After losing a franchise-record 111 games last season, Houston will lead off the 2014 Draft as well, becoming the first club to have the No. 1 choice in three consecutive years. All that losing can be tough to take, though it has helped the Astros build the game's strongest farm system .
Shortstop Carlos Correa and right-hander Mark Appel headline that system. Not only are they the most recent No. 1 overall picks, but they also form the best hitter/pitcher prospect tandem in baseball. (Jonathan Mayo disagrees , opting for the Twins' combo of outfielder Byron Buxton and right-hander Alex Meyer.)
Correa, ranked No. 8 on MLBPipeline.com's necently released Top 100 Prospects rankings , very well could claim the top spot on next year's list. Signed for $4.8 million after going No. 1 in the 2012 Draft, he had a spectacular first full pro season in the low Class A Midwest League last year. Though he was the second-youngest regular in the pitcher-friendly circuit at age 18, he batted .320/.405/.467 to lead the league with an .872 OPS.
In addition to his gaudy statistics, Correa has the tools to back them up -- plenty of them. His most notable attribute is his well-above-average power, which he generates with bat speed and the leverage of his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame. Correa should produce 30 homers on an annual basis in the Major Leagues, maybe more because he has the room to add considerable strength.
Correa's cannon arm gives him a second plus-plus tool and the ability to make plays from anywhere on the left side of the diamond. His bat grades as above average, as he controls the strike zone well and is good at making adjustments. While Correa's speed is merely average, his instincts help him be quicker than that on the bases and in the field.
With his arm and savvy, Correa could stick at shortstop for several years. At worst, he'll move to third base, where he could be a Gold Glover. He's extremely similar to Manny Machado of the Orioles in terms of his offensive potential and defensive versatility.
Before the Astros settled on Correa in 2012, they strongly considered Appel, moving on when they couldn't nail down the financial parameters it would take to sign him. He dropped to the Pirates at No. 8, declined a $3.8 million bonus to turn pro and returned for his senior season at Stanford.
Some scouts knocked Appel's makeup and desire when he stayed in college. But instead of regressing, like other first-rounders who have turned down seven-figure offers, he got better. Appel's stuff got a little firmer and his control got a little more precise, and as a bonus, he earned a degree in management science and engineering.
The second time around, Houston didn't pass on Appel, making him the 17th player to twice be taken in the first round of the June Draft. He signed for $6.35 million -- the largest bonus in Draft history for a college senior -- and spent most of his debut summer in the Midwest League with Correa. In 10 starts, Appel went 3-1 with a 3.79 ERA and a 33-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings.
Ranked No. 17 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list, Appel has the stuff to pitch at the front of the Astros rotation, not only in the very near future but also when the team is poised to contend again. His stuff wasn't quite as sharp after the layoff between his college and pro seasons, but that's typical and he should be at his best in 2014.
Appel's best pitch is his fastball, which sits in the mid-90s deep into games, peaks at 98 mph and lives down in the strike zone. He also can miss bats with his sharp slider and keep hitters off-balance with a solid changeup. Appel has no problems throwing strikes and does a good job of locating his pitches where he wants.
In Correa and Appel, Houston has a future No. 3 hitter and No. 1 starter. No other farm system can match that duo, and they're two prominent reasons why the Astros have much brighter days ahead.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.