HOUSTON The assembled media failed miserably at its appointed task.
Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana will be the last of the Astros' 2012 first-year player draft picks introduced to local media, and considering that just three weeks have elapsed since the Astros selected Carlos Correa first overall, the expedited manner in which general manager Jeff Luhnow signed 10 of the club's 11 top-10-round picks merited dialogue.
As part of the new collective bargaining agreement enacted last year, the deadline for signing draft picks was bumped up a month to July 13. That smaller window between draft and deadline has allowed for aggressive consummation of deals on both sides of the negotiating table.
With Fontana in the fold, the Astros have only seventh-rounder Preston Tucker, another Florida Gator, unsigned among their bonus pool picks. Instead of facing fretful nights over deadline haggling, Luhnow believes a perceptible lack of deadline drama should allow him to enjoy a cheese steak with scouting director Bobby Heck three weeks from Friday.
That no one presented a follow-up query seeking identification of an establishment offering legitimate cheese steaks here was egregious.
"It's refreshing for all of us not to have to worry about the signing deadline this year," Luhnow said. "Last year, the year before, the year before that was the big date, and the numbers are staggering of the number of players that have already signed industry-wide and gotten out of the top 10 rounds and are already out there playing.
"I think it's a huge benefit to the industry and I think a huge benefit to the players themselves and to the teams to really recoup two months of the season. And I think players are going to be that much better prepared next year when they come to spring training and that much more used to it and able to advance that much more quickly. I think it's a home run for the industry that it's worked out this way. The deadline might be a boring day, and I'm perfectly fine with that."
In the National League Central, the Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Pirates and Reds have combined to sign 59 of their 72 picks (81.9 percent) selected in the top 10 rounds, where each team was assigned a bonus pool spending budget. With Fontana, the 61st overall selection, signing for a reported 875,000 bonus, 30,900 above his slot recommendation, the Astros remain over budget within their bonus pool. That shouldn't prohibit them from reached an agreement with Tucker, whose slot recommendation is 151,400, in the near future.
Just as there was a thread connecting the three high-ceiling teenagers (Correa, Tampa (Fla.) Jesuit High right-handed pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., and Bishop Amat (La Puente, Calif.) third baseman Rio Ruiz) the Astros opted to invest 9.15 million of their bonus pool allotment into, there is a strand binding three of the four college position players they snagged over their first 11 selections.
Fontana, Arizona State center fielder Andrew Aplin (fifth round, 159th overall) and UCLA catcher Tyler Heineman (eighth round, 249th overall) gained renown in scouting circles for their defensive prowess. The Astros are so confident in Fontana and his pedigree as a premium college player for the Gators, who advanced to the College World Series each of the past three seasons, that they are assigning him to Single-A Lexington next week, a move Luhnow executed with Cardinals draft picks Jon Jay (2, 74 in 2006), Shane Robinson (5, 166 in '06) and Chris Perez (1, 42 in 06). Fontana will be the first drafted player assigned to a full season roster since Heck joined the organization on Oct. 24, 2007.
The Astros' objectives selecting Correa, McCullers and Ruiz were clear in light of their ongoing rebuilding project and depleted farm system.
"We got more bets on the table, and that was part of our strategy," Luhnow said. "You can put all your eggs in one basket and get one guy, or you can do what we did and really try and get three first-rounders, which is what we were able to accomplish. We feel much better about our odds with three guys rather than one. That was what we wanted to do."
Before Fontana was presented the opportunity to describe himself using a string of adjectives "a gritty-type player, hard-nosed kid who likes to play the game" - befitting a smallish, determined middle infielder, the Astros' plan with their drafted collegians wasn't as transparent. But aside from Tucker, a prolific slugger without a true defensive position, the Astros' intentions to pursue defense first fleshed out in early rounds.
"Guys that play in the middle of the field definitely have a lot more attraction," Heck said. "When they can catch the ball and be a productive offensive player as well, obviously the attraction goes up at that point."
Fontana is an example of that description. And with their most pressing negotiations nearing an end weeks early, the Astros have sit back and review what they hope was a fruitful draft rife with productive talent.
As Luhnow has stated repeated, it will be years before the Astros can be fairly evaluated on their scouting and development. But at this early stage, what they've done represents a first step in the right direction.
"For us I think it worked out very well," Luhnow said. "We don't want to have the largest pool every year; this year we had the second largest. But I think in terms of how we deployed the largest pool to extract the most amount of talent from this draft, this was the strategy we had and I think it worked out very well.
"It took a lot of hard work and it took a lot of back and forth and some understanding on players' part and some compromise on everybody's part to get to where we're at today."
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