HOUSTON -- On the job for fewer than five months, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow is facing the most important decision in his baseball career. It's hardly one he'll make alone, however, with a team of scouts working overtime and his trusty number crunchers ... well, crunching numbers.
Luhnow has been traveling to different corners of the country in recent weeks to get another look at the high school and college players who are perhaps worthy of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, which will be held June 4-6. The Astros will pick first, 41st, 61st and then pick every 30 spots after that.
For an organization that's rebuilding and doesn't have to look too far in its rearview mirror to see how a poor Draft can set it back, this year's Draft is as big as it gets. It's the first one as a GM for Luhnow and the first for owner Jim Crane and president and CEO George Postolos, though they were involved in last year's Draft process.
The Astros have the top pick for only the third time in their history, and they fully understand the importance of getting it right. Luhnow praised the job scouting director Bobby Heck and his staff have done getting prepared.
"There's pressure," said Luhnow, who oversaw the Cardinals' Drafts prior to being hired by Houston. "You can survive and be a successful organization without nailing that [top overall] pick, but it's a foregone opportunity. We need to take advantage of this opportunity. We feel the pressure every time we think about it and talk about it, but the pressure comes from the fact it is a big opportunity, and everybody recognizes it."
Some of the pressure is inherent, but the fact there's not a Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper -- a clear-cut No. 1 pick -- in this year's Draft crop only magnifies the importance of nailing the pick. You want to end up with a David Price (2007) or Joe Mauer ('01) and not a Matt Bush ('04) or Tim Beckham ('08).
"We certainly want to get it right, but there are 39 other rounds to the Draft," said Luhnow, who added that the Cardinals acquired Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and Daniel Descalso, among others, beyond the first round. "And you look at our club here and J.D. Martinez was chosen later on in the Draft [20th round]. We feel this Draft is an opportunity to add significant depth to the organization."
Among the amateur players the Astros are considering first overall are college right-handers Mark Appel (Stanford), Kyle Zimmer (San Francisco), Michael Wacha (Texas A&M) and Kevin Gausman (LSU). Byron Buxton, an athletic high school outfielder from Georgia, is on their board, along with University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino.
"There's at least four or five guys you could argue deserve that spot to be the No. 1 selection in the country," Luhnow said. "The reality is every Draft class has very, very good players that have the potential to be superstars in the big leagues, and that's what you're looking for and that's what, hopefully, we'll get."
Luhnow said the Astros are going to select the best available player, regardless of position or age.
"When you're selecting [first overall], you have the best chance of signing a player that's going to have a true impact to be an All-Star-type player," he said. "And really, you can't say that when you're choosing 13th or 20th or 28th. You could still get a good Major League player, but you have a chance to get a franchise type player at 1-1, and that's what we want. It doesn't matter if he's in high school, if he's in college, if he's pitcher or if he's a hitter.
"We are familiar with the success rates of every category, and we look at it, of course. But because not all categories are created equal in terms of the risk associated with them, it doesn't mean that franchise-type players don't come from all four categories, because they do."
Luhnow doesn't expect signing the No. 1 pick to be an issue despite the club-record multimillion-dollar bonus that the team will have to shell out. The Astros have fully funded this year's Draft and don't expect to go beyond the bonus pool guidelines spelled out in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Each team's allotted bonus pool will equal "the sum of the values of that club's selections in the first 10 rounds of the Draft." The more picks a team has, and the earlier it picks, the larger the pool. The signing bonuses for a team's selections in the first 10 rounds, plus any bonus greater than $100,000 for a player taken after the 10th round, will apply toward the bonus-pool total.
Any team going up to five percent over its allotted pool will be taxed at a 75-percent rate on the overage. A team that overspends by between 5-10 percent gets a 75 percent tax, plus the loss of a future first-round pick. A team that goes between 10-15 percent over its pool amount will be hit with a 100 percent penalty on the overage and the loss of a future first- and second-round pick. Any overage of 15 percent or more gets a 100-percent tax plus the loss of first-round picks in the next two Drafts.
"[Going over the bonus pools is] not something we're going to even consider," Luhnow said. "We still have to be creative how we allocate the resources we have. There's a pool of money that you have for the first 10 rounds, and you can give more of it to the top guys and less to fit to the guys after that, or you can do it more evenly. There's still some flexibility and decisions that need to be made, but as far as going over your allotment, I don't think clubs are going to do that."