2014 Draft Preview: Astros Will Pick No. 1 Again, Sorting Through Pitching-Heavy Class

In 2007-08, the Rays became the first team to pick No. 1 overall in consecutive drafts. They got David Price, one of the game’s top pitchers, and Tim Beckham, who has reached the majors but has yet to live up to his $6.15 million signing bonus and who now is recovering from an offseason knee injury.

The Nationals repeated the back-to-back No. 1 routine immediately thereafter, with better timing. The 2009 and ’10 drafts had clear, runaway No. 1 talents in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who led the Nats to the National League East title in 2012.

Now the Astros will trump them both. This June’s draft will be the third consecutive year Houston has selected No. 1 overall, a draft first, and the franchise joins the Mets and Padres as the only teams with the dubious distinction of making the No. 1 pick five times.

Tyler Kolek

Fireballing Tyler Kolek could go No. 1 (Photo by Mike Janes)

The 50th edition of the draft, scheduled for June 5-7, with the first two rounds broadcast live on MLB Network, will be dominated by pitching, specifically hard-throwing pitchers. The Astros figure to set the tone with the first pick, and as they showed in 2012, they’re not afraid to do something different. The front office plans to use the same vetting process it has used in selecting Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa (2012) and Stanford righthander Mark Appel (2013).

“We’ve refined it year to year but have not fundamentally altered our process,” Astros scouting director Mike Elias said. “Basically our approach through the whole draft is to keep the group (of potential No. 1 picks) as large as possible so we don’t back off a player too soon and miss out on information, and so we remain prepared for situations if guys get hurt, or if ultimately we feel we may not be able to sign the player.”

The Astros convened their first meeting to discuss the No. 1 pick in January, and Elias said several players remain in the running for the top selection. Elias wouldn’t name names, but the Houston Chronicle reported that the Astros’ group consists of three college pitchers, Jeff Hoffman, Aaron Nola and Carlos Rodon; two San Diego preps, lefthander Brady Aiken and catcher/outfielder Alex Jackson; San Francisco outfielder Bradley Zimmer; and Texas prep righthander Tyler Kolek.

Hoffman’s subsequent elbow injury and scheduled Tommy John surgery removed him from consideration for the top pick.

Rodon, the North Carolina State lefthander, entered the year as the top player on nearly every team’s draft board, after leading the country with 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings last spring and dominating Cuba at the end of a strong summer for Team USA. Rodon has embodied a disappointing season for the Wolfpack, however, going 4-7, 1.87 with a 10.6 K/9 rate that matches his freshman performance. In general, Rodon’s stuff has not been as crisp as it was in 2013, with his fastball velocity consistently reaching 92-94 mph only in mid-April. His mid-80s slider remains the best breaking ball in the draft.

Rodon remains in the mix at the top, but he has come back to the pack while Aiken and Kolek have improved significantly. Aiken has shown better velocity to go with polish and pitchability. He attends the same high school that produced Mark Prior and Barry Zito, who both attended Southern California before becoming first-round picks and major league aces.

Max Pentecost

Max Pentecost is among the top available hitters. (Photo courtesy Kennesaw State)

Scouts and decision-makers expect pitchers to dominate the first round and much of the first 10 rounds of the draft. Scouts from area supervisors to scouting directors believe 50 or more of the 75 picks in the first two rounds could be used on pitchers, and that the early rounds may feature 60-70 percent pitchers.

“We’re going to make a lot of hitters look better than they are,” a National League scouting director said. “We’re going to draft guys higher than they usually would be drafted. And many of the kids who can hit don’t have a definite position. But there is good depth with the pitchers, especially high school pitchers.”

The hitters who figure to work their way into the first 20 picks, aside from Jackson and Zimmer, include Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto, N.C. State shortstop Trea Turner and Kennesaw State catcher Max Pentecost. Corner bats such as Wichita State’s Casey Gillaspie and national home run leader A.J. Reed, a lefthander/first baseman at Kentucky, have hit their way into the 20-40 range, but few other college hitters were being considered that high.

Tough To See

The volume of potential first-round arms has complicated scouting directors’ ability to evaluate them all. Further clouding the process has been an increasing trend of high school teams playing games on Fridays, which usually is when most top college pitchers start. Teams have had to line up the pitchers on their draft boards early to get the number of looks necessary from their top decision-makers.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES AND TWO PICKS
2014 Houston: Astros, Texans
2010 Washington: Wizards (John Wall), Nationals (Bryce Harper)
2008 Tampa Bay: Rays (Tim Beckham), Lightning (Steven Stamkos)
2004 San Diego: Chargers (Eli Manning-z), Padres (Matt Bush)
1983 Minnesota: Twins (Tim Belcher-y), North Stars (Brian Lawton)
1966 New York: Mets (Steve Chilcott), Knicks (Cazzie Russell)
y-Did not sign
z-Traded to Giants for Philip Rivers

“The problem is all the high school guys pitching on Fridays—Texas, Florida, Georgia, Virginia,” another scouting director said. “Last year it happened a little bit, but this year it’s blown up even worse. It’s been a big issue this year.”

Most clubs call in extra evaluators to scout players toward the top of the draft, such as the Cubs sending Kerry Wood to go see the latest Texas fireballer, Kolek. Enos Cabell saw every player the Astros considered at the top of last year’s draft, and this year Houston’s special assistants include Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio and Roger Clemens. Ryan caused a stir when he loaded up his truck with big league manager Bo Porter and bench coach Dave Trembley and drove to see Kolek make what turned out to be the last start of his prep career.

“Most organizations have a team of special assistants that they deploy; it just so happens that ours are rather recognizable,” Elias said. “The zeal and enthusiasm with which they embrace amateur scouting—the travel, the process—it’s really impressive. They bring a lot to our discussions, different perspectives, where as a staff at times we get tied up in the history we’ve had with a player.

“They have a feel for the Astros organization and the city, who fits, and that brings an important element to our evaluation.”

Signability will remain a crucial element for every team’s evaluation. The Astros have $13,362,200 in their signing-bonus pool, and despite picking first the previous two seasons, they have not paid out the largest bonus in either class. That has gone to the No. 2 overall selections, Byron Buxton (Twins, ’12) and Kris Bryant (Cubs, ’13).