June 6, 2013 – SECAUCUS, New Jersey. The Astros are on the clock with the first overall pick and have played things “close to the vest,” according to Baseball America. The suggested top 3 picks (in no particular order) are:
- Mark Appel (RHP), a “generational talent” out of Stanford, who declined to sign with the Pirates at 8th overall the prior year for $3.8 million and returned to Stanford for his senior year. The first overall slot is valued at double the $3.8 million he was offered the year before.
- Kris Bryant (3B/OF), the draft’s supposed “best slugger” out of the University of San Diego. Bryant is a college junior who lit up Division I pitching with a 1.037 OPS and 25 HRs in 48 games.
- Jonathan Gray (RHP), a junior out of the University of Oklahoma. Gray was picked in the 13th round out of high school by the Kansas City Royals in 2010, then picked in the 10th round of the 2011 draft by the New York Yankees, declining to sign with either team. Gray’s abilities have drawn comparisons to Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and have undergone a “metamorphosis” similar to Stephen Strasburg during his college days.
Each of the top three has supposedly been considered by the Astros prior to the draft, and according to most draft experts, there is no clear top choice.
The Astros step up to the podium and select Mark Appel first overall. The Cubs select Bryant, and the Rockies select Gray.
But what if the Astros had decided to pick either of the two other players in the top three? What if they had grabbed KB17 with that first overall pick?
Remember, the Astros had picked Carlos Correa first overall in the 2012 draft. Selecting Kris Bryant would shore up the left side of the infield for years to come. The Astros’ third-base play had been spotty at best, owing in part to general manager Jeff Luhnow’s tanking strategy. The Astros had an intriguing prospect in outfielder George Springer and a potential boom-or-bust third-base prospect in Rio Ruiz. Ruiz had been described as having a “low floor” but had player comparisons to Eric Chavez; Kris Bryant offered a much higher floor and a high ceiling as well.
But with the MLB draft, general managers typically select the best player available, since drafting and developing prospects is a wildly inexact science and player development is by no means a linear progression. So, even with Ruiz’s potential to be a very good third baseman, Kris Bryant would be a solid pick as well.
Assume that Bryant is instead selected first overall by the Astros and Appel goes second to the Cubs (Gray could go second or third, but let’s just assume it’s a straight swap). For the purposes of this scenario, also assume that Bryant and Appel develop as they did in their original systems, with Appel busting and Bryant reaching the majors and performing at a high level. And hold everything else constant, with other players developing exactly as they did in real life.
For the Cubs: Without Kris Bryant to hold down the hot corner, the Cubs are forced to rely on prospect Jeimer Candelario as their third baseman of the future and opt to sign Pablo Sandoval during the winter of 2014-15 to lock down the left side of the field until Candelario arrives in the majors. With Appel’s development stalling in their system, the Cubs opt to wait another year on the free-agent market. They don’t feel comfortable going all-in on Jon Lester in free agency and decide to wait until 2015-16 to pick up an ace pitcher. The Cubs struggle without their strong 1-2 punch of Jake Arrieta and Lester in 2015. The Cubs miss out on 7-8 wins due to the displaced WAR of a Rookie of the Year Bryant and Lester. They still grab a wild card spot. Arrieta still dominates the Pirates in the Wild Card game, but with little pitching depth behind Arrieta, the Cubs fall to the Cardinals. Still, with Candelario approaching the majors and Sandoval signed to a hefty long-term contract, the Cubs are getting ready to go all in. They still have some space left against the cap thanks to Arrieta’s immense surplus value and Rizzo’s cost-controlled contract.
In the 2015-16 offseason, the Cubs go all-in on the top three starting pitchers on the market, looking for one of David Price, Zack Greinke, or Johnny Cueto, who are each in their early 30s and will command big contracts. The Cubs, having missed out on the big free agents before, go hard on David Price, because he’s 30 years old, 2 years younger than Zack Greinke. Price’s contract is pretty hefty, roughly $10 million more than Lester’s original Cubs contract. Opting to avoid paying any more money, now that they’ve committed millions to Price and Sandoval, opt to platoon Jorge Soler and Albert Almora in the outfield and pass on signing Jason Heyward.
