Astros Destined to Pick First Again In Draft Dominated by College Talent
With a winning percentage of barely .300, the magic number for the Houston Astros to clinch the worst record in the big leagues is practically at hand—even with three weeks remaining in the 2012 season.
Should the Astros continue to lose out, it would mark the second year in a row that the Astros finished dead last among Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs. But their ineptitude will be rewarded again by having the opportunity to pick first overall in baseball’s first-year player draft for the second straight year.
Only twice in the 47-year history of the draft has a team previously had the No. 1 selection in consecutive years, and that occurred as recently as 2006-07, when the Tampa Bay Rays had back-to-back first overall picks, and 2009-10, when the Washington Nationals used the top choices to select San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg and College of Southern Nevada catcher-turned-outfielder Bryce Harper.
Tampa Bay was playing in the World Series by 2008, while Strasburg and Harper, two of the most-celebrated draft picks ever, have played key roles in leading the Nationals to such a significant turnaround that they are destined to post the best regular-season record in the big leagues this season.
It may be too tall an order to even speculate that the woeful Astros could exact the same overnight worst-to-first transformation as the Rays or Nationals have and possibly be in position to contend two or three years from now. Their winning percentage this season could end up being the worst in the big leagues since the Arizona Diamondbacks posted a .315 mark in 2004.
Moreover, there wasn’t a franchise-changing talent of the order of Strasburg or Harper—or even lefthander David Price, the Rays first pick in 2007—in this year’s draft when Houston took Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa, somewhat of a compromise choice, with the top pick. And there doesn’t project to be a clear-cut selection, either, in the 2013 draft that could help the Astros effect the same type of dramatic, short-order turnaround as witnessed in recent years by the Rays and Nationals.
With the 2013 draft still some nine months away, it seems readily apparent that the talent pool will be heavily weighted with college players in the first round—even if the identity of the No. 1 pick is somewhat in doubt. In the initial ranking of the Top 300 Prospects for next year’s draft, 21 of 30 first-round picks are projected to come from the college ranks, including the top four.
The top-rated prospect is 6-foot-5 Indiana State junior lefthander Sean Manaea, a relatively-unheralded talent until he turned the Cape Cod League on its ear this summer.
Manaea dominated the Cape like few pitchers in recent years—even as the league witnessed a sharp overall upturn in offensive production, particularly home runs—in going 5-1, 1.22 and striking out 85 in 52 innings, all the while walking just seven and allowing 21 hits. He topped the Cape, the nation’s top summer league, in strikeouts and opponent batting average by wide margins while working with a consistent mid-90s fastball and devastating breaking ball.
Manaea, who wasn’t drafted out of high school and was on the recruiting radar of few college teams, will almost certainly be on Houston’s short list of prospects that it would consider for the No. 1 pick in the 2013—once it officially clinches that distinction. Other players the Astros will almost certainly consider are three established college products: Arkansas righthander Ryne Stanek, and a pair of Stanford products, outfielder Austin Wilson and righthander Mark Appel.
Appel was Pittsburgh’s unsigned first-round pick this year, while Stanek is a former third-round of the Seattle Mariners and Wilson a 12th-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The 6-foot-5 Appel is unexpectedly back in the Astros draft mix for a second straight year. In a 2012 draft lacking a consensus top talent, he was expected to be the player the Astros were going to select with the No. 1 pick on the eve of the proceedings. But they were reportedly scared off by his high price tag, and settled instead on Correa, who they signed for $4.8 million—well short of the $7.2 million bonus allotted for the No. 1 pick according to terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
With all the new draft dynamics at work in the 2012 draft and teams reluctant to spend in excess of their assigned draft slot for fear of being penalized by a tax or even the loss of future draft picks, Appel slid all the way to the Pirates at No. 8. He ended up becoming the only first-round pick not to sign and is soon expected to return to Stanford for his senior year, making him eligible again for the 2013 draft.
Appel is actually one of three pitchers in the current year’s college draft class that is an unsigned former first-rounder. The others are Florida righthander Karsten Whitson and San Diego righthander Dylan Covey, both of whom rejected offers out of high school. Whitson was selected by the San Diego Padres with the ninth pick in the 2010 draft while Covey was chosen by the Milwaukee Brewers with the 14th pick overall in the same draft.
Neither Whitson nor Covey particularly distinguished themselves last spring in college, or even this summer in the Cape Cod League. Whitsen and Covey were both on the same pitching staff at Orleans and while both showed flashes of their superior stuff, they also struggled with command issues. They were thoroughly outpitched over the course of the summer by the fast-rising Manaea.
Despite their high-profile status, Whitson and Covey are not expected to be considerations for the Astros with the No. 1 pick next June. Neither is even considered a slam dunk to be drafted in the first round as Whitson and Covey are ranked No. 36 at No. 79 respectively.
Covey has much farther to go than Whitson to refine his command, but may have better overall raw stuff. He also continues to manage Type 1 diabetes that was diagnosed as part of a routine physical in August of 2010, and was a major contributing factor in his not signing with the Brewers.
Despite his apparent fall from grace, Covey remains a centerpiece of a rich 2013 California college crop, led by Appel and Wilson, that could produce as many as 6-8 first-rounders. For the second straight year, Stanford alone could produce three first-rounders as righthander A.J. Vanegas (No. 19) is expected to join Wilson and Appel in the initial round.
The 2013 high-school crop has been much slower to evolve and has yet to identify a clear-cut top talent that might eventually challenge Manaea, or even Stanek, Wilson or Appel, for the No. 1 spot overall.
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