The Houston Astros' hands have been somewhat tied in recent drafts, and 2004 will be no different. While they have enjoyed the short-term benefits from the splashy free agent signing of Jeff Kent in 2002 and Andy Pettitte in 2003, the drawback is one that does not affect them now, but has lingering effects on the future. With each signing, they have to wave goodbye to their first-round draft pick privileges the following year.
This year, the Astros will not pick until deep into the second round. The Yankees, Pettitte's former team, inherit the Astros' first pick, which comes up 23rd in the order.
"That's tough," general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "It really has an effect on your system, because there's a lag effect on the amateur draft. If you have a weak amateur draft, your system suffers for two or three years to come, just because of the time it takes to develop players. It really does put you behind the 8-ball, no question."
In the last decade, the Astros have focused mainly on college players, and most of the first-rounders have been pitchers. Beginning with the selection of Billy Wagner in 1993, the Astros have picked seven pitchers, two infielders, one outfielder and one catcher as their first-round choice.
Of those 11, two are members of the current Astros team: Lance Berkman (1997) and Brad Lidge (1998). Two are playing for other Major League teams: Wagner (Phillies) and Ramon Castro (Marlins) and one, infielder Chris Burke, is on the cusp of breaking into the Majors.
The Astros' philosophy has always been to pick the best available player, regardless of position. Will this year be the same?
Yes and no. While they still plan to keep their eye out for the best player, the Astros will not ignore the fact that they do have some needs to fill in several position-player categories. The problem is, draft classes typically are not overflowing with talent when it comes to "skill positions" -- that is, catcher, shortstop and center field.
Past five No. 1 picks Year Player 2003 NONE 2002 Derick Grigsby, RHP 2001 Christopher Burke, SS 2000 Robert Stiehl, C 1999 NONE
Despite replenishing their system with speedy outfielders Willy Taveras and Luke Scott in the Jeriome Robertson trade toward the end of Spring Training, Hunsicker would like to fish around for some more talent in that area.
"You've got to go for the best ability," Hunsicker said. "But having said that, with the lack of position players available, compunded with the lack of real position-player prospects we have in our system, if there's position players available in our first few (rounds) and the quality is as good as or close to the pitcher, we'll probably lean toward a position player this year.
"We're particularly thin in the catching position," Hunsicker continued, adding that they don't have much in the way of first and third basemen, either. "Catching, power and speed are three areas that we'd really like to add. We're thin on position players. If anything, we've got a few shortstops throughout the organization."