The Cubs don’t miss Jason Heyward’s 1.0 WAR accumulated in 2016 and get roughly the same amount of WAR from a combined Almora and Soler. The substitution of Price for Lester hurts the Cubs (Lester produced a 5.6 WAR in 2016), plus missing out on Kris Bryant’s MVP season hurts the Cubs even more, with Sandoval producing virtually nothing. The Cubs barely win the division this year, escaping the Cardinals. Because of the missing production of Bryant and Lester (2016 version), the Cubs will be forced to visit the Dodgers to open the NLDS, while the Giants face the Nationals in the NLDS. The Nationals (pre-Juan Soto and 2019) lose to the Giants. The Dodgers, with home-field advantage and facing a less-potent Cubs offense, force a pivotal Game 5 in Los Angeles. Clayton Kershaw pitches the game of his life, determined to erase struggles from previous playoff struggles. With no Heyward leadership to be found, the Cubs struggle to hit and lose in Game 5. The Dodgers face the Giants in the NLCS (even-year magic joke inserted here) in a great rivalry playoff series. Bumgarner vs. Kershaw twice in a seven-game series lives up to the hype. The Giants pull off a win in Game 7 (again, even-year magic) and reach the World Series. The 110-year curse lives on for the Cubs.
For the Astros: with no need to select Alex Bregman the following year (remember, they have Rio Ruiz and Kris Bryant in this scenario), the Astros have Kris Bryant as their third baseman of the future. Kris Bryant is an immediate upgrade over Luis Valbuena, with 2.5 WAR more in 2015. The Astros win the division over the Rangers and avoid having to face the Yankees in the Wild Card Game. The Rangers have to start Yovani Gallardo against the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez decides he wants to go out on a high note after a mediocre regular season and helps the Yankees beat the Rangers. The ability to save Dallas Keuchel for the Divisional Series against the Blue Jays, who don’t have a proven ace like David Price to help them, proves to be very convenient and pushes the Astros into the ALCS. Unfortunately, they fall to the Royals en route to their World Series title. Unfortunately, this means we get no Jose Bautista bat flip. No Rougned Odor/Jose Bautista beef, which might be the biggest travesty of this chain of events.
After 2015, Bryant keeps getting better. His 2016 MVP season–a big upgrade over Luis Valbuena, good as he was that year (and RIP)–propels the Astros into the playoffs again, this time into the Wild Card game. With no trade chip in Mark Appel, the Astros instead trade Derek Fisher (not the NBA Guard) to acquire Ken Giles to shore up their bullpen.
The Keuchel magic runs out and the Orioles (with Zack Britton in the bullpen) avoid giving up the big home run to Edwin Encarnacion. The Orioles still go on to lose in the next round and the Indians reach the World Series and face the Giants with their even-year magic. But the Indians, aided by an enthusiastic LeBron James and a city buzzing from the Cavs’ recent championship run, are enough to overcome any even-year shenanigans. The Indians win the World Series in 2016.
Meanwhile, Kris Bryant has another excellent season (slightly better than Alex Bregman’s real 2017) and the Astros still crush the competition en route to their first-ever World Series title. Do they still cheat? Maybe. But the damage is done and the ‘Stros win.
In short: The Cubs don’t win the World Series. We miss out on Jose Bautista’s epic bat flip. The Indians finally win the World Series. Kris Bryant improves the Astros in the short term (but Bregman’s recent (real-life) emergence means that Bryant is actually a bit of an expensive downgrade in the long run), the Astros lose a trade chip in Derek Fisher, but the long-term impact of Appel’s selection hurts the Cubs quite a bit.