2010 Draft Preview

The 2010 MLB Draft begins on Monday. While it may not recieve as much fanfare as its NFL or NBA counterparts, because the players will not make an impact at the big-league level for a few years, it is still very important to the future of each franchise. On the 7th, 8th and 9th, the Astros will find out which players could be making an impact for them in the future. Just as importantly – and perhaps more so, depending on your point of view – we will be finding out which young players might be joining the ValleyCats this season. ‘Cats Corner will have a live chat following the action, so be sure to stop by.

The Astros have a number of high picks: they have the 8th and 19th picks (both first-rounders), and then the 33rd pick overall (the first pick of the supplemental round). The full draft order can be found here.

Possibly the biggest factor that will affect who the Astros will get in the MLB Draft is the amount of money they are willing to spend. MLB has an unofficial “slot system,” in which the central offices recommend a certain amount of money that each draft pick should recieve as a signing bonus. But this slotting is not mandatory, as it is in the NBA, or even as widely followed as it is in the NFL. Certain players will demand more money – they will want to be paid more than the slot in which they are drafted – especially if they are talented high school graduates with the opportunity to attend college instead of playing professionally if they do not like their offer. (Agent Scott Boras is famous for representing players who demand more than slot money, including pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg – who received a $15.67 million signing bonus last year – and wunderkind Bryce Harper, who will likely ask for eight figures from the Nationals as well.)

The Astros, under owner Drayton McLane, are famous for refusing to go over slot – in fact, last year, they went slightly below slot on average in the first ten rounds. This obviously saves money, but it can also cost them talent. Take the example of young phenom Rick Porcello, who posted a 3.96 ERA last year in 31 starts at the tender age of 20 and is one of baseball’s most promising young pitchers. The Tigers drafted Porcello with the 27th pick in the 2007 draft. He didn’t fall that far because 26 other teams thought they took better players than Porcello – he was, by consensus, one of the top five or so talents in the draft – but he was advised by Boras and ended up signing for $3.5 million, more than most teams were willing to pay. Teams such as the Astros would not only pass on players like Porcello, but would be hesitant to take anybody asking for even a little bit over slot money, preferring instead to take a gamble with a possibly less talented player for a reduced monetary risk.

I find this philosophy shortsighted. Even though signing bonuses have been rising steadily, draft picks remain a much better value for teams than other sources of talent, such as free agents. It would cost the Astros relatively little to go over slot and get more talented players. The Pirates have been the biggest spenders in the draft over the past two years, spending just over $9 million per year on the draft. The lowest-spending teams spend about $4M per year – so for the Astros to jump from one of the lowest-spending teams to one of the top, they would have to pay out an extra $5M or so. Houston spent $15 million (over three years) last offseason for Brandon Lyon alone. Which would benefit them more, getting a much better collection of the best amateur players in 2010 or having a middle reliever with a career 4.17 ERA?

More and more teams are beginning to see the draft this way, as evidenced by the fact that the top spenders have been the small-market Pirates. Albert Chen has a nice feature with these numbers and a more thorough look at the change in philosophy – as well as the Astros’ stubbornness – at SI.com.

Houston fans may have some hope for this year’s draft: ESPN’s Keith Law reported last week that the Astros would be able to go over slot for the right player, and Houston insider Alyson Footer has also written that signability will not be as much of a concern this year. However, most baseball people will believe that when they see it.

As far as specific players go, Houston is a more or less an enigma in this year’s draft. They’ve been connected in at least some capacity to pretty much all of the top players still expected to be available when they pick, including college and prep players, pitchers and hitters. Houston has one of the thinnest farm systems in baseball, so their only mission is to find as much talent as possible to restock. Few people know exactly who the Astros are targeting, even with their earliest pick; as Law also wrote, “No one has a strong idea of what the Astros want to do, fueling a lot of rumors that didn’t check out when I looked into them.”

As a whole, this year’s draft is relatively weak on talent. The top three to five players are very talented, but teams with picks in the 5-20 range have a lot more names on their board than they would in a normal year, because few others stand out. (In contrast, next year’s draft is expected to be one of the deepest and most talented in recent memory.) Specifically, the group of college hitters is weak, with very few impact bats behind Harper. Pitching is a relative strength of this draft, both from the high-school and college ranks. Even though pitchers are generally riskier prospects than position players, expect to see quite a few hurlers’ names called early tomorrow.

