Bryant, Kris 1509 (Mitchell)

What If The Astros Had Taken Kris Bryant?

As the 2012 amateur draft approached, there was little debate among experts as to who deserved the title of top right-handed starting pitcher. The talent, character, and charisma this young man possessed made him an easy selection. Yet, it was another word that set in place a series of events that led to his hometown Houston Astros passing over the young righty: signability.

Mark Appel finished his sparkling junior year at Stanford in style, striking out 130 batters in 123 innings en route to a 2.56 ERA. His on-field successes made him the consensus choice for the top overall pick, but his off-field pursuits—including completing his degree and continuing to assist with on-campus ministry opportunities—led some to wonder just how much money it would take to get him to forego his senior season at Stanford for the bright lights of the big leagues. Seven teams (including the Cubs) passed on Appel on draft day, as Pittsburgh eventually selected him eighth overall. The rumors swirling around the difficulty of signing Appel proved true, as he turned down Pittsburgh’s $3.8 million signing bonus offer to return for his senior season at Stanford. As fate would have it, Appel would be a part of the 2013 June draft.

For the average 20-year-old, turning down $3.8 million to play professional baseball is an unfathomable concept. Appel was not your average 20-year-old. His decision to return to Stanford and complete his degree paid off in spades, as he again dominated the Pac 12. The talented Appel managed to best his magnificent 2012 season, again striking out 130, but doing so with greater efficiency (5.65 K/BB) while posting a minuscule 2.12 ERA.

The Astros again possessed the first-overall pick in the 2013 draft. As June neared, Houston kept their preference for their first selection close to their vest. The Houston-born Appel seemed an obvious choice for the bat-heavy Astros system, but another young man was turning heads in San Diego.

Kris Bryant’s junior season at the University of San Diego may still be under-appreciated. If you’ve ever swung a BBCOR bat, you well know that this is a different animal entirely than the previous generation of monster-home-run-generating aluminum. Bryant’s 2013 season with the new, lifeless bats generated 31 home runs in 62 games, a staggering total considering 223 Division 1 schools failed to reach the mark as a team. 

Hindsight is a vicious way to judge a draft selection, but it is the measure we are obligated to use. On June 6, 2013, my own leanings for the Chicago Cubs second overall pick trended towards Appel. The Cubs system was already heavily-weighted towards bats, with Javier Baez, Albert Almora, and Jorge Soler headlining the impressive young group. Appel appeared to be the perfect complement to an already elite system. Yes, Bryant’s season had been impressive, perhaps even legendary, but conventional wisdom says that pitching rules the day.

The Astros were also connected to hard-throwing Oklahoma righty Jonathan Gray. The triumvirate of Appel, Gray, and Bryant formed a consensus top-three. The Astros selected Appel first overall, valuing his polish over Gray’s upside, to pair with their own impressive young offensive weapons, including George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa. The pick was generally lauded and met with enthusiasm. The future was very bright in Houston.

This left the Cubs to decide between Gray and Bryant, with many pundits predicting the selection would be Gray. After all, pitching wins championships. The Cubs, of course, did not select Gray. Bryant became the second overall selection, signing with the Cubs for $6.7 million.

To be certain, history has yet to write itself in judgment of these selections. Baseball lore is littered with stories of glittering minor-league stars, only to see them fail to adjust to the elite nature of big-league baseball. Only time will determine whether Bryant can fulfill his MVP-caliber promise, or whether Appel can ascend to be the top-of-rotation starter his pedigree suggested. Time is the great equalizer, and time alone will write the final chapter of this story.

But six games into Bryant’s major-league career, the Houston Astros undoubtedly would prefer a mulligan. Bryant has dominated at every level, hitting 55 home runs in 181 minor-league games, collecting a bevy of awards in the process. Bryant made his major-league debut on Friday, April 17, 2015. Widely regarded as the best prospect in baseball, Bryant was immediately inserted into the cleanup spot by Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Meanwhile, Appel has struggled through injury and ineffectiveness through his first three professional seasons, posting a 5.55 ERA and appearing in just 31 games.*

What if the Astros had taken Bryant first overall? Plenty has been made of the Cubs historic group of position player prospects, but would all of these accolades instead belong to the Astros had they selected Bryant over Appel? Let’s explore a bit of revisionist history to try and understand where the Astros lineup could be today and in the future.

The Astros already boast an impressive young lineup featuring 2014 American League batting champion Jose Altuve. With Bryant ready to come up and man the hot corner, would the Astros possibly have preferred to keep on-base specialist Dexter Fowler, considering the need to add Luis Valbuena was eliminated? Let’s assume this is the case, and also assume they still preferred Evan Gattis to any in-house options as designated hitter.

2015 Astros lineup:

Dexter Fowler – CF

Jose Altuve – 2B

George Springer – RF

Kris Bryant – 3B

Evan Gattis – DH

Chris Carter – 1B

Jed Lowrie – SS

Jason Castro – C

Robbie Grossman – LF

This lineup still leaves the Astros with impressive options off the bench, highlighted by promising young outfielder Jake Marisnick. But this isn’t the lineup that would make opposing pitchers shiver. Let’s take an in-depth look at an even scarier proposition, the 2016 Houston Astros lineup.

