A year ago, Jeff Luhnow was preparing for another MLB Rule 4 Draft as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, his seventh running the show. This year he's in the spotlight as the first-year general manager of the Houston Astros, the team with the first-overall pick in a draft that's widely considered to be lacking a consensus No. 1 player.
One of the perks when I played volunteer journalist last summer was the chance to gain access to not only the players but also front office types like Luhnow. I had scheduled an interview with Luhnow around the trade deadline last year to discuss Brett Wallace for a piece I wanted to write about the former Cardinals prospect's unusual journey to the big leagues.
But days before our meeting, the Cardinals and Blue Jays executed a trade that sent Colby Rasmus, Luhnow's first draft choice in his new role with the team, north and brought several key pieces to the Cardinals' World Series victory in return. The focus of my interview immediately changed; it would now be a discussion revolving around three of Luhnow's first-round picks - the aforementioned Wallace, the newly traded Rasmus and the Next Big Thing in the Cardinals' system, Shelby Miller.
I used the Wallace quotes for the original story, but much of the discussion regarding Rasmus and Miller went unused due to September and October's unlikely happenings. Luhnow didn't offer many thoughts on selecting first overall - I'm a writer, not a psychic - so the quotes will offer little insight as to whether he's leaning towards Mark Appel or Byron Buxton with his selection Monday night. But with much of Cardinal Nation's attention split between watching which direction Luhnow goes with his first pick and hoping the Cardinals make good use of their own multitude of early picks, it seemed as good a time as any to share some of Luhnow's thoughts (circa July 2011) on drafting, the St. Louis Cardinals' system and Miller's future going forward:
Luhnow on draft mentality in general:
"You don't go into the draft thinking 'I'm going to take somebody and then trade him' because you never know when those opportunities are going to become available. So what you do is, as a player development person or as a scout, you draft players that you think can get to the big leagues and ultimately beat someone ... for their job. Somewhere along the way, if we end up with too many at one spot and not enough at another spot it becomes likely that you're going to trade from your surplus than your deficit. And in the case of Colby we have a very adequate replacement for him here in Jon Jay.
"So the dropoff from Colby to Jon Jay ... some would argue it's not a dropoff. Some would argue you're replacing Colby with a better player. Wherever you stand on that issue, do (those trades) hurt our depth? Absolutely. Did we have someone ready to step in and produce at this level and help us win? Absolutely. So we were dealing from an area where we feel we have some surplus. And we've got more outfielders in the minor leagues - we've got Adron Chambers, we've got Alex Castellanos, we've got Oscar Taveras coming. So we feel like there's a pretty good stable of outfielders that can come up and eventually replace what we lost."
(Note: Castellanos was later traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in return for Rafael Furcal. Trading from a surplus indeed.)
On whether the Cardinals would look elsewhere early in the draft given their perceived wealth of right-handed pitching prospects:
"Right-handed starting pitchers who have a chance to be a No. 1 or No. 2 in the big leagues, it's impossible to have a surplus of those guys. Do we have a surplus of guys who could be fours and fives? Probably. But ones and twos, no. So you can't lump all right-handed pitchers together and say we have a surplus. Because very few clubs believe they have a surplus of ones and twos."
On why the club drafted Shelby Miller, a talented high school pitcher who fell in the 2009 Draft due to concerns about his signability, while passing on Rick Porcello, another talented but tough to sign HS pitcher, in 2007:
"For us, there were differences in terms of how we saw the pitchers from strictly a talent evaluation (perspective). They were both clearly excellent pitchers that deserved to be drafted in the top half of the first round. Our feeling was that Shelby Miller was going to sign for an amount significantly south of what he and his camp had been saying, which probably dissuaded a few teams from taking him. But we really felt like the amount he was going to sign for was pretty close to what we thought his value was.
"In the case of Rick Porcello, there was more of a gap between what he was asking for and what we perceived his value to be - and given who his representation was, we felt like they were probably going to stick to their amount. They wanted a major league deal, and we weren't prepared to give that. So there were other factors in consideration."
On trading highly regarded prospects:
"They're all baseball and business decisions at the end of the day. And to me, there can't be an untouchable player because eventually someone is going to offer you enough that it's going to make it compelling - if that player is indeed valuable to other organizations as well. We talk about Carlos Martinez and Shelby Miller, they have the potential to be elite starters at the big league level within the next three-to-five years. There's tremendous value in that. So we can quantify more or less what that value is.
"For us to give that up, we would have to be pretty certain we're getting at least that amount of value back. And there's just not that much of it out there. So it would be very difficult for a club to offer us something that would equal what we have already. Now, you can fall in love with your own prospects and overvalue your own prospects, which is why you have to constantly think about it and talk to different people and make sure that you're not doing that.
"But the greatest value you capture in a player is in their zero-to-three years, before they're arbitration eligible. You're paying them the minimum, and if they're an above average player you're benefiting from a lot more than that. Once you get to free agency, the value versus the cost is a lot closer together, and sometimes inverted. So it's hard to trade an asset that you know has yet to create the value and in the first three years is going to create tremendous amount of value. So that's what we mean when we say we want to protect what we have in our system."
Perhaps this was more of an exercise in quote-dumping than actual storytelling, but I think there are some interesting things to be gleaned from Luhnow's answers that relate to the Cardinals in the upcoming draft. With two first-round picks and five in the first 59, there is speculation that the Cardinals could be a destination for a prospect who falls due to signability concerns a la Miller in '09.
Luhnow's answer hinted that, while the organization has no problem paying a young player a significant amount of money, they need to feel as though the player is worthy of such a payday. If the Cardinals do go in that direction Monday night, it will only be because they feel strongly about the type of talent they're drafting.
And with the Cardinals' success in drafting and developing right-handed pitchers - along with Miller and Martinez, the Cardinals' system also boasts highly regarded prospect Tyrell Jenkins, currently disabled Jordan Swagerty and the rising Trevor Rosenthal as well - there is a sentiment that the Cardinals should look elsewhere with their high picks, a sentiment Luhnow seemed to dispel given the opportunity to draft a difference-maker with your first pick. While another right-handed pitcher in the early rounds might not be a sexy selection, if it does happen, it will probably be used on a guy the organization views as a potential front-of-the-rotation starter down the road.
Whichever way the Cardinals go Monday night and early Tuesday, it should be fun to watch and discuss.