The first pick will be Bryce Harper. You’ve heard about the teenage phenom by now – he hits 500-foot moonshots, is impossible to throw a pitch by, and oh yeah, he plays the most valuable defensive position, catcher. There are questions as to whether or not he’ll be able to catch in the big leagues, but most believe he has a decent shot to stay at the position for a few years. He played junior college ball this year and went 12-for-13 in the district finals with four home runs. There are some character questions – ones that go beyond the very questionable ejection earlier this week – but even so, Harper stands alongside Justin Upton as the best prep prospects of the past 15 years and is easily the top talent in this draft.

After that, look for a few names to go in the next five or six picks: Manny Machado is the consensus second-best position player in the draft behind Harper, as a smooth-fielding, good-hitting shortstop from high school in Florida. He and James Taillon, a hard-throwing high-school righty from Texas, will likely be the #2 and #3 picks, in either order.

According to both Law and MLB Fanhouse writer Frankie Piliere, the Royals are working on a deal to draft Miami catcher Yasmani Grandal at #4. Grandal, the ACC Player of the Year, hit .417/.543/.743 for the Hurricaines this year and rose up draft boards recently, a solid pick for the Royals there. (Law has backed off in the past day to say that there is no deal currently in place, but KC might still take Grandal.)

After that, the Indians will almost certainly take one of the top college lefties, either Drew Pomeranz (Ole Miss) or Chris Sale (Florida Gulf Coast University). With the next pick, the Diamondbacks are likely to take the other, although they could go with a couple of other college pitchers: high-risk UNC righty Matt Harvey, a Boras client, or the much safer Deck McGuire (Georgia Tech).

The intrigue really starts with the Mets at #7. If either Pomeranz or Sale are still on the board, New York seems likely to take them. If not, they could take a flyer on Harvey, although the amount of money they are able to spend may be limited. The other most likely names connected to the Mets is Arkansas 3B Zack Cox and late-rising high school catcher Justin O’Conner.

There is little consensus after that. The Astros will have a lot of talent to pick from at #8, and recently appear to be leaning towards hitters. The most likely names are Cox, Texas-Arlington OF Michael Choice, and high school OF Josh Sale.

Cox is a draft-eligible sophomore (normally college players are not eligible until after their junior season, but Cox is old enough to be an exception) with possibly the most big-league ready bat in the draft. He already makes contact very well, and could concievably add above-average power to his list of strengths, particularly as he has had one less year of experience than most other college draftees. Cox batted .427 for the Razorbacks this year; he sat out a game on Friday with rib and back injuries, but the move was strictly precautionary. There are two main drawbacks to drafting Cox. First and foremost, his position is an open question. Cox grew up as a third baseman, but recently shifted to second base. According to scouts, his instincts are better at second base, but his terrific arm – which enabled him to double as a relief pitcher at Arkansas – is better-suited at the hot corner. But possibly an even bigger factor is the money Cox is asking for. In the past few hours, it has come out that Cox may be demanding money similar to the $6 million third baseman Pedro Alvarez recieved from Pittsburgh last year, a request that has been ridiculed throughout the industry. I think Cox is the best propsect of these three, but if he’s actually asking for that great of a bonus, the Astros will – and should – pass.

Evan already discussed Choice earlier this week. He has tremendous power, an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale*, but that is his only above-average tool right now. He projects to be about an average defender in an outfield corner, so his bat will have to be very good for Choice to be an impact player in the big leagues. He doesn’t have a very pretty swing, and there is a very good chance that he won’t make enough contact to help the Astros much down the road. Choice hit .383/.568/.704 at UT-Arlington, but padded those numbers against weak competition – particularly the on-base percentage, as the rest of his lineup was no deterrent to teams pitching around the slugger. Like Evan, I don’t think Choice is a great fit for the Astros right now – he carries an unusually high risk for a college bat, risk that Houston doesn’t need to take – and I would rather see them take either Cox or Sale. However, the Astros are familiar with the school – they drafted Arlington’s Hunter Pence in the second round six years ago, and that turned out pretty well for them – and many believe they will hope for similar success this year. There’s a chance Choice doesn’t even make it to Houston, as both Cleveland at #5 and Arizona at 6 have a little bit of interest in him.

You can find a more detailed explanation of the scouting scale here. Players with a grade-80 tool are very rare – this would describe, say, Joey Gathright’s speed, or Joe Mauer’s hitting, or Cliff Lee’s command. A 20 skill would be Bengie Molina’s speed.

