The Astros of 2004 and 2005 were a product of five years of successful drafting, primarily in the early rounds, when the onus is most heavily on the scouting department. Paul Lakey took over the Astros scouting department in 1997 after Dan O’Brien left for Texas (before ultimately becoming the Reds General Manager). A month before his first draft, Lakey signed a draft-and-follow left over from the 23rd round in O’Brien’s last draft: short flame-thrower Roy Oswalt. With that, the 2005 Astros had an ace.
A month later, Lakey walked into 16th pick in the 1997 draft, and with his first choice, took Lance Berkman, a big slugger from Rice. Suddenly the Killer B’s had a new member. The next year Lakey would again find a key contributor in the first round, drafting future closer Brad Lidge and also finding Morgan Ensberg in the 9th round (as well as John Buck and Keith Ginter in the first ten rounds). In his next three drafts, Lakey found contributing members for the 2005 team: right fielder Jason Lane in the sixth round of the 1999 draft, set-up man Chad Qualls in the second round of his 2000 draft, and utility man Chris Burke in the first round the next season. Over about 50 months from May 1997 to June 2001, Lakey laid the foundations for a pennant.
O’Brien also left behind an impressive resume of culling talent from Latin America (particularly in Venezuela), with the production mainly players that would eventually succeed elsewhere – Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and of course, Johan Santana. Lakey would continue to use the pipeline O’Brien built, landing 2005 fifth starter Wandy Rodriguez in 1999.
However, beginning in Lakey’s tenure, the Astros scouting department has always succeeded in spite of its owner. In Lakey’s seven drafts, the Astros didn’t sign six players they drafted in the first five rounds, a damning number and one that cost them Eric Byrnes, Pat Misch and Drew Stubbs. Lakey also drafted players like Lance Cormier, Michael Bourn and Trey Hodges in later rounds, only to watch them slip through his fingers.
Not until Lakey’s final draft did the Astros really splurge for a middle-round player. Given his success it shouldn’t be a surprise that the player, Troy Patton, was a gem. The Astros bought Patton away from Augie Garrido at Texas, and since, Patton has been among the Astros best (and only) prospects. You might think Patton’s success, and the success of the 2005 Astros might bring a change in McLane’s tight wallet on draft day. Wrong.
Lakey left the Astros after his 2004 draft, turning the scouting department over to Paul Ricciarni. In his first draft the Astros had, for them, an unusually high amount of picks in five rounds: seven. As a result, McLane drew the line at a certain point, costing the Astros third round pick Josh Lindblom. Lindblom, of course, ranked as the 15th prospect in my Cape Cod League list today, and should be taken even higher in next June’s draft. Ricciarni drafted more signable college players in 2006, but this season, McLane’s wallet produced one of the worst draft day hauls in recent memory. The Astros knew they wouldn’t have a pick until the third round because of a busy offseason, so they took a trio of high profile high schoolers in the fit eight rounds to mix with some low-ceiling solid college talent. By August 16, the Astros could not come to terms with all three, giving them three players in the first eight rounds and making 171st overall pick Collin Delome (from Lamar University) their first signed selection.
However, while Lakey succeeded in spite of McLane, Ricciarni’s scouting department has taken the Astros from one of the game’s best farm systems to one of the worst in very short order. Nothing describes this better than Kevin Goldstein’s Top 10 prospects list for the Astros from before the season. The team’s three “Very Good Prospects” – Jason Hirsh, Hunter Pence, Troy Patton – were the big money products of Lakey’s final two drafts. In the middle rounds of those drafts, Lakey found Justin Towles and James Barthmaier, two of the Astros four “Good Prospects.” A third, Matt Albers, was a 23rd round pick way back in 2001. Finally, of the team’s three listed “Average Prospects,” two were members of Lakey’s Latin America pipeline: Juan Gutierrez and Felipe Paulino. Even Kevin’s listed sleeper, Jordan Parraz, was a Lakey draft-and-follow.
More bluntly, just two members of the Astros offseason top 10 list were products of Paul Ricciarni. The higher of the two, Max Sapp, is having such a bad 2007 season that he was recently left off Kevin’s catcher positional rankings. The other, Brian Bogusevic, had an up-and-down season in the Carolina League before recently being moved up to Double-A, where he has allowed 18 earned runs in five starts spanning 19.1 innings. The best player Ricciarni has drafted in three years is Josh Lindblom, who will be among the Big Ten’s best prospects next spring.
The Astros problem has not been Tim Purpura in the last two seasons. Joe outlined a good argument that Purpura has too often had his hands tied by McLane. Unfortunately, McLane’s demands will not only hurt the Astros in the short term, but also in the long-term, as the team will soon have one of the game’s worst farm systems. If McLane wanted to show his fan base a commitment to winning, firing Tim Purpura wasn’t the answer.
Instead, Drayton, try reshuffling the scouting department. Or, better yet, throw them a bone. It wouldn’t have taken much more than a new General Manager’s salary to sign Derek Dietrich, Brett Eibner and Chad Bettis, and it would have done a lot more to securing future wins than most General Manager choices could hope to. Tim Purpura got screwed.