Though it's a club no one relishes joining, this year the Astros join the Mariners, Pirates and Rays as franchises that have had the No. 1 overall draft pick four times. Only the Mets and Padres, with five No. 1 selections all-time, have had more.
The Astros also become just the third franchise to make back-to-back No. 1 picks. If history is any indication, that means hope is on the horizon.
The Rays made back-to-back No. 1 picks in 2007 and 2008, selecting David Price and Tim Beckham. Roughly three months after taking Beckham, the Rays were playing in their first playoff game. The Nationals picked Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with back-to-back No. 1 picks in 2009 and 2010. Both players were key contributors when the Nationals made the playoffs with baseball's best record in 2012.
While a turnaround in Houston isn't expected to come as quickly, the Astros have added plenty of promising young talent since hiring Jeff Luhnow as general manager in December 2011. Prior to joining the Astros, Luhnow was scouting director for the Cardinals from 2005-2011, and he led all scouting directors with 21 players he drafted on Opening Day rosters this year. After Bobby Heck was fired following last year's draft, Mike Elias has taken over as Houston's scouting director find the No. 1 overall selection as his first order of business.
"It's a little easier in one sense because there's less guesswork as to who's getting to you, so you can basically get as much information as you want on the players that you're targeting," Elias said. "The negative end of it is that it's very time-consuming scouting those guys. Especially this year with there being several Friday night starters basically in contention for the spot, you're using a lot of Fridays on those guys and it makes it difficult to scout and see the rest of the Friday night guys across the country. That's one negative—and then yeah, it's the No. 1 pick, so expectations are obviously very high. It's good because you're going to get a good player no matter what, but it's a big decision, clearly, so there's certainly a lot of pressure to deliver on it."
While Elias wouldn't name names, he said the group of players the team is considering for No. 1 is down to seven. The group likely includes Stanford righthander Mark Appel, Oklahoma righthander Jonathan Gray, Indiana State lefthander Sean Manaea, San Diego outfielder Kris Bryant, North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran, and the two high school outfielders from Loganville, Ga.: Clint Frazier from Loganville High and Austin Meadows from Grayson High.
"That's the broad list and we've made a conscious decision—and we did this last year, as well—to where we don't want to narrow the group prematurely and then lose out on some information, things evolving in the last month or so," Elias said. "We've got the personnel and the resources to scout a group that big all the way up to the finish line, with the type of intensity that you'd want for 1-1, and that's our goal to do it. We want to gather as much information on that group of players, and then not really come to a decision until we're all sitting in the same room with the medical information in front of us, the video, the statistics, everybody's opinions in one place, and then maybe rank the guys and attach a certain amount of value and probability to how much we like each guy."
Keeping Options Open
The Astros also went with a portfolio approach with last year's No. 1 pick, keeping a small group of players in play up until the final hour before the draft. When it came time to step up to the podium, the team picked Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa who signed for $4.8 million—a club record, but well below the $7.2 million allocated for the pick. He joined Floyd Bannister (1976) and Phil Nevin (1992) in Astros history as No. 1 overall picks.
With the savings from Correa, Houston gave seven-figure bonuses to righthander Lance McCullers in the second round and third baseman Rio Ruiz in the fourth round, spreading their bonus money around rather than using it all on one player. While Elias wasn't the team's scouting director in 2012, he was still heavily involved in the draft process as a special assistant to Luhnow.
"Having been through the experience once, we certainly learned some things about how we might want to scout differently, answer some questions earlier or later, but more or less it's kind of the same process that we used last year," Elias said. "We're just pushing ourselves even more this year to remain open-minded, not come to any premature conclusions and almost play devil's advocate with ourselves about these guys so that we don't rule anyone out too soon, and we don't rule anyone in too soon, because you never know—even a couple weeks before the draft, someone might get injured, might become unsignable . . . there's just a lot of things that can happen."
Elias estimates that he has spent about 40 percent of his time this spring focusing on the No. 1 pick, so he's relying heavily on his crosscheckers and special assistants, not only for the first pick, but for all of the Astros' premium choices. Of course that group also includes Luhnow.
"He's very involved," Elias said. "He doesn't get involved with sort of the day-to-day end of the process, but we explained to him sort of the nature of the draft class and basically give him a menu of players for that first pick to go out and see. Anyone that we're even remotely considering for the first pick, he's going to lay eyes on before the draft. And in the course of doing that, he might see a guy that we're targeting a little further down, as well. We have some other front office resources see these guys . . . we've gotten some player development guys involved, too. That's one of the luxuries of having the first pick—you can get as much information and as many resources as you want on these guys because you know they're all getting there for you. Certainly Jeff's experience as a scouting director is a huge part of that, and ultimately it's his decision."
The Cubs pick second overall, their highest selection since taking Mark Prior second overall in 2001. The Red Sox pick seventh overall, their highest selection since 1993, when they took Trot Nixon seventh.
Overall, this year's draft class is underwhelming to evaluators. On the 20-80 scouting scale, it would grade out as a 40 or a 45. So scouts have spent a lot of time focusing on value.
"This year, I feel like the overall talent stock is down," a National League scouting director said. "But I think it comes down to finding the niche that might be a little undervalued."
The draft class is especially down on the college side. The first round could feature as few as six college pitchers, which would be the lowest figure since 1995.
College shortstops also are few and far between this year. The latest selection of the first college shortstop in draft history was in 2007, when Mississippi's Zack Cozart went 79th overall to the Reds. While East Central (Miss.) CC shortstop Tim Anderson looks like a second-round talent, the best shortstop at a four-year school is up for debate and such a player might not get picked until the third round.
One unique aspect to this year's draft is that the top two high school prospects—Frazier and Meadows (for more on them see Page 16)—are both from Loganville, Ga. They played travel ball together growing up but attend different high schools in the same town.
High school players on different teams in the same city have gone in the first round before, but it is rare. It last happened in 2000 with Miami prep shortstops Luis Montanez (who went No. 3 overall to the Cubs) and David Espinosa (No. 23, Reds). Other cities that have produced two first-rounders from different high schools include Austin, Texas (1974), Cincinnati (1976), Houston (1979, San Diego (1980) and Tampa (1982). Loganville, Ga., doesn't quite rank with those metropolitan areas, as a town of just more than 10,000 people.
Several colleges have a good chance to produce their first-ever first-round picks, including Nevada with righthander Braden Shipley, Jacksonville with righthander Chris Anderson, UC Irvine with righthander Andrew Thurman, Stephen F. Austin with shortstop Hunter Dozier and Marshall with righthander Aaron Blair.
Teams will also have to continue to manage new draft rules in the second year of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The 2013 draft features a much smaller supplemental round with the reduction in free agent draft-pick compensation, but will include the introduction of two rounds of competitive-balance selections. Six selections will come between the first and second rounds, and five more between rounds two and three.
This will be the second year of spending limits for teams, with harsh penalties for spending over their bonus pool. Last year, several teams drafted college seniors in rounds six to 10, using the savings to go after high school players who fell because of bonus demands. More teams could do that this year.
"It just adds a totally new element to the draft that I don't think really existed before last year," the NL scouting director said. "I think it depends a lot on where you pick, how many picks you have and how much money you have. The bottom line is, you just have to be prepared for a number of different scenarios."