Astros Hold Top MLB Draft Pick, 20 Years After Passing on Jeter

The Houston Astros have plenty of options with the top pick in the Major League Baseball draft, their first No. 1 overall selection since 1992, when they took Phil Nevin over a high school shortstop named Derek Jeter.

While Nevin hit 208 home runs and made one All-Star appearance over 12 major league seasons with seven franchises, he played in only 18 games for the Astros. Jeter, drafted sixth overall in 1992 by the Yankees, has won five World Series titles and made 12 All-Star teams over 18 seasons in New York.

The Astros’ choice two decades ago demonstrates the uncertain science that is the MLB draft. Paul Shuey, B.J. Wallace, Jeffrey Hammonds and Chad Mottola were also selected ahead of Jeter that year.

“We’ve seen so many players that look like can’t-miss guys and then they either can’t do anything at the professional level or they don’t turn out to be nearly what we thought,” Scout.com national baseball analyst Frankie Piliere said in a telephone interview.

When the three-day, 40-round draft begins June 4, there’s no Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg-type prospect regarded as the clear-cut No. 1 pick for the Astros, who are seeking to improve a club that went an MLB-worst 56-106 in 2011. Strasburg and Harper were the consensus top picks in 2009 and 2010 for the Washington Nationals.

Among the Astros’ candidates for the top pick is a group of right-handed college pitchers: Mark Appel of Stanford University, Kevin Gausman of Louisiana State and Kyle Zimmer of the University of San Francisco.

Other options at No. 1 include Georgia high school outfielder Bryon Buxton, University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino and shortstop Carlos Correa from Puerto Rico.

Other Top Picks

The Minnesota Twins have the second pick, followed by the Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals. The New York Mets pick 12th, while the Yankees are at No. 30.

Astros rookie general manager Jeff Luhnow told reporters his franchise has a unique opportunity. It’s also one he hopes to have for the last time, as the team with the sport’s worst record gets the top pick the following season.

“When you have a chance to get the best amateur player in baseball, you’ve got to capitalize on it,” Luhnow said.

Harper, a 19-year-old outfielder, was the No. 1 pick for the Nationals in 2010, one year after Strasburg, a 23-year-old pitcher, was taken by Washington with the top selection. Both have already had an impact in the majors, helping the Nationals to a 29-21 start and first place in the NL East division after seven straight non-winning seasons.

“People got a little spoiled by that, but that’s pretty rare,” Scout.com’s Piliere said. “Strasburg, I don’t think anyone has seen a college pitcher like him.”

Draft Since 1965

Since the first MLB draft in 1965, two of the players taken with the No. 1 pick have won a Rookie of the Year award: Bob Horner and Darryl Strawberry. None of the first overall picks has made the Baseball Hall of Fame, though players such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones aren’t yet eligible.

MLB.com’s latest mock draft has Appel, a 20-year-old junior, projected as the top pick for Houston. A semifinalist for the Golden Spikes award as college baseball’s best player, Appel has a 9-1 record with a 2.37 earned run average in 14 starts for Stanford this season. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder has 116 strikeouts and 24 walks in 110 innings.

Gausman, 19, is a possible No. 1 pick two years after being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the sixth round. He’s put on 30 pounds in two college seasons at LSU and the 6-foot-4, 195-pounder went 10-1 with a 2.84 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 107 2/3 innings as a sophomore this year.

Maturing in College

“It’s been great to grow as a person, mature,” Gausman told MLB.com. “I can’t imagine having been in the minors after high school.”

Zimmer, 20, is a converted third baseman who can hit 99 miles per hour (159 kilometers per hour) with his fastball. He’s recorded a 2.59 earned run average at San Francisco this season, with 96 strikeouts and 15 walks in 83 1/3 innings.

While Strasburg agreed to an amateur-record deal in 2009 that gave him $15 million in guaranteed money, the Astros’ draft budget has already been set, as MLB has established bonus numbers for picks in the first 10 rounds.

The Astros’ bonus pool for their 11 picks over those 10 rounds is $11.7 million, including a $7.2 million bonus for the top pick, MLB.com said. The commissioner’s office will hand down financial penalties to teams that exceed the bonus pool.

Luhnow said the organization is excited to have the top pick -- two decades after the selection of Nevin -- and maintained that whatever direction the Astros decide to go won’t be as important as their overall draft.

“It’s really a portfolio,” Luhnow said. “You have to have enough hits each year to keep the organization strong.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Matuszewski in New York at matuszewski@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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