Astros MLB Draft Preview
By Matt Appel
For the second year in a row, the Astros are #1….but not exactly in the way they’d like to be. After picking first overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, Houston once again owns the top pick in 2013, joining the Rays in 2007-2008 and the Nationals in 2009-2010 as the only teams ever to have back-t0-back #1 overall selections. Those teams are both now annual playoff contenders, so there is certainly reason to believe that the Astros’ future will be significantly brighter than its immediate past.
While the consensus on this year’s pool of draftees is that it’s lacking in a true generational player and overall not as deep as in the past few years, there is still a slew of very talented players the Astros are considering with their first round selection. Specifically, there are reportedly four players Houston is strongly considering taking Thursday night. After taking 17-year old SS Carlos Correa first overall last year, it appears the ‘Stros are looking at more polished, collegiate players in 2013. Below are the suspected candidates for the #1 pick and their scouting reports.
(Shameless plug alert: We will be hosting a live draft chat for the first and second rounds of the draft starting at 6:30 Thursday night. Look for the link later tonight or Thursday morning on where to go to join in on the conversation and follow the draft as it happens)
Jonathan Gray-RHP, Oklahoma Gray, by most accounts, is the #1 prospect in this year’s draft pool. The right-hander has a very powerful 6’4″, 239 frame, which contributes strongly to his often over-powering fastball. Gray typically works between 94-97 MPH, but can hit 100 effortlessly. His slider has also developed into a “plus pitch” according to scouts, meaning that it is a go-to out pitch. His change-up is also a pitch that he can get a lot of swings and misses with, which gives Gray three pitches that he feels confident throwing with 2 strikes. Here is a highlight video of Gray’s complete game shutout of Northwestern back in March. Out of any pitcher in this draft class, Gray has the most upside and greatest potential to be a true ace in the Majors. According to Baseball America, Gray’s stuff is similar to Gerrit Cole, the 2010 first overall selection of the Pirates and a likely top of the line starter once he reaches the majors. Baseball America likens Gray’s ability to get stronger as a game progresses to Justin Verlander, and any time you get compared to Justin Verlander, you’re doing something right.
On Monday, it was reported that Gray had tested positive for Adderall, a banned simulant unless taken with a prescription, in pre-draft testing. This positive test will not result in any sort of suspension for Gray, but it will subject him to additional testing once he begins his pro career, according to the report. It isn’t clear whether or not this hurts Gray’s chances of being picked first by Houston, but some insiders, including ESPN’s Keith Law, who broke the story, do not believe it hurts his draft stock. If I were Houston GM Jeff Luhnow, Gray’s positive test wouldn’t diminish my opinion of him. It has been suggested that Gray’s positive test could be spun as a negotiating ploy by the Astros, should they take him, to lower his signing price so that more money could be spent on player in the later rounds. He is nowhere near as close to a sure thing to be picked first as he was a few days ago, but it would still be a mild surprise if Gray still did not go to Houston.
Mark Appel-RHP, Stanford You might recall Appel as being a top prospect in last year’s draft as he went 7th overall to Pittsburgh. In fact, it was speculated for months leading up to the draft that Houston might take Appel with last year’s #1 selection. Appel, a Scott Boras client, didn’t wind up signing with the Pirates and returned to Stanford for his senior year. That calculated risk has appeared to pay off, as the righty is bound to go higher than 7th this time around. The most major-league ready pitcher available, Appel fine-tuned his pitches this season, leading the Cardinal pitching staff with arguably his best overall college campaign. He went 10-4 with a 2.12 ERA, and a career-high K/9 rate. He also held batters to a career-best .230 batting average. Appel’s fastball reaches 98 MPH at times, and combined with a sweeping slider that generates a lot of misses, creates a dangerous 1-2 punch. Here’s some footage from an Appel start versus USC during the regular season. Appel clocks in at an athletic 6’5″, 215 frame. He was a basketball standout in high school as well.
