HOUSTON – The Houston Astros have improved their farm system from worst to near first in the last couple of years.
On Thursday night, they'll have a chance to boost their young talent again when they pick first overall in the draft for the second consecutive year.
In 2012, they selected high school shortstop Carlos Correa with the No. 1 pick. This year they'll look to add another top-tier player to help with their long-term rebuilding process.
General manager Jeff Luhnow said they have whittled their list to between three and eight players, but both he and scouting director Mike Elias insist they haven't zeroed in on a choice yet.
"The decision will be made at some point on Thursday," Elias said. "We continue to have discussions all week. We get as much information in front of us as possible and we hear from every voice, and we don't feel like there's any need or advantage to making the decision earlier than we have to."
Top prospects in this year's group include Oklahoma pitcher Jonathan Gray and Stanford pitcher Mark Appel. Gray has been drafted twice before and Appel was taken eighth overall by the Pirates last season, but returned for his senior season after failing to work out a deal with the Pirates.
There's also San Diego slugger Kris Bryant, who hit .329 with 31 homers, 62 RBIs and an .820 slugging percentage as a junior. Another strong hitting prospect is North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran, who hit .348 with 86 RBIs this year.
If Houston wants to go the high school route again, there's a duo of Georgia outfielders at the top of the heap in Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows. Frazier is a speedy player who many believe has advanced hitting skills for a high schooler. Meadows seems to have a bigger upside than Frazier, but his skills are more raw. Still, his athleticism and defensive skills, coupled with his left-handed hitting, have him among the top talents in this draft.
Another interesting top prospect is Houston high school pitcher Kohl Stewart. Signability could be an issue with Stewart because he's also a star quarterback who is committed to play at Texas A&M in the fall.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said Wednesday he's had several conversations with Stewart and his family, but doesn't know which way he's leaning. Either way the Aggies have told him they would welcome him into the program later if he decides to try baseball first, like former Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden did.
After choosing a position player last year with the first pick, some would think Houston would lean toward adding a pitcher. Luhnow insists that what happened in 2012 will have no bearing on this year's decision.
"With the first pick we're looking for the player that will have the biggest impact on the Houston Astros over the next 10 to 15 years," he said. "You really can't worry too much about what you have or what you don't have in your current organization. That's an opportunity to take the best player for your organization."
Luhnow is proud of the strides Houston has made in rebuilding its farm system in recent years. The Astros traded away their veterans to restock their minor league ranks. The Astros have several prospects believed to be among the top 100 in baseball this season, and Houston's Triple-A, Double-A and Class A teams all currently lead their divisions.
Luhnow was very successful in running the draft for St. Louis before joining the Astros. Last season was the first time he was tasked with making the top overall selection. He found it easier than picking later because he didn't have to worry that other teams would mess up his plans.
Still, he admitted that choosing first was a bit more stressful than having a lower slot.
"It's a lot of pressure because 1-1 is supposed to have a big impact and we will find someone who will have a big impact," he said. "I think it's also a great opportunity for the Houston Astros organization. This is the second year in a row that we've done it, and we don't want to continue to do it too much longer, but it is an opportunity to take the very top talent in the draft and we're looking forward to it."