Of the four right-handers under the age of 25 on the Astros’ 40-man roster, Lance McCullers is the only pitcher on the active roster. (Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
A cursory glance at the 40 selections made by the Houston Astros in the first-year player draft earlier this week doesn’t yield much in the revelation of definitive trends excluding perhaps the 33 college players drafted, a whopping 32 in succession following the selection of Juanita (Washington) High School right-hander Jayson Schroeder in the second round (93rd overall).
A deeper dive, however, offers a glimpse at something noteworthy if not outright strategic. Half of the Astros’ draftees were right-handed pitchers, including six of their first dozen selections. Stuffing the farm system with a glut of right-handers isn’t necessarily groundbreaking in approach, but given where the Astros stand relative to the depth of quality righties in their organization, bloating the minors with arm talent qualifies as an intelligent assessment of odds.
Mike Elias, assistant general manager, player acquisition, aligned the Astros’ draft philosophy with the standard pursuit of the best talent available, especially in the earlier rounds of the draft when prime talent is at a premium. Even if the Astros can be described as bereft at a particular position in the system, their draft board wasn’t shaped by filling any specific needs.
“These guys take a while to get to the big leagues; you never know what your major-league roster construction is going to look like,” Elias said. “Case in point: We took Alex Bregman (second overall in 2015) while we had Carlos Correa playing for us and it didn’t faze us to draft another shortstop. We don’t like to worry about that (filling a position of need) too much.”
Still, stockpiling right-handers who fill the desired requirements of having “good stuff, good performance, and good command” addressed an area of attrition within the farm system.
The Astros feature two right-handed pitchers among the top 100 prospects across baseball according to MLB.com: Forrest Whitley and J.B. Bukauskas, rated seventh and 68th, respectively. Whitley, a product of Alamo Heights High School (San Antonio, TX), was a first-round selection (17th overall) by the Astros in 2016; Bukauskas was tabbed 15th overall out of the University of North Carolina the following year. The Astros’ ranks have been thinned by a series of trades jettisoning prospects in exchange for veterans capable of bolstering the major-league roster.
Right-hander Justin Verlander and catcher Brian McCann were instrumental in the Astros securing their first World Series pennant last season, but the trades to acquire both cost the organization right-handed pitching prospects currently ranked among the top 100 by MLB.com. The Astros shipped Franklin Perez (No. 33) to Detroit as part of the package to land Verlander at the waiver deadline last season. On Nov. 17, 2016, the Astros traded Albert Abreu to the Yankees in exchange for McCann. Abreu is currently rated 65th among all prospects in baseball.
Throughout the majors, there are a number of young right-handers and former Astros farmhands making inroads. Mike Foltynewicz, sent to Atlanta on Jan. 14, 2015 as part of a package to land Evan Gattis, fired a two-hitter against the Nationals for his first career shutout on June 1. Vince Velasquez, central to the haul that brought closer Ken Giles to Houston on Dec. 12, 2015, leads Phillies starters averaging 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Daniel Mengden owns a 123 adjusted ERA over his last 20 starts with the Oakland Athletics, who traded southpaw Scott Kazmir to the Astros in order to secure Mengden on July 23, 2015. Gerrit Cole has excelled during his first season with the Astros, but his offseason acquisition cost them Joe Musgrove, who allowed one earned run over 14 innings in his first two starts with the Pirates.
Of the four right-handers under the age of 25 currently on the Astros’ 40-man roster, only Lance McCullers occupies a spot with the big-league club. Perhaps Whitley and Bukauskas, and maybe even right-hander Corbin Martin, will fulfill their promise as prospects in the future, but if the Astros are to successfully meet the simultaneous challenge of pursuing a second championship while maintaining a sustainable winner, they will need recent draftees like Schroeder, Cody Deason, R.J. Freure, Austin Hansen, Brett Conine, and Mark Moclair to perhaps fill the void of the arms traded in pursuit of their pennant.