There have been some questions about the difficulty of negotiating with Appel because of Boras, but considering he is out of options and has to sign or sit out a year of professional baseball, the process shouldn’t anywhere near as frustrating as it was with Pittsburgh last year. However, his monetary demands will probably still be very high. Appel is as close to a sure thing as there is in this draft, with his ceiling being a very high #2 starter. If the Astros choose to pass on Gray for whatever reason, Appel would be a very nice consolation prize. He projects to move through the Minors rather quickly, and could see the Majors by late 2014-early 2015.
Kris Bryant-3B/OF, San Diego Bryant is the most intriguing collegiate position player in this draft, and has one of the highest ceilings. After turning in a historic junior season, in which he hit a staggering 31 home runs in just 62 games, Bryant certainly has the potential to be the first player taken off the board Thursday night. Bryant’s greatest tool is outstanding right handed power, showcased by his ability to hit the ball out to any part of the ballpark. The Las Vegas native managed to out-homer 228 of the 296 Division 1 team. Yes, you read that right. A good, wide approach at the plate and strong swing through the zone leave scouts thinking Bryant will be at least hit for respectable averages (somewhere in the .270-.290 range). His plate discipline is also something scouts gush over, as Bryant led all NCAA hitters in total walks and walks per game this past season. The other parts of Bryant’s game project as at least average, with his defensive range at third being the most questionable. Most scouting reports mention a position change as possible for Bryant. However, a plus arm envokes the comparison of Troy Glaus for some scouts. Check out this link for video of Bryant both in the field and at the plate.
Bryant, more so than almost any other player in this draft, has the ceiling of a multiple All-Stars and league-leading power totals. His solid frame (6’5″, 215) allows him to play a number of positions, so whatever team winds up drafting him won’t have to worry about finding a place for him in a lineup. Bryant will probably be the first position player taken in the draft, whether that is at #1, #2, or #3 overall. Bryant playing 81 games a year in Minute Maid Park might be a very exciting scenario for the Astros, and make Bryant a very realistic choice for the team.
Colin Moran-3B, North Carolina In the past week, there has been a lot of buzz circling Moran as a real option for Houston with their pick. Interestingly enough, it wouldn’t be the first time someone in Moran’s family went first overall. In 1985, Moran’s uncle, B.J. Surhoff, was the Milwaukee Brewers’ choice at #1. Moran has put together a spectacular junior season for the top-seeded Tar Heels, hitting .357 with 13 HR and 84 RBI. However, of the four players still in contention (we think) for the first overall pick, Moran’s tools are the least spectacular. His defense at third is average, his speed is below-average. Despite these shortcomings, Moran, who is 6’3″, 215, projects as a player who will most likely hit for average at the Major League level, with slightly-above left handed average power. This video is a compilation of Moran’s 2013 highlights, as he was named ACC Player of the Year.
Moran’s ceiling isn’t that high, but almost every scout who has an opinion to offer on Moran says he will be at least a solid regular in the MLB. Some call him “safe” at the first spot, and is essentially a lock to go pretty early in the draft. While maybe not as “sexy” a pick as the other three, Moran seems destined for the majors at some point within the next few years for whatever team selected him.
Prediction: The Astros surprised almost everyone in 2012 when they took Carlos Correa first overall. I don’t see any surprise of that magnitude coming this year. It would make sense that after taking a position player first last year that Houston would be looking for a pitcher this time around. Gray and Appel both offer high-end potential with little minor league conditioning required. If the Astros are drafting for the best player available, Gray seems to be the choice. If the organization makes the pick based on highest upside, Kris Bryant will be gone at #1. Appel, despite his Major League readiness, is probably the third option, mainly due to the price tag that he comes with. Moran, while rumors persist that he might be the Astros’ guy, would be the 4th option for me. Like I said earlier, it would still mildly surprise me if Gray isn’t the first player picked in the draft. From what I’ve read and watched, he seems to be the player most likely in this draft at this point to have the highest degree of successful in the Majors. Ultimately, I think it comes down to Gray and Bryant, with the Astros’ need for a true #1 type hurler being the determining factor.