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|TOP 10 PROSPECTS|
|1. Carlos Correa, ss|
|2. Mark Appel, rhp|
|3. Mike Foltynewicz, rhp|
|4. Vince Velasquez, rhp|
|5. Michael Feliz, rhp|
|6. Brett Phillips, of|
|7. Colin Moran, 3b|
|8. Rio Ruiz, 3b|
|9. Teoscar Hernandez, of|
|10. Josh Hader, lhp|
Even in a 2014 season when the major league team made clear steps forward on the field and top prospects started to blossom, the Astros' season cannot be categorized as unqualified progress.
The full-scale rebuilding process, which gave Houston the top overall pick in three consecutive drafts, hit a pothole when the Astros failed to sign 2014 No. 1 pick Brady Aiken, the San Diego high school lefthander.
It was just the third time in the history of the draft (which began in 1965) that the No. 1 overall pick did not sign. Previous unsigned picks Danny Goodwin (1971) and Tim Belcher (1983) went on to become first-round picks again and, eventually, major leaguers.
In June, Aiken and the Astros agreed to the parameters of a contract including a $6.5 million bonus. Aiken even traveled to Houston, but he never signed. The Astros reportedly found an issue with Aiken's elbow during a physical, though they said privacy laws prevented disclosure of the southpaw's condition. Regardless, rumors of a small tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in Aiken's left elbow ran rampant.
The Astros' inability to sign Aiken jeopardized their reported signing of fifth-rounder Jacob Nix, a high school righthander, and a potential run at lefthander Mac Marshall, a 21st-round pick. The signings of both players hinged on Houston having access to the unused portion of Aiken's $7.9 million slot in its signing budget.
The taint of the failure to sign Aiken affected the Astros in many ways. First, they lost access to three talented amateur arms. But more important for the future, the organization is the subject of a grievance filed by Nix's representatives, Excel Sports Management, which also represents Aiken. Excel has alleged the Astros agreed to terms on a $1.5 million bonus, and if MLB forces Houston to honor that offer, then the Astros would by rule forfeit two 2015 draft picks for going over their 2014 bonus pool by a significant amount.
If the Astros retain those picks, they'll control the 2015 draft, when holding the second and fifth overall picks would give them by far the largest bonus pool in the industry.
Previous No. 1 overall picks Carlos Correa (2012) and Mark Appel (2013) had setbacks. Correa broke his right fibula in June, ending his season after 62 games, while Appel struggled at high Class A Lancaster before gaining his bearings in a late-season stint at Double-A Corpus Christi and in the Arizona Fall League.
Still, the 2014 season delivered promise. The major league club won 19 more games than 2013, with Jose Altuve leading the majors in hits while young pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh thrived. For the first time since 2011, the Astros avoided the majors' worst record.
It wasn't enough to save manager Bo Porter, who was fired in September for reported philosophical differences with general manager Jeff Luhnow. New manager A.J. Hinch has experience playing and managing in the big leagues as well as working as a farm director, and better fits the organizational approach.
Despite all the drama of 2014, the Astros still gave fans a reason for optimism, though they'll have to stay tuned to see if Houston can advance to the 2017 World Series, as forecast by a now-famous Sports Illustrated cover.