a much needed organizational role.
4 (127): Kyle Cody, RHP, Kentucky
Perhaps no draft eligible player has seen his stock fall as quickly over the last year as Cody has seen his. Last Spring, the senior from Kentucky was even considered a possible 1.1 pick before he imploded. He has a plus fastball and an above average to plus slider and generates serious plane and angle from his 6’7″ frame. While his ultimate payoff here is as a workhorse middle of the rotation starter with upside, his floor may be as a late inning, high leverage reliever. Again, a high risk pick with big reward potential. Cody has been ranked as a third to fifth round pick, and since he’s a senior, doesn’t have the negotiating leverage others on this list do.
5 (157): Mitchell Traver, RHP, TCU
Like Hansen and Cody, Traver stands 6’7″ and in the neighborhood of 240 pounds. Unlike Hansen and Cody, Traver has not had a mechanical breakdown. Traver’s issue has been a complete inability to stay healthy. He had TJ surgery in 2013 and a stress fracture in his back in 2014. Due to these concerns, teams shied away from him in last year’s draft and he fell to the 28th round. Travers returned to TCU in the hopes of reclaiming his lofty first round status he had coming out of high school (the Astros actually drafted him in the 39th round in 2012). He promptly missed the first three months of this season with a lay strain. Since his return, however, he has shown the stuff that scouts loved him for: three above average pitches with movement and a difficult plane. The issue continues to be about health, not stuff. Now a projected 6th to 10th round pick, Traver could be a steal in the fifth, albeit with serious concerns. Signability concerns are no longer in the equation.
All five of these players are or were considered first round talents before a myriad of issues affected them. Outside of Reynolds, these picks are also extremely risky. But they are also extremely doable in regards to organizational need, allotted bonus pool, and the crafty doings of one Jeff Luhnow. Make it happen, Jeff!
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