Astros Can Start Prepping For The First Pick

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CHICAGO—The Astros weren't expected to finish higher than fifth place in the National League Central, but they didn't envision the bottom dropping out quite like this. Houston set a franchise record with its 97th loss—on Sept. 11, with 16 games remaining in the season.

If there's a bright spot, it's that the Astros were so bad that they didn't need to make any pretense of playing for the present. By sending Michael Bourn to the Braves and Hunter Pence to the Phillies at the trade deadline, Houston gave its farm system a much-needed infusion of talent. The return included a first baseman/outfielder who immediately became their best position prospect (Jonathan Singleton) and three arms who rank as their top hopes on the mound (Jarred Cosart, Paul Clemens, Brett Oberholtzer).

Another consolation prize is the first selection in the 2012 draft, which Houston had all but locked up with two weeks to go. Next year's crop doesn't contain a Stephen Strasburg (2009) or Bryce Harper (2010), let alone a half-dozen worthy No. 1 candidates (2011), but it's always nice to have the pick of the litter.

The 2012 draft is still nine months away, but we're already looking ahead. On Page 53, you'll find our first official prospect list for next year's draft. Here you'll find an early look at how the first 10 picks could unfold, based on mid-September standings.

1. Astros: While we rank Stanford righthander Mark Appel as the No. 1 prospect, he hasn't separated himself from the rest of the pack. Astros scouting director Bobby Heck couldn't make his preference for up-the-middle talent any more clearer, as his top picks in four drafts with the club have been a catcher (Jason Castro), a shortstop (Jiovanni Mier), a second baseman (Delino DeShields Jr.) and a center fielder (George Springer).

That could lead Houston to Arizona State's Deven Marrero, who might have been the first shortstop drafted in 2011 had he been eligible as a sophomore. Marrero is a much better bet to produce offensively than Mier or Jonathan Villar (part of last year's Roy Oswalt trade) and is just as good defensively. True all-around shortstops are one of baseball's rarest commodities, especially in the draft.

As for the rest of the top 10 . . .

2. Orioles: For much of the last 25 years, Baltimore's best starting pitcher has been a Stanford product (Jeff Ballard, Mike Mussina, Jeremy Guthrie). That tradition can continue with Appel, who has drawn Justin Verlander comparisions for his overpowering stuff and still-in-progress command. Verlander also was a No. 2 overall pick.

3. Twins: Minnesota hasn't been able to keep Joe Mauer healthy behind the plate, making it impossible to get full value out of his $184 million contract. Florida catcher Mike Zunino would allow Mauer to move to a less taxing position and provide much-needed power to the Twins lineup.

4. Mariners: Seattle desperately needs offense, and Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton has the best power/speed combination among the 2012s. Buxton also has a strong arm and would be the Mariners' heir apparent to Ichiro in right field.

5. Royals: Kansas City's priority in the 2011 draft was an advanced pitcher, but none of its top four choices made it to the fifth overall pick. The Royals will have a shot at any college arm besides Appel, and Georgia Southern righthander Chris Beck showed the potential for three plus pitches in the Cape Cod League this summer.

6. Padres: The Jed Hoyer regime has used first-round choices on high-ceiling prep pitchers in its first two drafts (Karsten Whitson, Joe Ross) and can look slightly to the north for a third. Los Angeles area righthander Lucas Giolito has easy mid-90s velocity and a power curve.

7. Cubs: After injuries and ineffectiveness plagued many of its pitchers at the major and minor league levels, Chicago needs help on the mound. Louisiana State righthander Kevin Gausman, a draft-eligible sophomore, can provide that with a lively 92-96 mph fastball and a deceptive changeup.

8. Pirates: Pittsburgh hasn't gotten consistent all-around production from a shortstop since Jay Bell in the 1990s, which makes Louisiana high schooler Gavin Cecchini a good fit. His bat is similar to that of his brother Garin, who signed with the Red Sox for $1.31 million as a 2010 fourth-rounder, and Gavin is more athletic and will be able to remain at short.

9. Athletics: There's a power outage in Oakland, which has had just three 20-homer hitters in the last four seasons. That could lead the A's to Georgia Southern outfielder Victor Roache, who led NCAA Division I with 30 homers in the spring and ranked second in the Cape with six longballs this summer.

10. Marlins: The Marlins system has fallen on hard times, with little in the way of immediate help among hitting or starting pitchers. Florida lefthander Brian Johnson has advanced feel for a solid three-pitch mix, so he could help solve both problems. Interestingly, he may have more upside as a first baseman with well above-average power potential from the left side of the plate.