HOUSTON – On June 27 in Cincinnati, Kris Bryant – the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft – became the first player in history to hit three home runs and two doubles in a major-league game. And a National League MVP campaign was launched.
Two days later, right-hander Mark Appel – the player selected ahead of Bryant in that draft – underwent surgery for bone chips on his elbow. And his Class AAA season was over.
“There’s a history lesson to be learned about the risk with pitchers vs. position players,” said Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who passed on Bryant to take Appel – and who ultimately, last December, traded Appel to the Phillies in a deal that included the Astros’ closer for the last month, Ken Giles.
Talk about lessons.
In his first game against the team that chose not to draft him, Bryant christened Minute Maid Park with a two-run homer in the fifth Friday off Joe Musgrove in the opener of a three-game interleague series.
“But that’s a history lesson that’s been laid out over a long period of time,” Luhnow added. “Having said that, if you want an impact pitcher, you have to gamble.”
To be sure, Luhnow’s front office has enough success with their first-round gambles in recent years to make the playoffs last year and enter the weekend in the thick of the American League wild-card race.
Those picks included the selection of last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, Carlos Correa, with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012; Friday’s starting shortstop Alex Bregman with the No. 2 overall pick in 2015; and promising starter Lance McCullers with the 41st overall pick in 2012.
And to be fair, the Cubs said Appel, the polished Stanford pitcher, was the top player on their draft board in 2013 and were prepared to select him if the Astros took Bryant.
Of course, Theo Epstein’s Cub front office never got the chance to prove it would have reversed a decade of draft philosophy and risk-averse behavior in first-round decision-making, because Luhnow’s crew took that decision out of Esptein’s hands.
“Thank you,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, whose club was playing Friday for a 90th victory of the season with 22 to play.
“We probably wouldn’t be nearly as good as we are without him,” Maddon said.
Bryant’s home run Friday was his 37th of the season, tying Colorado’s Nolan Arenado for the league lead. He bumped his RBI total to 93. He already led the majors in runs before that 114th. And he entered the series with the league’s second-leading OPS (.976).
“We loved him. And we had him very high on the board,” Luhnow said of the College Player of the Year and consensus top-ranked hitter in the draft that year. “We chose to go with the pitcher instead.”
Jeff Luhnow, right, with Astros manager A.J. Hinch
Bryant was the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year the year after that. Then he debuted the following April and went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award. He’s the MVP favorite in his league this year.
And if he keeps up this pace, he might make the Hall of Fame by 25 – maybe even share top billing on MLB’s marquee with Mike Trout.
But even if history chooses to tell the story of the 2013 draft as a failed No. 1 pick, it seems more about an organization-building philosophy and baseball decision more than an evaluation gap.
Either way, it’s not something Luhnow allows to become a what-if game in his mind.
“I really don’t,” he said. “We’ve got Carlos Correa. We’ve got Alex Bregman. We’ve got Lance McCullers. Our scouting department has done a nice job with the draft.
“You can always look back and say I should have taken this player instead of that player, but there’s no reason to really dwell on it. I’m happy for Kris Bryant’s success. And I’m happy for the success of the guys that we have.”