HOUSTON -- If there's one thing the Astros have learned about having the first pick in the First-Year Player Draft for an unprecedented third year in a row is that they don't want to have to do it again for a long time.
On one hand, it's a chance to land an impact player who could help them sooner rather than later, but at the same time, the organization knows it's time to start piling up the wins at the Major League level. The 2014 Astros have shown signs of taking a step forward, and the additions of prospects George Springer and Jon Singleton this year are an indication they're headed in the right direction.
That future could hinge on shortstop Carlos Correa and pitcher Mark Appel -- the two players the Astros took with the No. 1 pick the past two years -- and they'll have another chance to add a premium talent when they pick first Thursday.
The 2014 Draft will take place Thursday to Saturday, beginning with the Draft preview show on MLB.com and MLB Network on Thursday at 5 p.m. CT. Live Draft coverage from MLB Network's Studio 42 begins at 6 p.m., with the top 74 picks being streamed on MLB.com and broadcast on MLB Network. MLB.com's exclusive coverage of the second and third days will begin with a live Draft show at 11:30 a.m. CT on Friday.
MLB.com's coverage includes Draft Central, the Top 200 Draft Prospects list and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. Every selection will be tweeted live from @MLBDraftTracker, and you can also keep up to date by following @MLBDraft. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.
"You need to hit on 1-1," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "It's critical, because you're making a big investment and it's also an opportunity to take the best player out there. It's one of those things that we expect that we're going to get a return on that pick."
Two years ago, the Astros signed Correa to a $4.8 million deal, which enabled them to spread around their Draft pool money to land supplemental first-rounder Lance McCullers Jr. for $2.5 million and fourth-rounder Rio Ruiz for $1.85 million. Appel signed for $6.35 million last year.
The Astros will have the highest amount of money to spend on the Draft this year at $13.362 million, including $7.992 million on the first overall pick.
"What we were able to accomplish in the first Draft by taking what we believed was the best player in the Draft and also being able to accommodate two other first-round-caliber players was something that was not easy to do and is hard to replicate," Luhnow said. "If we could replicate that every time, we would. But it was a unique circumstance."
The consensus top prospects are left-handers Brady Aiken of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego and Carlos Rodon of North Carolina State, right-hander Tyler Kolek of Shepherd High School in Texas, catcher/outfielder Alex Jackson of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego and shortstop Nick Gordon of Olympia High School in Orlando, Fla. The Astros are considering all of them.
"You really have to take the best player, and even in football where the players go directly to the NFL, you'll still find that tendency, because you're looking for upside and you're trying to get as much upside as possible," Luhnow said. "We're not smart enough to know exactly what our team configuration is going to look like five years from now, much less three years from now, so it wouldn't make sense for us to draft on need."
Even though the Astros employed different strategies in picking first in 2012 and '13, scouting director Mike Elias says they've worked from the same template each time as far as having the same scouting practices.
The team compiled a list of possible candidates for the top pick in the fall that was about seven or eight names long, and it made a concerted effort to stick with those players as long as possible throughout the season, sending scouts and crosscheckers to see them numerous times throughout the high school or college season.
"Some guys drop off the list," Elias said. "Most of them stay in the top five or six picks in the Draft and we keep scouting them up until the finish, because we want to be prepared for late developments in the season, whether it's injuries or changes in performances, and we want to have all the information we can get our hands on."
In the Draft room, the area scouts will present the players each has scouted in his area that are in consideration for that pick, and then the crosscheckers that have seen him will chime in. Everything is discussed, from medical history, video breakdown and analytical information. A smaller group, led by Luhnow, Elias and national crosschecker David Post, discuss the players further.
"The area scouts know the players the best, so we rely on the area scout to do the work and share the information with us, and we compare it with the others players in the mix and try to make a determination to the extent I can meet the players myself," Luhnow said. "Mike has met all of them firsthand. It's nice to have, but we really do rely primarily on the judgment of our area scouts who have the most intimate knowledge."
Luhnow and Elias both contend they didn't know which player they were going to pick first the past two years until only minutes before the Draft. It's not until all the scouts, crosscheckers and baseball operations executives are in the same room is the list narrowed.
This year, executive advisor Nolan Ryan will be involved, joining owner Jim Crane, special assistants Craig Biggio, Enos Cabell and others.
"We don't see any particular need or advantage in making the decision any earlier than that," Elias said. "The Draft is not going to start until a certain time. In some cases, the players are still playing baseball those last couple of days, and we don't feel any need to jump out and make a decision."
Luhnow and Elias said they have been in lockstep the past few years about which player to take No. 1, but Crane's opinion obviously weighs heavily. The owner said the decision is ultimately up to Luhnow.
"We will present to Jim how we're thinking about going, and he'll give us whatever feedback he has," Luhnow said. "Ultimately, Mike and I have made the decision together the last couple of years and we've been in agreement, and I suspect that will probably happen again this year."