HOUSTON -- There is no clear-cut No. 1 choice in the First-Year Player Draft for the second year in a row, which means the Astros are putting in extra man hours and doing even more homework to make sure they make the right selection when they make the top pick next month.
Having gone through the process of picking first overall last year, the Astros are once again under the microscope, but scouting director Mike Elias says the team will be thoroughly prepared when the Draft begins at 6 p.m. CT on June 6.
"We're at the point in the process where we've really got it narrowed down to our working group of the top seven players that we're basically going to discuss," Elias said. "Some of those players will have a greater likelihood than others, but all of them are still alive, to some extent, for the pick. Until we have all the information in front of us in one place, we don't want to rule any of them out completely, because somebody else might drop out."
Elias won't name names, but there are believed to be six leading candidates to go first: Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, San Diego third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant, Georgia high school outfielder Clint Frazier, Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray, Indiana State lefty Sean Manaea and Georgia high school outfielder Austin Meadows.
University of North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran is being scouted carefully, but he's more of a dark-horse candidate right now.
Elias, national crosschecker David Post, general manager Jeff Luhnow and other members of the front office have been scouting players for months, but the Astros want to get as much information as possible. All the scouts will convene in Houston in the days leading up to the Draft to narrow the field for No. 1.
Among the factors the Astros will take into consideration beyond getting a firsthand look at players are video, statistics, medical information and, of course, signability.
"We'll trim the list, eventually," Elias said. "When exactly that will happen, I don't know. It could be as late as Draft day -- and last year was as late as Draft day. We don't feel any particular rush to make a decision. Time is on our side. There's still baseball being played during those meetings. We're basically letting all the information percolate and allowing ourselves to analyze it and feel good about our decision before moving forward with it."
The Astros can spend up to $11,698,800 on picks in the first 10 rounds, as per the rules instituted prior to last year's Draft. That's an increase of their pool of $521,100 from 2012, when they took 17-year-old Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa with the No. 1 pick.
Luhnow and his staff got creative last year and were able to sign Correa for $2.4 million less than the signing bonus value Major League Baseball gave to the top spot. That flexibility helped Houston sign high-end talent like Lance McCullers Jr. and Rio Ruiz later on.
"It fell into place last year," Elias said. "I think that's something, if it happens, it's kind of a bonus, but it's not necessarily something you plan or take into account beforehand. I think it's possible that happens, sure, but I can't say I expect it at this point."
Luhnow has personally seen about seven or eight players the Astros are considering to take high in the Draft, and Elias and Post have seen numerous players as many as six times each. The team will hold four regional workouts leading up to the Draft get a closer look at possible picks.
Complicating matters this year is the fact that there are so many talented college pitchers, which makes it difficult to get to see them all in a 13-week season when they throw only on Fridays or Saturdays. If Gray, Manaea and Appel are pitching on a Friday, other college players may not get as many looks.
"It prevents you from seeing other college pitchers in the Draft class as much as you would like, because we have to spend so much on that one pick," Elias said. "If you're looking at a second- or third-rounder and he also throws on Friday or Saturday night, we have to make decisions on which of those guys to prioritize or we're not going to be able to see them all."
This year's Draft is heavy on left-handed pitching, which is a weakness in the Astros' improving farm system. But Houston is going to pick the best player available, Elias said.
"It seems like everybody's looking for more lefties in their system," he said. "I don't know if that means we'll get one, because you always want to take the best player available to you no matter the need, but we wouldn't complain if we came away with one of the lefties."
If the Astros learned anything from last year's Draft, it's that they're spending more time scouting a larger group of players and not trimming the list as rapidly. Instead of concentrating their looks on a few guys, they're trying to see as many players as they can for as long as possible.
"Other than that, we're pretty much using the same process as last year," Elias said. "We're getting a lot of opinions and waiting to combine them all in the same room. If you look historically at the Draft, certainly there are years where there's a very, very obvious No. 1 pick and everyone can see who it's going to be a year or so in advance, like with [Stephen] Strasburg and [Bryce] Harper.
"But when you don't have that, you're going to have different opinions in the room from the scouts and various other people who get involved. It's unavoidable. We make sure that we hear all those opinions and weigh them properly to make the best decision."