As much as the Astros plan to take advantage of having the No. 1 pick in the First-Year Player Draft, rookie general manager Jeff Luhnow hopes it's the last time he has to prepare to pick first.
The Astros, who earned the No. 1 pick by having the worst record in the Major Leagues a year ago, could make strides to ensure they won't pick first again anytime soon if they can select a player who winds up impacting the club and becomes a centerpiece in its rebuilding process.
Twenty years after they took Cal State Fullerton infielder Phil Nevin with the top pick -- passing on a high school kid from Michigan named Derek Jeter -- the Astros hope to strike gold with the top pick on Monday. The Astros will also pick 41st overall, a compensation pick for losing Clint Barmes to free agency.
Astros owner Jim Crane and Luhnow both expected the decision on which player to select to go down to the wire. Houston is believed to be focusing on a group of five players -- Stanford pitcher Mark Appel, LSU pitcher Kevin Gausman, Florida catcher Mike Zunino, high school outfielder Byron Buxton of Georgia and Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa.
Reports surfaced Monday afternoon that suggested the Astros' choice would be Appel.
"It's a unique opportunity that we haven't had in a while, and when you have a chance to get the best amateur player in baseball, you've got to capitalize on it," Luhnow said. "We think it's an opportunity to build depth to our system by utilizing the entire draft, all 40 rounds. I think if you look at some of the clubs that have been successful in using the Draft to build their farm systems, it's not always been that first-round pick. A lot of times, it's the guys later on in the Draft that really make a difference."
Live coverage of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft begins with a one-hour preview show on Monday, at 5 p.m. CT on MLB.com and MLB Network, followed by the first round and supplemental compensation round. MLB.com will provide exclusive coverage of Day 2 and 3, featuring a live pick-by-pick stream, expert commentary and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. You can also keep up to date at Draft Central and by following@MLBDraft on Twitter. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.
Luhnow was hired last December from the Cardinals, where he played a vital role in St. Louis' Draft process. His first three Drafts with the Cardinals (2005-07) produced 24 Major League players, which were more than any other club in that time frame.
"That's what we're shooting for," Crane said. "That was one of the reasons we hired Jeff, was his expertise in this area and needing that expertise to consistently have the Minor League system built up, so we can be competitive year in and year out."
With Major League Baseball setting bonus numbers for picks in the first 10 rounds -- and instituting harsh penalties for teams that exceed the bonus pool -- the Astros believe signability won't be an issue no matter which player they take at No. 1.
"Signablity has to be ironclad," assistant general manager/director of scouting Bobby Heck said. "We can't have any surprises. When we select a player, you have a pretty good idea what that player is going to sign for."
The Astros' bonus pool for the first 10 rounds (11 picks) is $11,177,000, with the first overall pick having a prescribed bonus of $7.2 million.
"We want to build for the future, so we've allocated the maximum amount of money to pay what the slot amount is," Crane said. "Certainly, if somebody wants more and we still want to sign them, I don't think that will be the case. The penalties are pretty severe this year if you go outside the [bonus pool]. I hope none of the other teams get frisky and get outside the slot."
Luhnow said that every player in contention for the No. 1 pick has been seen by at least 10 scouts over the course of the past year, and Luhnow himself has been gathering the frequent flier miles in recent weeks to get firsthand looks at players. The Astros have also held three pre-Draft workouts, the last taking place on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park.
With the budget set and scouting done, the Astros hope to hit a home run with the first pick.
"I do think there are a number of potentially elite players at the top of the Draft," Luhnow said. "Year to year, people talk about this Draft is deeper, or less deep, or better in position players or whatever, but normally that conversation is focused on the first round. Since we only pick once [in the first round] we only care that it's got one player that we can really build around. After that, it's not as important for us until we get to 41, and I do think there will be plenty of good choices at that spot."
Here's a glance at what the Astros have in store as the Draft approaches:
In about 50 words
In the last two years, the Astros have dramatically improved their Minor League system via the Draft and trades, and having the No. 1 overall pick gives them a unique opportunity to add an impact player to the system. The Draft signifies an important step in the rebuilding process.
Jeff Luhnow's first Draft as general manager of the Astros is a big one, with the club owning the No. 1 overall pick. The Astros also pick at No. 41 overall, and Luhnow has stressed the importance of nailing picks later in the Draft, and not just in the first round. When he was with the Cardinals, Draft picks Daniel Descalso (third round) and Allen Craig (eighth round) were among those taken later in the Draft who helped St. Louis win the World Series last year.
