Any 2013 MLB re-draft would naturally put Kris Bryant ahead of Mark Appel. Bryant’s meteoric rise and Appel’s anticlimactic bust have naturally piqued revisionist historians’ imaginations. But in reality, the Cubs’ good fortune that draft began long before June.
With the summer hurtling toward the 2020 draft, it’s worth looking at one of the Cubs’ most successful draft picks in the last decade from a different angle. Under different circumstances, the selection easily could have been one of the club's biggest busts.
Musing on what would have happened if the Astros had selected Bryant first overall, rather than Appel, is all well and good. But the Astros’ selection fell in line with conventional wisdom. It’s no secret that Appel had been at the top of the Cubs’ draft board as well. Instead, the question becomes, what if Chicago had actually had the choice between Bryant and Appel that fateful summer? What if, in the race to the bottom of the standings, the Cubs had won, securing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft?
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein both understood that in order to pull their respective clubs out of mediocrity, their teams would have to get worse before they could get better. In 2012, the Cubs and Astros were both bad. but Houston’s tank job was particularly masterful.
Houston came in last by a comfortable margin, ending the season six games back of Chicago. Winning just 55 games, the Astros set a new low for the franchise. (The next year, the team would go 51-111.)
But what if the Astros hadn’t committed so ardently to starting over, or the exhaustion of a losing season had weighed on the Cubs a little more heavily?
Let’s imagine an alternate universe in which Chicago slips into last place. With the No. 1 overall pick, the Cubs select Appel, widely considered a low-risk, high-reward choice. Instead, Appel’s career plays out much the way it did in reality. Plagued by injuries, Appel retires in 2018. He’s 26 years old and has never pitched in a big-league game.
The first-round miss slows the Cubs’ rebuild. They barely miss the playoffs in 2015. So, there’s no upset of the Cardinals in the NL Division Series. Ownership doesn’t see value in spending extra ahead of the 2016 season.
In 2016, the Cubs make the postseason but have to face the Giants in a Wild Card game. San Francisco eliminates them in a close game -- those one-run playoffs games between the Cubs and Giants remain a constant between these two parallel universes.
So, a 108-year drought stretches to 109. The rebuild continues.
When the Cubs pick Appel No. 1 overall, the Astros may not select Bryant, the best position player in the 2013 draft. They may take another pitcher, right-hander Jonathan Gray, who Houston was also reportedly considering in 2013. Bryant may fall to the Rockies and reap the benefits of hitting at Coors Field, in the thin Colorado air.
But it’s even more interesting to imagine the Astros drafting Bryant.
“We loved him,” Luhnow said in 2016 of Bryant. “And we had him very high on the board,”
Bryant thrives as part of a young Houston core. With a batting order of George Springer-Bryant-Jose Altuve-Carlos Correa, the Astros take momentum into the playoffs and win the 2016 World Series.
In the real world, MLB’s investigation this year found that in 2017 the Astros began using the live feed from a center field camera to steal opposing teams' signs. In our alternate universe, Houston’s World Series victory remains untainted. Even more optimistically, maybe the rings on the Astros’ fingers keep them from stealing signs and banging on trash cans all together.
So, Bryant ends up raising a World Series trophy whether he’s selected by the Cubs or Astros.
As for the Cubs, when former Chicago manager Joe Maddon was asked in 2016 about the Astros selecting Appel No. 1 overall, Maddon had two words for Houston: “Thank you.”