First overall picks are nothing new for Mike Elias. The Houston Astros amateur scouting director helped select Carlos Correa in 2012 then made the call to draft Mark Appel first overall in 2013.
But it wasn’t always this way. Before he enjoyed an annual shot at the best amateur player available, Elias got his start searching for impact players in the late rounds with the St. Louis Cardinals under Jeff Luhnow, now Houston’s general manager. After years in one of baseball’s premier organizations, Elias joined one of its most talent-deprived franchises in 2012, soon after Luhnow was named Houston’s GM.
In the past two years, the Astros have improved their farm system considerably, and it’s one of the primary reasons for optimism in Houston. While the first overall selections have accelerated the Astros’ rebuild, they’re focused on finding impact big leaguers as deep into the draft as possible.
“You may feel at the time that you were targeting a role player just based on his profile or your perceived lack of upside and the guy might surprise you and end up becoming an everyday player, an All-Star or even better,” Elias says, pointing to 13th round selection Matt Carpenter.
Five short weeks from now Elias gets yet another first overall pick thanks to Houston’s continued struggles at the big league level. This time NC State lefty Carlos Rodon, high school lefty Brady Aiken and East Carolina righty Jeff Hoffman rank among the top prospects in a class featuring lots of arms.
As the person responsible for keeping Houston’s farm system stocked with impact players, Elias takes long looks at 80-100 players and views hundreds more in high school showcase events, tournaments and collegiate summer leagues. It’s a never-ending process, especially in a year that Houston has three of the top 42 picks.
Sportsnet caught up with Elias recently, getting his thoughts on some of Houston’s top prospects, his draft philosophy, ways to find talent late and why scouting is a humbling profession. The transcript below has been edited for clarity:
What should we expect from recently-promoted outfield prospect George Springer?
“He was one of the top talents in our farm system, so I think it’s indicative of the fact that a lot of these players are going to start arriving soon in the next couple of years.
“That said he’s still a young player, and any minor league player going through the minor leagues is going to face a transition and adjustment period. I don’t know that we have any particular expectations of him this year other than to keep working hard, continue getting better and refine his craft. Either way it’s going to be fun to watch him play because he’s got an electric set of tools. He’s got a plus arm, he’s a plus runner and he’s got above average power on top of the fact that he’s a pretty good hitter. He’s a real exciting guy to watch play the game because of all the physical ability that he has, so even if it takes some time to adjust to the pitching at the MLB level, he’s going to bring a lot of excitement and energy to the ballpark and to the lineup.”
“What’s impressive about him is it’s not a one-dimensional raw power where he can only pull the ball or he only hits mistake pitches or can only hit a certain type of pitching. He’s able to put the ball out to all fields and he has a very complete game. He’s an impact defender in centre field and he can throw and run, so power’s just a part of his game.”
What convinced you to select Mark Appel first overall in 2013?
“To see him come back his senior season at Stanford and get even better and basically elevate his game on all fronts, have his best season yet and show up night after night and have a great start, really solidified him in our eyes and in a lot of teams’ eyes as a top of the draft talent. There were a lot of good choices, but we felt to get somebody who we viewed as a potential anchor for a rotation that’s going to throw 200 innings per year and be an above-average MLB starter, it’s not very easy to find and we thought with Mark’s track record and ties to Houston on top of it. Plus he’s intelligent with a bulldog mentality he brings to the mound, so it really made it hard for us to pass up."
How was Appel adapted as a professional?
“He had a start [recently] where he was back to his peak velocity, sitting 95-96 and touching 97-98 [mph] which is what we’d seen from him in the past and what he’s capable of. It’s exciting to see him ramped up to full strength and he has continued to adapt to the pro throwing schedule after four years in college. With the arm strength and the physical strength he has he’s really going to take off. We’re excited about him going forward and what he’s shown us so far. He’s got as good stuff as anyone in our organization.”
Is it satisfying to see players nearing MLB, or are you simply focused on reducing the number in the loss column?
“It’s more the latter. We’re happy with the players that we’ve drafted or traded for. Looking at the system as a whole we’re pleased with the depth we’ve put together and definitely feel that things are moving in the right direction. That said, it doesn’t really mean anything until they arrive in the major leagues and produce at the Major League level. You never know for sure, when each of these kids is going to adapt and perform.
