Astros set to lead off intriguing baseball draft


But without a clear-cut No. 1 prospect, it's anyone's guess as to whose name will be called first Monday night.

"At the end of the day, this draft is filled with a number of players that are going to play in the big leagues for a long time," Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow said, "and we need to do our best to try to figure out which ones we want to be wearing Astros uniforms."

The Astros have the No. 1 pick for the first time since taking Phil Nevin in 1992 -- one of five teams to pass on a young shortstop named Derek Jeter, selected sixth overall by the New York Yankees.

Nevin played in 18 games for Houston before being traded to Detroit and playing for five other teams during a 12-year major league career. This time, the Astros hope to get a franchise-changing player.

"In an ideal world, you'd have a player pick themselves like that, one that was obviously separated like Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey, or more recently with Harper and Strasburg," said Astros scouting director and assistant general manager Bobby Heck. "But the positive that comes out of it is that we have options, we have choices."

Most major league teams agree that there's no Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper in this year's baseball draft. There's not even a Gerrit Cole or Danny Hultzen, last year's first two picks, at the top of the class.

"It's a below-average draft as far as drafts go, and it's certainly down from last year as far as depth and premium players in the first round," said Sean Johnson, Minnesota's West Coast scouting supervisor. "It's lean in certain spots."

But there is certainly some solid talent available. Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, Florida catcher Mike Zunino, LSU righty Kevin Gausman and Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton are expected to be among the players picked early.

"The top five guys, we've seen a lot," said Seattle scouting director Tom McNamara, whose team picks third. "I think it's a good group of top guys this year. You have some high school athletes, pitchers, college guys."

Appel is considered the likely No. 1, which would mark the first time that the top draft picks in MLB and the NFL (Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts) have come from the same school. Appel has a mid-90s fastball and is 10-1 with 2.27 ERA for the Cardinal.

Zunino is a slugging catcher who has been compared to Jason Varitek for his leadership and how he handles a pitching staff, while Gausman is a fireballer who is one of the country's top pitchers. Buxton, from Appling County High School in Georgia, is a five-tool player whose bat is considered the best among all draft prospects.

"I think I can verify that it's thinner than some, but there's no excuse, though," said Twins GM Terry Ryan, whose team drafts second. "You're going to hear about players that come out of this draft and four, five, six years from now, there will be players that are good major league players, that weren't talked about. ... If we don't get any good players out of this draft, then shame on us."

With the uncertainty about the talent and several significant rule changes in place, teams face some intriguing decisions and an unpredictable first round.

Allotted spending caps based on the number and placement of team's picks, and an earlier signing deadline are among the changes clubs will navigate this year. The draft also is shorter now, pared from 50 to 40 rounds.

"I'm old school," McNamara said. "I wish it was 70 rounds. You may find a guy in the 55th round."

Under baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, teams will have a pool of bonus money from which to sign players. The Astros, for example, have about $11.2 million to use as bonuses on their 11 picks through the 10th round. The Twins, who have 13 picks in 10 rounds, have about $12.4 million to use for bonuses.

Teams face a punitive tax and the possibility of losing draft picks if they stray from the prescribed bonuses.

If a player doesn't sign, the team loses the amount for that slot. And if a player signs for less than the slot, the team could shift that money to other picks. For players selected in the 11th round and beyond, portions of signing bonuses above $100,000 would count against the bonus pool.

"I think it's interesting in the sense that it has some protections from the previous system that was much more easily manipulated," said Bobby Evans, San Francisco's vice president of baseball operations. "There's certainly some elements set up that will guard against manipulating a given player's slot and where he's taken in the draft."

Teams will now have only until mid-July to sign their draft picks, instead of the previous mid-August deadline. That could affect clubs' approaches in targeting players who have a greater chance of signing. But it also could sway high school players, who might choose to go to college instead. And because multimillion-dollar signing bonuses will no longer be available in lower rounds, more college juniors might opt to stay in school.

"I think it does have potentially some effects on high school players maybe being harder to sign them unless they're taken really high," Evans said. "Because of the slotting dollars, as they fall lower and lower, it will be harder to sign them at some of those smaller slots."

Major league teams have been preparing for months to operate with the changes, which Luhnow anticipates are here to stay -- at least for now.

"I think we're going to all learn how to operate under this current environment and there will be some differences in terms of how clubs approach it," Luhnow said, "but this is the CBA, this is how it's going to be for the ongoing future. So we're ready for it."

The first and supplemental rounds are held Monday night at MLB Network Studios in Secaucus, N.J., with the remaining rounds completed via conference calls among the teams over the next two days and finishing Wednesday.

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