Sale – no relation to the pitcher Chris – is a high-school prospect from the state of Washington, a rarity in a sport that generally favors warm-weather locations. The Astros have been known to like Sale more than any other team, and there’s a very good chance they take the outfielder. Sale has more power than any other high school hitter in the draft, and although his swing mechanics aren’t great, his bat is quick enough that he’ll probably make contact anyways. He’s unlikely to offer a ton of defensive value because he isn’t a great athlete, but he compensates by making good reads and has the arm to play right field. Sale went seven consecutive games without making an out this season, and universally recieves great marks for his makeup and mentality. If Houston goes elsewhere with its first pick, there’s a small chance he’s still available at #19, but that’s been looking less likely over the past week or so.

One player I’d really like to see the Astros take a good look at is prep pitcher Karsten Whitson. A couple projections have linked Houston to the righty, but most have them going with a hitter at #8. I can see the reasons why the Astros might shy away – he’ll cost a little bit over slot, and amateur pitchers are generally a riskier bet than hitters. But Whitson is exactly the type of player they should be spending on, and exactly the type of pitcher they need in their system. Not only does Whitson have a strong fastball in the low- to mid-90s (with some room to add velocity), but he’s very advanced for a high school pitcher, with a great slider already and probably the best command of any prep arm. Law ranked Whitson the fifth-best prospect in the class, and others share a similarly high opinion of him. I think he would be the best pick for Houston at #8 – and if he’s available at 19, as at least two mock drafts have predicted, they should jump at the chance to grab him.

One player that the Astros should stay away from is McGuire. The Georgia Tech righty was the 2009 ACC Pitcher of the Year, and is one of the most polished arms in the draft, with four pitches and plus command. However, none of the four pitches really projects as an out pitch (though some think his slider could be very good), and with a straight, low-90s fastball, he’s unlikely to ever be more than a No. 3-4 starter. For some teams, a pitcher who needs very little development and is very likely to be a big league contributor is very valuable; for example, a team like Arizona, which looks to be a playoff contender in the near future and could use a little pitching boost, could use McGuire’s talents as they make a push in 2011-2012 and beyond. But Houston, quite frankly, would need a miracle to contend in the next few years; therefore, a pitcher like McGuire who can reach the big leagues quickly is not nearly as valuable to them.

Who might the Astros take at #19? If any of the above players slip that far, Houston certainly would consider them highly. But if not, as most expect, Houston’s primary target will be Delino DeShields, Jr. DeShields has all the tools – 80 speed, a pretty good bat and the potential to at least have a little bit of power once he fills out. He has a solid glove at second base, but projects better in the big leagues as a rangy centerfielder, putting his legs to better use. And he has a big-league pedigree – his father and namesake had a 13-year career in the big leagues as a second baseman. But DeShields is very, very raw, and his motivation has been questioned – scouts have reported that he mailed in some games in high school. He will also probably be a tougher sign than the average prospect, as he has a football commitment to LSU (he could be a pro prospect as a running back as well). The Astros are very high on him and would probably do what it takes to sign him at #19, as long as he is still on the board (which is likely, but not certain). I would be somewhat ambivalent about drafting him that highly – there are worse players they could take there – but if they were to reach for him at #8, as some have speculated, that would be an overdraft.

If the DeShields rumor doesn’t pan out, there are a few other players we might see the Astros take. Stetson Allie has been connected with just about every team in the 11-30 range. He has one of the two strongest arms in the draft (along with Taillon), throwing 95-98 with the ability to hit triple digits and above-average movement. But none of his secondary pitches are close to big-league ready right now, and only his slider has potential to be above-average. And like many hard-throwing teenagers, Allie often has no idea where the ball is going, although his command has improved during his senior season. He’ll also likely fetch a pretty penny, as he has a strong commitment to pitch and play third base (where he also would have pro potential) at UNC. I’m not as high on Allie as Evan is – there’s too great a chance he’ll never pan out or end up in the bullpen – but his ceiling is high enough that, if McLane is willing to spend, he would be a solid choice at #19.

Houston has been linked fairly often to Ball State second baseman Kolbrin Vitek. San Diego likes Vitek a lot at #9, and he has other suitors in the teens, but Houston will take a hard look at him if he drops (as will Boston one spot later). Vitek has played a number of positions so far, but seems unlikely to be a big-league infielder. Whoever does draft him will hope he has the skills to play center field, as his bat is nothing special in a corner. He has good bat speed and has hit well at every level, but projects to have average power at best and will have to learn the new position.

Other potential Houston selections at 19 include Texas A&M starter Barrett Loux, Texas pitcher Brandon Workman, Minnesota outfielder-turned-catcher Michael Kvasnika, high school pitcher Dylan Covey and toolsy prep outfielder Reggie Golden.

You can also check out an inside look at the Astros’ draft room from Alyson Footer.

Kevin Whitaker

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