With the draft just over a month away (June 4-6), there still doesn’t seem to be any indication on whom the Houston Astros will select with the first-overall pick. At 6-12, and headed to another possible 100-loss season, the organization has many needs. They also have $11,177,700 in bonus pool money to spend on the draft, second only to the Minnesota Twins at $12,368,200. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams have an allotted amount of money to spend on their picks for the first 10 rounds. Each draft position has a predetermined dollar amount attached to it, such as up to $7.2MM for the first pick all the way to $125,000 for picks 300 and on. Teams must adhere to these new rules or face a hefty 75 percent tax charge on overages.
With the Astros moving to the American League West next season, owner Jim Crane might want to make sure he hits on this first pick. After all, their recent track record in the draft is nothing to brag about. After building a contender in the 1990s by selecting players like Phil Nevin in 1992, Billy Wagner in 1993, Lance Berkman in 1997 and Brad Lidge in 1998, they haven’t selected a single All-Star caliber player in the first round since. In fact, six of their last 15 first-round draft picks aren’t even playing baseball anymore, and only four, Chris Burke, Brian Bogusevic, Jordan Lyles and Jason Castro have made it the majors.
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With a farm system ranking near the bottom in baseball, and not a lot of money to spend on free agents, the draft is where they need to rebuild. There are many ways they could approach this draft and here are five players they should target with the first-overall pick.
Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford
Appel seems to be the safest, and is arguably the most polished pitcher in the draft. At 6’-5”, the right-hander dials his fastball in the upper-90s and his frame projects him as a durable frontline starter at the next level. He averages eight innings per start, tops in the nation, and he has completed four games on the season. He is holding opponents to a .203 average and has only allowed two home runs on the season, both coming on March 2 in a game where he allowed seven runs over eight innings picking up his only loss of the season to Fresno State. He did strike out 11 batters in that game, however. Along with his fastball, he features a plus swing-and-miss slider, an above-average change-up with late fade and will also mix in a cutter. He should be a quick riser to the show and would give them an ace in the mold of a Justin Verlander-type for years.
Byron Buxton, OF, Appling County HS (GA)
It is hard to find a knock on Buxton’s game. The 6’-1”, right-hander has drawn comparisons to Justin Upton due to his all-around game. He is an exceptional athlete who excels both at the plate and on the mound. As good as he is on the mound, 6-0, 1.65 ERA, 67 K/9 BB over 34 innings this season, his offensive potential is what scouts love. His elite speed, extremely quick wrists and raw power make him the total package of speed and power and a legitimate 30/30 guy down the road. He was hitting .519 with 10 doubles, three triples and is a perfect 18-for-18 in stolen base attempts through his first 18 games. He also drew 18 walks to just one strikeout, showing an advanced approach at the plate and the patience to take what the opposition is giving him — nothing. He also shines on the defensive side where his speed, strong and accurate arm, and overall instincts for the game will make him a great right fielder at the next level. At just 18 years old, the Astros would have to be patient and wait for him to develop over the next three years or so. The wait, however, would be well worth it.
Kyle Zimmer, RHP, San Francisco
Zimmer’s fastball has been clocked at 99 mph, and it has great, late life to it. He also has a power curve that projects to a true wipe-out pitch, an above-average slider and change-up, and he has superb control of all four pitches. The scary part is he hasn’t been pitching for that long. He hardly pitched in high school, spending most of his time in the outfield, and only pitched five innings his freshman season. At 6’-3” and 225 pounds, the junior has the ideal frame to be a workhorse at the next level. He was kept on a short leash over his first four starts, averaging 5.3 innings per start, but has averaged 8.1 innings over his last six, including back-to-back shutouts in which he struck out 20 batters while allowing just eight hits over 18 innings. His 6.8 K/BB ratio ranks in the top 10 among starters. He will need more minor league seasoning than Appel due to being a little raw in some areas, but his ceiling is higher than Appel’s as his stuff has more potential.
Lucas Giolito, RHP, Harvard-Westlake HS (CA)
Giolito comes with a little risk as he was shut down for the year due to a shoulder strain. Even though the injury isn’t as serious as once thought (the shut-down was mostly as a precaution), it will still be in the back of everyone’s minds come draft day. Still, no one in this draft has the kind of potential that the 6’-6”, 200-pound right-hander has in his arm. His fastball was clocked at 100 mph a couple of times before the injury, and even if he takes a little off when he returns, it is still a lethal pitch. Both his slider and curveball are already above-average pitches with both projecting to plus down the line. Once he refines his off-speed stuff, his repertoire will be absolutely filthy and unfair. He also has great mound presence and the game appears effortless to him. He has a commitment to UCLA in his back pocket, but if he is selected first-overall, odds are he will sign.
Mike Zunino, C, Florida
The Astros have a history of selecting catchers in the first round, taking three during the last eight drafts. Zunino is about as can’t-miss at the position as you will find as both his defense and bat are major league ready. At 6’-2” and 225 pounds, the junior makes for a big target behind the dish and has the footwork and arm to be a gold-glove caliber back stop. As a sophomore last season, he was named first team All-American and SEC Player of the Year after hitting .371 with 23 doubles, 19 home runs, 67 RBI and a 1.117 OPS over 70 games. Through 40 games this season, he is hitting .338 with 16 doubles, 12 home runs, 43 RBI and a 1.094 OPS. He has more extra-base hits (28) than singles (23), showing the kind of power he possesses from the right side. Offensive catchers are a hot commodity these days and Zunino reminds some of Mike Piazza because of his power and ability to hit for a high average. His defense is way better, however. He is a high-character player and a true leader.