In 2002, the Houston Astros started a homegrown product on the mound for 127 of 162 games. They were among the first organizations to develop a pipeline to Venezeula, where they found the pieces to acquire Randy Johnson (Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen). And brilliantly, they had had found a market inefficiency that was working: short pitchers. Roy Oswalt, Kirk Saarloos, Carlos Hernandez were all having success, and this appeared to be a forward-thinking organization that could adapt to changing markets. Success beyond the Bagwell and Biggio era seemed a foregone conclusion as the newest Killer B, Lance Berkman, became a star.
Talk about regression. Fast forward seven years, and you find an organization that lost their dibs to the Venezuelan market, to short pitchers, and to Drayton McLane’s wallet. I think 2007 will always represent the rock bottom for the organization: while the Major League team stumbled to 73 wins (in Biggio’s final season), the scouting department’s first signed draftee was fifth-round pick Collin DeLome. Their first round picks in the three previous drafts were Max Sapp, Eli Iorg and Ralph Henriquez. Yikes. So when the Astros get back into contention — and I can’t see it happening until 2013, at least — they will look back to the revamping of the scouting department, starting with the hire of scouting director Bobby Heck in October 2007, as the moment when the tide shifted.
Heck learned how to rebuild a farm system from the ground up under Jack Zduriencik in Milwaukee, who succeeded whilst the Brewers won less than 75 games for seven straight years from 1998-2005. These things take time, and we have to give Heck credit for choosing his Best Player Available without fail, never pausing to consider their ETA. This insulation mentality of drafting began immediately, when Heck took Jason Castro from Stanford ten to twenty picks before anyone thought he would go. But we were wrong, because Castro is going to be a very solid Major League catcher to guide this team into their next era. With quick feet and good contact skills, Castro has the essential foundation for Major League success. So while Castro reinstated Heck’s credibility, the director has not gone back to that well — Castro represents the only college player he has drafted in the first three rounds (totaling nine picks).
With the other seven that he’s signed, Heck has opted for raw talents: big, projectable right-handed pitchers and quick-twitch position players. It’s not a bad strategy in practice, but it’s also loaded with risk in an organization with little margin for error. The pitchers are all still getting rave reviews, with Jordan Lyles the front-runner ahead of Ross Seaton and Tanner Bushue. The best position player draftee still appears to be 2009 first rounder Jio Mier, a shortstop whose reports read like Alexei Ramirez‘ when he came from Cuba (Mier’s seem less exaggerated). In the later rounds, Heck’s best finds have been college outfielders, though it’s hard to tell how much of the success of T.J. Steele, Jon Gaston and J.B. Shuck should be credited to Lancaster, California.
After 2012, Carlos Lee is off the books, along with Roy Oswalt, Brandon Lyon. Berkman and Wandy Rodriguez come off after 2011. By then, the meat of Heck’s first drafts will be ready for the Major Leagues, perhaps just as Hunter Pence and Bud Norris are ready to hit their peak. Before that happens, it’s going to get worse in Houston. A lot worse.