SECAUCUS, N.J. --
The Astros rendered most mock drafts immediately useless by selecting Carlos Correa, a shortstop from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, with the overall No. 1 pick instead of the expected pick, Stanford right-handed pitcher Mark Appel. The draft room was certainly surprised -- but perhaps it shouldn't have been.
Correa's stock rose recently after he impressed at individual team workouts, including one for the Astros at their spring training facility in Kissimmee, Fla. "They told me they had me in their mix," Correa said of what interest the Astros communicated.
Major league clubs covet few talents more than shortstops who can field and hit for power, making this a logical pick for a Houston franchise facing what's presumed to be a multi-year rebuilding project.
"Carlos has the chance to be an impact player in Houston for a really long time," Houston's first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow said on MLB Network. "A young player who can turn into a superstar was our priority."
The Astros have changed front office regimes several times since 1992, not to mention an ownership change, but it's hard not to think back to that year, which was the last time Houston picked No. 1 overall. The pick then was Phil Nevin, a good major leaguer player, but there proved to be a future Hall of Famer on the board -- Derek Jeter went No. 6 overall to the Yankees.
This was the first draft with Luhnow as the GM (though scouting director Bobby Heck was retained from the previous staff) after he had been with the Cardinals, whom never drafted higher than 13th while he oversaw their drafts as scouting director. While not choosing Appel surprised many, the Astros' decision to rebuild a farm system around a middle-of-the-diamond, middle-of-the-order player certainly makes a lot of sense.
It's also possible that Houston can sign Correa for less than the $7.2 million projected slot, which would allow them to shift more money to its compensation round pick of Lance McCullers, a highly touted high school pitcher.
In football and basketball, where draft picks are regularly immediate contributors, it can be prudent to pick a player based on positional need. In baseball, however, with minor league incubation periods averaging several years, it almost always makes the most sense to select the best available player because who knows what need you'll have when the draft pick is ready.
And rarely was that debate so pronounced as with the Pirates' pick at No. 8 overall.
"We took the best player remaining on our board," Pirates GM Neal Huntington told Pittsburgh writers.
Indeed, they took the player many rated as best overall even before the first seven selections. The Pirates' selection of Appel with the eighth overall pick may prove wise, but it is fraught with risk.
For starters, the Pirates have a $6.6 million budget for all of their picks in the first 10 rounds with a league suggestion of $2.9 million for pick No. 8. That could be far less than what Appel -- who is being advised by Scott Boras -- was expecting if he had his sights on a bonus commensurate with the first overall pick's slot, which was set for $7.2 million (or at least a top-three pick). Perhaps the Pirates think they can sign him for much less than that first-overall bonus. Maybe they think he's worth paying a penalty for exceeding the cap. (If they fail to sign him, they are awarded the No. 9 pick in next year's draft.)
Appel declined a conference call with the club's beat writers, issuing only a statement released by the team: "I'm currently concentrating on winning a national championship and finishing my academic endeavors at Stanford. I will address the possibility of a professional career in due time."
Appel, as a junior at Stanford, could feasibly return to school for a senior season with hopes of being a higher pick next year, but strict bonus caps would make it difficult for him to get an appreciably larger bonus next year unless he has as good or better of a college season. Huntington told Pittsburgh writers, "I'm optimistic we have a legitimate shot to sign him." The Pirates have been as aggressive as anyone in spending in the draft the last few years, though those were before the CBA changes.
Also, the Pirates' farm system is one the few so heavily skewed toward either pitching or hitting (in their case, pitching) that making a need-based pick -- only in the broadest sense of picking a hitter rather a player at a particular position -- may have made some sense in theory. In practicality, however, it's possible Pittsburgh may not have rated any of the still-available hitters as worth selecting at that time, at least not when compared to Appel.
It's impossible to know the club's draft rankings, but if they had Appel rated as a future Cy Young winner and the top available hitter merely as a future everyday starter (and thus lacking the same star potential), then they made the right pick. And if the Pirates are able to sign Appel, he joins Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon as one of three potential future aces in their organization, forming an enviable future rotation. If that happens, then sticking with a "best player available" agenda was definitely the right call.
The new collective bargaining agreement instituted for this draft caps a club's bonus for the first 10 rounds with steep penalties for exceeding it, the intention being a distribution of draft picks in order of talent and not signability. Advisors to draft picks now seemingly have less leverage in negotiating over-slot bonuses because of the caps, which include steep taxes for overages up to five percent and a loss of at least a first-round pick for more than that -- something few teams are probably willing to yield.
Despite the obvious speculation that a bonus demand played a role in Appel slipping to No. 8, commissioner Bud Selig was quick to caution against such thinking at this stage.
"Let's see how it all plays out," Selig said in between announcing picks. "I think it's premature to draw a conclusion."
"I am very optimistic this will work out," he continued. "These changes are clearly helping the game."
That remains to be seen. Many teams -- from small markets and big markets -- found success in going over-slot because of the inherent economic multiplier in play; amateur draft spending is riskier than free-agent spending but carries a smaller price tag than signing proven big league players. Big market teams can now divert more money to free agency, but small market teams could be crowded out.
Other than Appel, there may not be an obvious case study in this June's draft. The consensus among experts is that the overall talent isn't as strong this year as it has been of late. That means we may have a year to wait before seeing how profound the CBA changes have affected the draft.
In its first year of existence in 2009 MLB Network televised the first round of the draft. At the time it was a clearly fledgling event
"When you think of how this has evolved," Selig said, "we've come a long way in a very short period of time."
That first year, only a largely unknown in-state high school player named Mike Trout sat in Studio 42 throughout the evening. Incidentally, analyst Harold Reynolds promised viewers that Trout would be one of two names they'd remember from that draft -- along with Stephen Strasburg -- because of attendance at the event. Right player, wrong reason. Trout has, of course, developed into the Angels' young outfield phenom, though he was a relatively under-the-radar New Jersey prep player at the time.
This year, however, five prospects were in-studio for the occasion, headlined by Correa but three of the other four were selected amongst the first 14 picks, with LHP Andrew Heaney of Oklahoma State going to the Marlins at No. 9, SS Gavin Cecchini of Barbe (La.) High going to the Mets at No. 12 and OF/RHP Courtney Hawkins of Carroll (Texas) High going to the White Sox at No. 14. The fifth player, Union (Wash.) High catcher Clint Coulter ultimately went No. 27 overall to the Brewers.
"The more people we can have here, the better," Selig said. "Five is a very good start, but we can do better."
Though each club's decision makers were back in their respective draft rooms, the team representatives included some Hall of Famers -- Tommy Lasorda for the Dodgers, Ferguson Jenkins for the Cubs -- and even an active player with a Cy Young on his mantle, as CC Sabathia volunteered to represent the Yankees in the studio. (New York was the only club with three reps, as Sabathia's eight-year-old son, also CC, was in attendance.)
Any selection that GM Billy Beane and the Athletics make will receive extra interest thanks to
There's no telling if this is a one-year fluke, a long-term change in philosophy or some sort of plan to time players' development with what the A's hope might be the opening of a new stadium several years from now.