That being said, the Astros can't afford to swing and miss with the first pick.
"We want the best player that we can get that can help the Astros over the long term," Luhnow said. "We will not factor how quickly they're going to get to the big leagues. We will factor in what we believe is the chance of them getting to the big leagues, and the impact they're going to make once they get there. Those are the two most important pieces for our decision."
The Astros say they won't make a decision on which player to pick with the first overall selection in the Draft until this weekend at the earliest, giving them more time to sift through the candidates they feel are worthy of the No. 1 overall pick.
They'll have their pick from two talented college pitchers in Mark Appel of Stanford and Kevin Gausman of LSU, Florida catcher Mike Zunino and talented high schoolers Byron Buxton of Georgia, an outfielder, and Carlos Correa of Puerto Rico, a middle infielder.
Buxton is considered to be the best talent in the Draft, but the safest pick could be Appel, a mature college pitcher who could be ready for the Major Leagues sooner rather than later. Buxton has all the tools, but he's not as polished as any of the college players at the top of the board.
Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, each team has an allotted bonus pool equal to the sum of the values of that club's selections in the first 10 rounds of the Draft. The more picks a team has, and the earlier it picks, the larger the pool. The signing bonuses for a team's selections in the first 10 rounds, plus any bonus greater than $100,000 for a player taken after the 10th round, will apply toward the bonus-pool total.
Any team going up to five percent over its allotted pool will be taxed at a 75-percent rate on the overage. A team that overspends by 5-10 percent gets a 75-percent tax plus the loss of a first-round pick. A team that goes 10-15 percent over its pool amount will be hit with a 100-percent penalty on the overage and the loss of a first- and second-round pick. Any overage of 15 percent or more gets a 100-percent tax plus the loss of first-round picks in the next two Drafts.
With no clear-cut choice emerging as the favorite to take with the No. 1 pick, the Astros are maintaining their stance of taking the best available player and not drafting to a need. That being said, you can never have enough starting pitching, which could push them towards Mark Appel or Kevin Gausman. There isn't a wealth of catching talent in the organization, so perhaps Florida's Mike Zunino gets more consideration.
"We're trying to take the best player that's applicable to the Houston Astros," scouting director Bobby Heck said.
When he was in charge of running the Draft for the Cardinals, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow favored big right-handed pitchers and players who competed at a high level as amateurs, such as in a major college conference. Assistant general manager/director of scouting Bobby Heck has gone up the middle with the top pick in the last four years, taking Jason Castro (catcher) in 2008, Jiovanni Mier (shortstop) in 2009, Delino DeShields Jr. (outfielder-turned-second baseman) in 2010 and George Springer (center fielder) last year.
The Astros haven't selected a pitcher with their first pick in the Draft since taking Tulane's Brian Bogusevic in 2005, and he was moved to the outfield three years later and currently starts in right field for the Major League club. They did take right-hander Jordan Lyles with a supplemental pick in 2008.
Recent Draft History Rising fast
Center fielder George Springer, selected by the Astros out of the University of Connecticut with the No. 11 overall pick last year, is having a bang-up season in what basically is his professional debut. He's spent the entire season at high Class A Lancaster, and through 47 games was hitting .308 with six triples, 10 homers, 38 RBIs and 12 stolen bases. He could be poised to move up to Double-A Corpus Christi at some point this summer.
Astros' recent top picks
Class A Lancaster
Delino DeShields Jr.
Class A Lexington
Class A Lancaster
Did not sign
Right-hander Tyson Perez, a 17th-round Draft pick last year out of Fresno City College, began the year in extended Spring Training before being sent to high Class A Lancaster, where he went 3-0 and allowed three earned runs in 20 innings in his first three starts in a hitter's league. His next two outings weren't as sharp, but he opened some eyes in the organization as a young pitcher to watch, despite not being a hard thrower.
In The Show
After not producing one Major League player from their disastrous 2007 Draft, the Astros have had four players reach the Majors from their previous four Drafts -- catcher Jason Castro (2008), outfielder J.B. Shuck (2008), pitcher Jordan Lyles (2008) and outfielder J.D. Martinez (2009). Shuck and Lyles are in Triple-A, though Lyles has made 19 starts for the Astros in the past two seasons. Castro and Martinez are starters for the big club.