"There’s a failure rate in this game that applies very heavily to prospects and we’re aware of that. We know that some of these guys are going to get up there and click and some of them it won’t, but that’s why we keep adding as many as possible and developing them in as smart a way as we possibly can. We definitely don’t feel like we’re anywhere near done and want to see these guys progress to the Major Leagues and help the team there before we deem any of them a success.”
What do you see in the 2014 draft class?
“It’s a good class. There’s a lot of high school pitching this year. I’d say that’s the main thing that characterizes the class this year. There’s a lot of high school pitchers that are impact arms at the top and there’s a lot of depth to the class. I think we’re going to see several first rounders who are high school pitchers this year. I would also say there’s some power bats in the college ranks, guys who play a corner position – maybe third base, first, left field, right field in college and have done some damage during the college season. Those are really the two groups of players that stand out in this class.
"Overall we’re pleased with the level of talent. I think it’s probably a notch better than last year’s class, it’s a little stronger and we’re pretty happy about that because not only do we have the 1-1 pick, but we have three in the top 50."
Is there a point in the draft that you stop looking for MVPs, All-Stars and Cy Young winners?
“It’s a good question and it’s a difficult one to answer because the reality of the situation is that you may feel at the time that you were targeting a role player just based on his profile or your perceived lack of upside and the guy might surprise you and end up becoming an everyday player, an all-star or even better. We drafted Matt Carpenter in the 13th round [in St. Louis], and in all honesty we liked him, but I don’t think anyone was in the draft room saying ‘this guy’s going to get MVP votes in a few years.’
"It’s part of the nature of the business both good and bad that the players are going to surprise you beyond your wildest imagination sometimes. What we try to do in our approach is we recognize the reality that that variability exists in the game and we try to relentlessly pursue value and smart investments up and down the 40 rounds of the draft. Just because the first few rounds are over, we’re not going to flick off a switch and say ‘hey OK now it’s just a bunch of filler players and we’re just going to start drafting to fill out our Appalachian League roster, or we’re just going to start taking somebody’s nephew.’
"We try to look for guys who might surprise us in the long run with each pick. I think because we’ve put such an emphasis on that and because we’ve listened so closely to our local area scouts who are on the ground, who have seen these later round picks first-hand and are oftentimes the only ones who have seen the players first-hand. It enabled us to have some good luck with some of those later picks and hopefully we’ll get the same results in Houston.”
Why is it that you have called scouting a humbling profession?
“There’s a lot of uncertainty involved. I think it’s like any undertaking where you’re trying to predict the future. You’re not going to get it right. Your goal is to get it more right than wrong and your goal is to get it more right than the next team, but it’s impossible to make every call properly, to forecast every player’s career properly. I think it’s just because you’re trying to predict human future behaviour. Human beings are unpredictable.
"There’s a lot that goes on between their earns that we’re never going to fully understand and it dictates a lot of what happens with the futures of these guys. That said, it is humbling in the sense that oftentimes something completely unexpected will happen and you’ve got it wrong, but we realize that’s part of the business and we try to be right more often than we’re wrong and over time the ledger will tilt in our favour if that’s the case."
How much does the mental side of the game determine what kind of player a prospect becomes?
“Enormously. I think one of the biggest drivers of future success in baseball is this concept that we call makeup. It’s hard for people to define it fully. There are some guys that get by on natural ability and maybe don’t have the best makeup in terms of maximizing their abilities, and yet when the game starts they’re very competitive or they have the right amount of relaxation when they’re at the plate or on the bound, or maybe we’re talking about someone that just has an insane work ethic. There are just so many ways that someone can have good or bad makeup and it’s hard for us to determine that. Our scouts try and do a pretty good job of it, but it’s probably one of the most unpredictable things that we deal with and I don’t think anyone that’s been around the game or played will tell you that it’s not of the utmost importance. It’s something we try hard to get right and we know it’s really important but it’s always going to be a little mysterious for us.”
How much can a player evolve from draft day to the point that he debuts?
“People can change a lot during those years. Guys settle down, they get married, they change physically, there’s a lot that happens. We do our best, and you do get better with it with experience and you try to ultimately trust your instincts and your judgment about the players and their personalities, but you’re realistic about the fact that you’re not going to nail everybody.”