- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Major League Baseball has a new draft bonus system in place this year, and scouting directors, advisers, potential picks and their parents have spent the past few months wondering what impact it might have on the process of talent procurement. How would teams navigate the new restrictions and use their draft budgets to maximum effect? And how would the limits affect the concept of "signability," the negotiating dance required to ensure that a draft pick actually suits up and plays?
Those questions might take a month to play out. But the human emotions never change. Whether it's Rick Monday leading off the first draft with the Athletics in 1965 or Carlos Correa striking a blow for Puerto Rican pride in 2012, surprises are inevitable. And joy and disappointment inevitably take turns on center stage.
The new system produced a whopper of a surprise right out of the chute. The Houston Astros, in need of help in every way imaginable, took the long-term view and used the top pick on Correa, a 17-year-old shortstop who traveled from his native Puerto Rico to New Jersey for the draft and had a chance to celebrate in front of the TV cameras. Correa has a rangy frame, abundant stage presence and a serious man-crush on a certain New York Yankees team captain and 3,000-hit-club member.
"I just want to be a big leaguer and a Hall of Famer," Correa said. "I want to be like Derek Jeter. He's awesome. He's a great ballplayer. But I like him even more as a person."
The disappointment -- and the mystery -- came soon enough, when teams began passing on Stanford University right-hander Mark Appel. Appel was never considered a once-in-a-generation, slam-dunk talent along the lines of a Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg. But he entered the day as the consensus choice to go to Houston first overall. So it was a bit puzzling when he began slipping and sliding until the Pittsburgh Pirates finally nabbed him with the eighth overall pick.
The Appel choice comes as welcome news to Pirates fans who like the thought of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Appel teaming up to become the Rust Belt's answer to the Tampa Bay Rays. And it's better news for fans of draft intrigue, who can recall the epic back-and-forth between Pirates president Frank Coonelly and Appel's adviser, Scott Boras, before Pittsburgh signed Pedro Alvarez out of Vanderbilt in 2008.
How does Appel feel about dropping from first to eighth? We can't be sure, because an hour after the draft the Pirates released a statement to let the media know Appel was passing on the customary conference call.
"I'm currently concentrating on winning a national championship and finishing my academic endeavors at Stanford," Appel said in the statement. "I will address the possibility of a professional career in due time."
Boy, that has to send a jolt of exhilaration through the spines of Pirates season-ticket holders, doesn't it?
This much is certain: The Astros have $7.2 million in the budget to sign Correa. The Pirates have $2.9 million to spend on Appel, and a total of $3.6 million to invest in their other 10 picks in the first 10 rounds. The Pirates can exceed that amount, but not without incurring progressively stiffer penalties that run the gamut from fines this year to lost draft picks in the future.
Why did Appel fall so abruptly? Unless teams suddenly have questions about his talent or his health, it's more likely that they were uncertain about how much he wanted to sign. Since MLB clubs have very little wiggle room under the new system, they place an even greater value on communications. And Boras has never been big on information-sharing, pre-draft deals or cozying up to clubs to let them know about his clients' price points.
We'll have to wait until Boras emerges from his Newport Beach, Calif., offices for his take on events. Until he puts a sunnier slant on Appel's situation, Monday's plot twist might produce some reveling among owners and MLB executives who hoped the revised system might take a chunk out of Boras' hide.
Commissioner Bud Selig, a driving force behind the draft changes in the new labor agreement, declined to predict what Day 1 portends for the draft's future. But he remains convinced that the new system will funnel the best players to the teams most in need, and thereby do a better job of fulfilling the draft's true purpose.
"Let's see how it all plays out," Selig said. "It's obviously very premature to draw conclusions. But I'm very optimistic. I think this [system] will work out very well. And I think these were changes that will clearly help the game.
"I'm happy for this. It makes it more exciting. Mark Appel gets passed but winds up going to the Pittsburgh Pirates, which I think is great."
Baseball has made a serious push in recent years to heighten the profile of the draft, and this year's festivities came with lots of high-tech wizardry, patriotic bunting and organizational dignitaries -- not to mention Peter Gammons. It has been a chore for MLB to attract prospective picks to attend the ceremonies. But this year Correa, Oklahoma State University pitcher Andrew Heaney and high schoolers Gavin Cecchini, Clint Coulter and Courtney Hawkins showed up for the event. They all hugged their parents in the simulated dugouts at the MLB Network Studios, and Hawkins added a dose of panache with an impromptu backflip.
The Astros are entering a new chapter under new GM Jeff Luhnow, who helped bring a world championship to St. Louis by selecting Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig, Jon Jay and a mother lode of other contributors through several drafts. It would have been perfectly understandable for the Astros to opt for instant gratification, but they were sold on Correa, who has generated comparisons to Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Zimmerman within the scouting community. He's 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, and his ultimate position could hinge in part on how much more he grows.
"It was a difficult decision, but it was the right decision," Luhnow said. "All of us felt it in our guts. I believe Carlos is going to play shortstop, but if he ends up not playing shortstop, he's going to be a plus third baseman. He's going to be an offensive powerhouse wherever he plays."
The Correa selection is uplifting to both a family and an island. As a product of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, Correa was accustomed to getting up at 5 a.m. each day to go to school. He would arrive home at 6 p.m. and take batting practice and field ground balls with the help of his father, Carlos Sr., who somehow found the energy to facilitate his son's dream despite long, tiring days on the job as a construction worker.
After the Astros selected Correa, he ducked into a back room and hooked up via Skype with the baseball academy's director and other friends back home. Before Correa, Ramon Castro held the designation of the highest-drafted player out of Puerto Rico as the 17th overall pick with Houston in 1994. Now Puerto Rico is hoping for a new baseball hero to carry on the legacy established by Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, the Alomar family, Pudge Rodriguez and so many others.
The day got even better for Puerto Rico when Jesmuel Valentin, another Baseball Academy product and the son of former big leaguer Jose Valentin, went to the Los Angeles Dodgers with the 51st overall pick. Puerto Rico has endured some fallow times after so many years as a baseball hotbed. But there's nothing like a fresh new role model or two to rekindle interest.
"I haven't stopped receiving text messages," said Rodriguez, who attended the draft as an emissary of the Texas Rangers. "It was a great day for Puerto Rico. We need to keep working with the talent on the island and bring more of them to the professional level. But it's still there. This was a very good start."