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Rule Changes, Talent Concerns Mark MLB Draft

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (AP) — TNEW YORK (AP) — Most major league teams agree that there’s no Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper in this year’s baseball draft.

There’s not even a Gerrit Cole or Danny Hultzen, last year’s first two picks, at the top of the class.

So, without a clear-cut No. 1 prospect and several significant rule changes in place, teams face some intriguing decisions and an unpredictable first round in this year’s draft that starts Monday night with the Houston Astros leading things off.

“It’s a below-average draft as far as drafts go, and it’s certainly down from last year as far as depth and premium players in the first round,” said Sean Johnson, Minnesota’s West Coast scouting supervisor. “It’s lean in certain spots.”

Allotted spending caps based on the number and placement of team’s picks, and an earlier signing deadline are among the changes clubs will navigate this year. The draft also is shorter now, pared down from 50 to 40 rounds.

“I’m old school,” said Seattle scouting director Tom McNamara, whose team picks third. “I wish it was 70 rounds. You may find a guy in the 55th round. I was an undrafted free agent as a player, so maybe I would have been drafted if there were 100 rounds.”

The Astros have the No. 1 pick for the first time since taking Phil Nevin in 1992 — one of five teams to pass on a young shortstop named Derek Jeter, selected sixth overall by the New York Yankees.

This time around, Houston is confident it will get a player who could make a significant impact on the franchise, even if many teams aren’t overly excited about the options.

“In an ideal world, you’d have a player pick themselves like that, one that was obviously separated like Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey, or more recently with Harper and Strasburg,” said Astros scouting director and assistant general manager Bobby Heck. “But the positive that comes out of it is that we have options, we have choices.”

Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, Florida catcher Mike Zunino, LSU righty Kevin Gausman and Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton are expected to be among the players picked early.

“I think I can verify that it’s thinner than some, but there’s no excuse, though,” said Twins GM Terry Ryan, whose team drafts second. “You’re going to hear about players that come out of this draft and four, five, six years from now, there will be players that are good major league players, that weren’t talked about. … If we don’t get any good players out of this draft, then shame on us.”

Appel is considered the likely No. 1, which would mark the first time that the top draft picks in MLB and the NFL (Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts) have come from the same school. Appel has a mid-90s fastball and is 10-1 with 2.27 ERA for the Cardinal.

Zunino is a slugging catcher who has been compared to Jason Varitek for his leadership and how he handles a pitching staff, while Gausman is a fireballer who was one of the country’s top pitchers. Buxton, from Appling County High School in Georgia, is considered a five-tool player whose bat is considered the best among all draft prospects.

“At the end of the day, this draft is filled with a number of players that are going to play in the big leagues for a long time,” Houston GM Jeff Luhnow said, “and we need to do our best to try to figure out which ones we want to be wearing Astros uniforms.”

That’s the charge, of course, for all 32 teams — while also determining how the new draft rules affect the decision-making process.

Under baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, teams will have a pool of bonus money from which to sign players. The Astros, for example, have about $11.2 million to use as bonuses on their 11 picks through the 10th round. The Twins, who have 13 picks in 10 rounds, have about $12.4 million to use for bonuses.

Teams face a punitive tax and the possibility of losing draft picks if they stray from the prescribed bonuses.

If a player doesn’t sign, the team loses the amount for that slot. And if a player signs for less than the slot, the team could shift that money to other picks. For players selected in the 11th round and beyond, portions of signing bonuses above $100,000 would count against the bonus pool.

“I think it’s interesting in the sense that it has some protections from the previous system that was much more easily manipulated,” said Bobby Evans, San Francisco’s vice president of baseball operations. “There’s certainly some elements set up that will guard against manipulating a given player’s slot and where he’s taken in the draft.”

Teams will now have until mid-July to sign their draft picks, instead of the previous mid-August deadline. That could affect clubs’ approaches in targeting players who have a greater chance of signing. But it also could sway high school players, who might choose to go to college instead. And because multimillion-dollar signing bonuses will no longer be available in lower rounds, more college juniors might opt to stay in school.

“I think it does have potentially some effects on high school players maybe being harder to sign them unless they’re taken really high,” Evans said. “Because of the slotting dollars, as they fall lower and lower, it will be harder to sign them at some of those smaller slots. This could potentially be very beneficial to the colleges, but it could hurt some of the young high school talents’ chances of signing.”

Major league teams have been preparing for months to operate with the changes, which Luhnow anticipates are here to stay.

“I think we’re going to all learn how to operate under this current environment and there will be some differences in terms of how clubs approach it,” Luhnow said, “but this is the CBA, this is how it’s going to be for the ongoing future. So we’re ready for it.”

The first and supplemental rounds are held Monday night at MLB Network Studios in Secaucus, N.J., with the remaining rounds completed via conference calls among the teams over the next two days.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)