HOUSTON It came as no shock when ber-agent Scott Boras strolled into the press conference room at Minute Maid Park on Monday. One of his higher-profile clients, Tampa (Fla.) Jesuit High right-handed pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., had agreed to terms with the Astros, and it was appropriate for Boras to be present to summarize the negotiation.
What was stunning to hear was Boras outline how the history Astros first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow shared with his previous employer, the St. Louis Cardinals, played a role in those negotiations. Not only had Luhnow earned plaudits for his handiwork leading the Cardinals' draft for seven years, the specifics with which how the club carefully cultivated and developed pitchers struck a chord with Boras.
"The great thing is that we had a history with Jeff when he worked for the Cardinals and the development of players," Boras said. "There was a real understanding of metrics and the coaching staff and the personnel needed to do that. Once those things are brought forward we're talking about a high school athlete of Lance's ability making a commitment, and how he's developed is very important. And it was very clear from the onset that Lance and his family and we were very comfortable with the design and the plans that Jeff and the Astros staff have put in place for Lance."
The Astros signed McCullers, the 41st overall selection in the first-year player draft, to a reported bonus of 2.5 million. That figure is 1,241,300 above the recommended amount for that slot and represents a master plan under execution by the Astros, who signed sixth-round pick Brett Phillips (Seminole, Fla.) to a bonus 98,100 above the recommended slot value of 210,900, and will likely offer fourth-round pick Rio Ruiz (La Puente, Calif.) and 11th-round pick Hunter Virant (Camarillo, Calif.) bonuses well above their assigned slot values.
That dollar figures weren't exclusively in play with McCullers is noteworthy. Luhnow proudly rattled off the names of right-handers Shelby Miller (first round, 19th overall in 2009), Lance Lynn (1, 39 in 2008), Mitchell Boggs (5, 170 in 2005) and Jason Motte (19, 575 in 2003) as farm system success stories. Boras, loathed in many corners throughout baseball, offered tangible proof of how Luhnow's prior developmental record in St. Louis paved the path toward an agreement.
"The conversations between Scott and I revolved probably more around development philosophy, approach, health, conditioning all of those elements that go into preparing a major-league pitcher," Luhnow said. "More of our time was spent on that than dollars and cents.
"We both agreed that that was something we had a common mind with because when you have a young man with this kind of talent and you're asking him to forego college and come into the pro ranks, we've all seen the numbers. There are a lot of pitchers that get injured on the way up that don't make it for one reason or another. It's a big sacrifice to forgo an opportunity to go to a great school (McCullers signed with national powerhouse Florida) and be in a competitive environment."
That McCullers is the son of a major leaguer (his father Lance Sr. pitched for parts of seven seasons with the Padres, Yankees, Tigers and Rangers), was committed to Florida, and under the advisement of Boras inspired the "signability" tag that led teams to shy from selecting him. In scouting circles he was considered a mid-first-round talent, and the Astros had no qualms offering a bonus in line with that evaluation.
The White Sox signed Courtney Hawkins, taken 13th overall, to a bonus of 2.475 million. The Mets picked Gavin Cecchini 12th overall and signed him to a bonus of 2.3 million, just under the slot figure of 2.55 million. Ultimately, McCullers received what was deemed his due.
However, the issue of nurturing an arm with such upside resonated. McCullers finished 13-0 with a 0.18 ERA over 77 13 innings while earning Gatorade High School Player of the Year honors and All-America accolades from Louisville Slugger and Baseball America. His innings pitched marked a significant jump from his junior season, and the Astros will exercise caution once McCullers reports to the Gulf Coast League and if he makes the jump to their rookie affiliate, Greeneville.
"We were looking for a team that would take care of him and not abuse him because this is the first year he's thrown a lot of innings," McCullers Sr. said. "He threw almost 80 innings of high school and I think last year he only threw like 30 innings of high school. So it's going to be a process for him to pitch as a starter, and we were hoping for an organization that would take it slow with him and go from there."
Armed with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and occasionally touches triple digits, McCullers (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) also possesses two breaking balls in his repertoire described as plus-plus pitches. He served in a multitude of roles prior to his senior season, at which time he began to focus intently on pitching. The results were favorable.
No longer considered a thrower with exceptional velocity, McCullers dominated prep batters so resoundingly that Boras compared him to Angels All-Star right-hander Jered Weaver, an overwhelming force during his final season at Long Beach State when he claimed the 2004 Dick Howser Trophy and Roger Clemens Award after posting a 15-1 record and 1.62 ERA with 213 strikeouts and 21 walks in 144 innings.
McCullers' desire to commit to improving caught the attention of the scouting community, with many labeling him the nation's top prep arm.
"His talent base obviously made him attractive, but his profile changed where you felt much stronger about him being a major-league starting pitcher," Astros scouting director Bobby Heck said. "There are things that he showed this spring in the progress he made: his strike-throwing became better; he commanded his fastball better; he threw both breaking balls for strikes; he maintained his velocity deep into games. That made the profile stronger for him and the investment we made in him."
The Astros considered themselves lucky that McCullers remained on the board when they made their second selection earlier this month. Now that they have committed fully to McCullers, their hope is that his newfound interest in pitching exclusively pays future dividends.
"I think I really just fell in love with pitching," McCullers Jr. said. "I was never a pitcher only; I was always a guy that played the field first and came to the mound when the team needed me. As I started coming to the mound more I realized that pitching is something that I wanted to do more than play the field and hit. I realized where my true love was, and you fall in love with pitching. It's a game inside a game.
"My transformation from a thrower to a pitcher has come a long way, but I have a long way to go."
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