The consensus first-overall talent and pick in next week's 2013 MLB draft is Jonathan Gray. The Houston Astros, who have the first pick, have been rumored to be interested in someone else for the last couple of weeks, however. Thursday, ESPN's Keith Law released his second iteration of his mock draft, and it had this someone else, rather than Gray, going to Houston: Colin Moran, University of North Carolina third baseman, just might be the first-overall selection in this summer's draft.
Why Moran, though? Why would the Astros take someone who, according to consensus, is more like the fifth pick or maybe even later, depending on who you ask? It has everything to do with the new draft systems introduced by the latest collective bargaining agreement.
The last version of the draft had recommended values attached to each pick, known as slot values. They were just a recommendation, though: commissioner Bud Selig would shake his head in disapproval in a team's desire to spend money and better their future, but a finger wag and a sideways look were about as much punishment as was bestowed. Now, though, teams are allotted a specific amount of money based on where they pick and how often, and there are penalties such as lost future draft picks for going too far over the limits.
That's where Moran comes in. The Astros, by virtue of selecting first in each round of the draft, have the largest draft budget at $11,698,800. Of that total, $7,790,400 is assigned to the first-overall pick. By selecting someone like Moran with the first pick, they can offer him more money than he would make with say, the Indians, who select fifth and have $3,787,400 to spend on their first pick, but much, much less than they would have if they selected Gray, who is likely going to sign at least at the slot recommendation as he's a junior who can leverage his senior year of college into negotiations, like Mark Appel did with the Pirates last year.
Photo credit: Bob Levey
So, let's say they sign Moran for $4 million, leaving them an "extra" $3.8 million or so to work with. They can then use that on their second pick, who could be someone with signability concerns that fell to the second round because of them, or spread it out among high-upside high schools picks who won't start coming off of the board until the fifth, sixth, or whatever rounds later in the draft. Money would be the one thing that could entice them to abandon moving on to college, and the Astros will, in theory, have plenty of it leftover, especially since they have nearly $1.4 million earmarked for their second pick even without the savings from Moran.
Moran would give them a talent with a lower ceiling than Gray, but this strategy would allow the Astros to try to spread the wealth among more prospects, better filling out a system that could use that very thing -- it's nowhere near as poor as it was in the recent past, but still, given the state of the major-league roster, the more chances for homegrown talent, the better.
They've already done this once, too. In the 2012 draft, the Astros took Carlos Correa first, a pick that had a value of $7.2 million. They signed him for $4.8 million instead, but didn't do so to cheap out on the draft: they ended up going slightly over their total budget, as you're allowed to do to a point without punishment. As it could be this year, the plan was to essentially create, for lack of a better word, resources to spend elsewhere.
It's not the way every team wants to use the draft, but given last summer and the rumors about this year's, it sounds as if this is the strategy for the Astros. Whether it pays off or not is one of those things we won't know for a few years, maybe not even until there's a new CBA in place with even more new draft rules.