Appel Heads Thin Class For Second Straight Year

There’s a sense of déjí  vu with the 2013 draft.

Once again, the Astros have the No. 1 overall pick. Stanford righthander Mark Appel will enter the spring as the top prospect for the second straight year. And teams remain underwhelmed by the overall talent available.

“It’s not a great class,” a National League scouting director said. “I guess the strength of the draft would be college pitching, especially at the top if you’re fortunate enough to pick up there. There are some good high school outfielders, and there’s some high school lefthanded pitching.

“But there aren’t a lot of college bats who have shown they can hit. I don’t remember a draft with as many high-profile college guys where you were really concerned about their ability to make contact. There aren’t a lot of up-the-middle players either.”

No prospect has separated himself from the pack in the manner of a Stephen Strasburg in 2009 or Bryce Harper in 2010. Given the talent available and teams’ constant thirst for pitching, the draft could begin with the Astros, Cubs and Rockies taking Appel, Indiana State lefthander Sean Manaea and Arkansas righthander Ryan Stanek in some order. The only other time that a draft opened with three consecutive college arms was in 2011 with Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen and Trevor Bauer.

The best bets to break that pitching blockade are a pair of center fielders from high schools in Loganville, Ga., an Atlanta suburb with a population of 11,000. Grayson High’s Austin Meadows and Loganville High’s Clint Frazier are five-tool athletes who have played against and with each other since they were 9-year-olds in Little League. Meadows and Frazier highlight the difference between the up-the-middle talent in the high school and college classes. There’s no college catcher or shortstop projected to go in the first two rounds, and the most talented college outfielders may wind up in right field.

By contrast, Yukon (Okla.) High’s Jonathan Denney and Kentwood High’s (Covington, Wash.) Reese McGuire headline a deep prep catching crop. High school shortstops aren’t as plentiful, though Lakewood (Calif.) High’s J.P. Crawford and Gaither High’s (Tampa) Oscar Mercado are slick fielders who could fit in the first round. Crawford’s feel for hitting might boost him into the top 10 selections.

Limited Strategic Options

Teams had to adjust to major changes in the draft rules in 2012, the first year of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The CBA assigns teams bonus pools for the first 10 rounds and prescribes harsh penalties for exceeding them. Clubs have to pay tax on any overage, face the loss of a first-round pick for going 5 percent over their pool and forfeit two first-rounders if they go 15 percent over.

No team was willing to give up a premium draft choice last year, and just 11 spent enough to generate taxes. All told, clubs spent $208 million on bonuses, down from a record $236 million in bonuses and salaries in major league contracts (forbidden in the new CBA) in 2011. The 2012 spending still represented the second-highest total in draft history, and most of the decrease came because of a marked decline in the quality of the first seven picks, who signed for a combined $47 million in 2011 but garnered just $29 million a year ago.

Clubs found two strategies to gain financial flexibility, but no way to exploit the new rules. Some signed top choices for less than their assigned value and distributed that cash among later selections. The Astros paid top pick Carlos Correa $4.8 million (saving $2.4 million in pick value) and then landed supplemental first-rounder Lance McCullers Jr. for $2.5 million and fourth-rounder Rio Ruiz for $1.85 million.

Others gave most of their cash to their early picks and used later-round choices on college seniors, who have no negotiating leverage. The most notable example was the Blue Jays, who spent $8,910,000 on seven choices in the first three rounds and $31,000 on their next seven selections.

“There’s really only a couple of ways to play it,” an American League scouting director said. “There’s not a whole lot you can do to beat this system. You can save money early, you can take college seniors or you can play it straight up. To each his own.”

The assigned pick values will increase annually in proportion to the rise in MLB revenues. Teams have yet to receive the 2013 numbers but multiple sources project an increase of 6 to 8 percent.

Houston will have the largest pool at roughly $11.5 million. Washington will bring up the rear near $2.7 million after finishing with baseball’s best regular season record in 2012 and giving up its first-rounder to sign free agent Rafael Soriano.

The Astros join the 2009-10 Nationals as the only teams ever to have consecutive No. 1 overall picks. Mike Elias, in his first year as Houston’s scouting director after serving as a special assistant to general manager Jeff Luhnow last year, said the club currently has eight to 10 candidates for the top choice. The Astros will let the spring play out before determining how they’ll spread out their money.

“We’re trying to keep the book as open as possible,” Elias said. “We’ll try to scout as many players as possible, and I don’t think we’ll narrow the pool until late in the process. We’re approaching this whole thing as how to extract the most talent from the draft pool, from having 1-1 and having the largest bonus pool and then deciding how to deploy it.”

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