2016 Astros lineup:

Dexter Fowler – CF 

With Kris Bryant eliminating the need to trade for Valbuena, re-signing Fowler (or at least extending a qualifying offer) for 2016 and beyond would make perfect sense. Fowler brings a veteran presence and excellent on-base skills, perfect complements to the young core of power hitters behind him. Last season, MLB leadoff hitters averaged a mere .326 OBP, while Fowler carried a career .365 OBP into 2015.

Carlos Correa – SS

The highly touted 20-year-old brings a consensus top-5 prospect label with him. Correa possesses advanced bat skills far exceeding his age, crushing minor-league pitching to the tune of an .865 OPS, all while playing every level as one of the youngest participants in the league. Correa shows impressive plate discipline for such an inexperienced player, striking out just 17 percent of the time, while posting a healthy 10 percent walk rate. The combination of Fowler and Correa at the top could be deadly considering the man following them up is…

Jose Altuve – 2B

The 2014 American League batting, hits and stolen bases champion would surely salivate at the opportunity of also knocking in (a key arbitration valuation component) a substantial amount of runs. While Altuve does not possess home-run power, he does have ample gap-to-gap power, culminating in 47 doubles in 2014.

Kris Bryant – 3B

Similar to his current situation in Chicago, Bryant’s power would be ideally placed behind three efficient on-base machines. In 2014, Bryant led the minors in home runs with 43, to go along with 78 total extra base hits. Don’t let those stats fool you, Bryant is far from a one trick pony, as he posted a career 12 percent walk rate in the minors, to go along with a .326 average. Bryant’s ability to draw a walk would serve him well, considering the man placed behind him also possesses prodigious power. We should not shortchange Chicago’s developmental staff when evaluating Bryant’s success, as the transition to professional baseball is never an easy one. We will never know if Bryant would have found the same success working with Houston’s staff, but the impressive progression of Altuve, Correa, and Springer suggest it is a probability.

George Springer – RF

Springer provides some of the brightest tools, while also carrying some of the deepest flaws, of any major-league player. On the positive side of the ledger, Springer hit 20 home runs in just 345 at-bats in his rookie season. This, along with an impressive 11-percent walk rate, carried him to an excellent .304 TAv. Springer also brings great speed and athleticism to the game, exhibited by his 87 minor-league stolen bases. On the negative side, he struck out in an alarming 33 percent of his trips to the dish.  This concern has carried into his 2015 season, as his slow start has been highlighted by an unacceptable 36 percent K-rate. Springer still has the ability to become one of baseball’s biggest stars, but adjustments are necessary for him to make this a reality.

Evan Gattis – DH

While there are major questions regarding Gattis’ glove, the same can not be said about his bat. Gattis has been an extra-base hit machine in his brief career, posting 89 in just 769 at-bats. Gattis could stand to be a little more selective (career 5.5 percent walk rate), but his exceptional power has made up for it thus far.

Chris Carter – 1B

Chris Carter hits home runs (37 in 2014). Chris Carter draws walks (11 percent career rate). Chris Carter strikes out. A lot. Carter epitomizes the ‘Three True Outcome’ hitter, posting a walk, home run, or strikeout in a staggering 48 percent of his 2014 plate appearances. Believe it or not, this approach still resulted in an impressive .810 OPS.

Jason Castro – C

Castro may appear to be the weakest link, but it only takes going back one season to realize the offensive monster he can be. In 2013, Castro posted an impressive .305 TAv, highlighted by 44 extra-base hits and 50 walks. A return to 2013 form would make the former All-Star yet another formidable piece of this puzzle.

Robbie Grossman – LF

Grossman may be the forgotten man in this group, but you shouldn’t sleep on the .337 OBP he posted as a 24-year-old in 2014. Grossman made up for his lack of power by walking in 13 percent of his plate appearances. This type of approach works perfectly in the nine-hole, creating a pseudo second leadoff hitter coming back through the lineup.  This is the same type of approach Joe Maddon looks for in a ninth batter when placing his starting pitcher eighth in the order.

The 2016 Astros would still have a full complement of quality hitters off the bench, including Marisnick, Jonathan Singleton, Jonathan Villar, and Jed Lowrie. That is a potentially devastating offense loaded with power, speed, and athleticism, and not allowing for any external additions that could further bolster the lineup. The average age of this starting lineup would be just 26.4 years old.

I had every intention of outlining the Cubs lineup sans Bryant, but I simply cannot do it. Just six games into his major-league career, Bryant has already become a key presence in this lineup, making it difficult to imagine our lives without him.

In professional sports, championships are the only outcome history remembers. It’s the six titles that make people remember Bowie-over-Jordan. In no place could this be more poignant than the North Side of Chicago. Someday, will we remember Appel-over-Bryant with the same fondness? I’ll tell you this much, it won’t take six. Just give us one.


*This piece is in no way intended to disparage Mark Appel. Appel is a quality prospect in his own right, and one of my very favorite non-Cubs prospects. Appel is by all accounts a wonderful person, and I wish him the very best and hope for a successful 2015 season to get his career back on track.









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