Allow me to do something different this year. Rather than making a specific table-pounding case for any of the six reported candidates for the Astros' 1-1 selection in this year's draft - Aiken, Rodon, Jackson, Kolek, Nola and Gordon - I'm going to pound the table for whoever agrees to a significantly under-slot deal. That's right -- I'm officially making the case for letting this be all about the Benjamins. Yes, I feel a little ... gross and dirty ... for proposing this but this year it actually makes the most sense, both financially and in terms of building a winning club.
Before getting into the reasoning, let's review how the slot system works. Under the new CBA, which went into effect for the 2012 draft, teams are allotted a total bonus pool, with specific assigned slot values for every pick in the first ten rounds. The team allotments are based on the number and value of their picks. The value differences aren't linear -- the higher the picks, the greater the range between picks. So there is a 1.1 million difference between Houston's 1-1 and Miami's 1-2 but only a 110K difference between Toronto 9th overall and the Mets at 10th. This means that the worst teams generally are allotted a lot more money to spend. There is some wiggle room but generally teams that want to overspend are deterred from doing so by penalties.
But it's not just a matter of deciding you want to follow the strategy. There are prereqs, which means there is extra risk involved. Those prereqs are:
- You need a large enough draft pool. Houston has the second largest pool (about 13.3 million) behind the Marlins (14.2), which has four of the first 43 selections. Houston has three of the first 37 picks.
- You need a player at or near the top who is willing to sign for enough under slot to make the difference.
- You need a difficult-to-sign player or players you like who you think will in the end agree to sign.
This one is key and, as far as I can tell, mostly unnoticed: your second pick needs to be before the second pick of any other team capable and willing to do the same thing, with the same target(s). This one may seem arcane and unlikely but KC, after raising eyebrows with their 'reach-y' selection of Hunter Dozier then selected Sean Manaea with their comp pick (#34 overall), a player the Astros were reportedly interested in. Last year the Astros didn't have a comp pick so they were, in hindsight, vulnerable. This year they do (#37) so this helps limit the field of teams who could beat the Astros at their own game. But, unfortunately, it doesn't eliminate it.
Which teams have the cash and picks to do it? Well, Miami for one. They have the 2nd and 36th picks. They could very well wind up snagging Houston's guy just one pick before the Astros. The Blue Jays have the 9th and 11th picks, valued at about 3.1 and 2.9 million, respectively. In order to make the math work, they would have to really reach on that 9th selection. But they have the first second pick in the draft so this is a real possibility, especially considering KC pulled this off last year from the 8th overall selection. Along the same lines, the Rockies pick 8th and 35th.
Two years ago, the Astros famously (or infamously, for some critics) used some version of this strategy with their selection of Carlos Correa, who signed for 4.8 million, which was about 2.5 million under slot. They used the savings to create a signing bonus large enough (2.5 million, double the slot value) to entice Lance McCullers -- a mid-first round talent thought to be a difficult sign -- away from his commitment to the University of Florida. Many have criticized them for passing on Byron Buxton, considered by many to be the top talent in that draft. But the front office has long avowed Correa was on top of their board, an idea I've always found quite plausible given his ceiling and position and is certainly gaining support by his play this year.
Last year they signed Appel, a player who was one of the three guys -- with Bryant and Gray -- considered to be more or less equal and legitimate candidates for the 1-1. By all indications, Appel was at the top of the Astros' board. Nonetheless, they were able to sign him for 6.35 million, which was actually about 1.4 million under slot. If they can sign a legitimate 1-1 candidate for that much under slot, it stands to reason they could get even greater savings by choosing one of this year's heavily flawed candidates. Given that Correa signed for 4.8 million and was a legitimate top five candidate, I'm ballparking 5 million as the number. But really that's just a nice round number. The strategy looks roughly the same if the number is as high as 5.5 million.
I've chosen this route reluctantly. I really wish there were a guy I could fully get behind but there just simply isn't. I'm sure some will beg to differ but each one of the guys being mentioned seems to me more like a 1-5 or 1-10 pick, not a 1-1. They each have their drawbacks: Rodon's got the bad senior year and the worries about injuries; Jackson's got the likely position change and a not-so-high ceiling; Aiken and Kolek are both prep pitchers, which is frightening. Kolek would actually be unprecedented, as a righty prep pitcher. Nola and Gordon or so tagged with 'non 1-1ness' that they're considered darkhorses in an already flawed group.
They are all perfectly fine ball players, each of whom will cause me to give at least a cheer and a half if and when his name is called on Thursday night. What I will really be looking forward to is the comp pick and, later, the contract and its details. It's not that I don't have a favorite. I do - I'm reluctantly leaning toward Aiken, having been scared off of Rodon. It's just that I'm so reluctant and nonchalant in my support as to be entirely unwilling and reluctant to pound the table for him. I am quite excited, almost gaga, though, about the possibility the Astros FO could do what has inspired so much speculation and make their decision largely based on the number of big bags of money it will take to reach agreement with the pick.
Here is how I propose the club go about this. The Astros should make an ordered list and go down it, offering each guy in turn five million. Out of the six the club may or may not have it narrowed down to, my personal preferred order would be Aiken, Rodon, Jackson, Nola, Kolek, and Gordon (although I really don't think Gordon belongs on this short list). Your guess is as good as mine as to what the actual FO preference is. But it doesn't matter for this discussion. Whatever the order, the first player who agrees is the 2014 MLB draft 1-1 selection. The club could offer a sliding scale if their preferences are somewhat stronger than I assume they are. Perhaps Aiken would get a 5.75 million offer, for example.