6/7/2013 9:30 P.M. ET
Outfielder Martin's hustle what impresses Astros
By Chris Abshire / MLB.com
The Astros wasted no time going right back to the well, taking a center fielder for a second successive pick by drafting Jason Martin from Orange Lutheran High School (California) on Friday in the eighth round of the First-Year Player Draft.
With his all-out style of play and his short yet well-built physique, Martin is the type of player that fans love. He is an above-average defensive center fielder with solid range and good instincts.
"He's got what we call a very strong profile," said Astros director of amateur scouting Mike Elias. "He's left-handed, can run, hits for average and can defend. That's a leadoff hitter's tool set."
Those instincts helped Martin go error-free during his senior season of high school, when he also flashed speed by swiping eight bases. He is an aggressive baserunner and has great instincts on the basepaths. Some scouts are skeptical of his coverage in center field, but he's certainly quick enough to play in either left or right field while learning the pro game.
At the plate, the Corona, Calif., native has a quick, compact swing and sprays line drives to all fields. More power would be a plus, but sacrificing speed for strength would likely limit his bat speed and defensive range. This spring, he hit .408 with seven RBIs and a .483 on-base percentage while helping his high school team to a 19-8 record in one of California's tougher prep leagues.
Martin's signability isn't a significant question, though he is committed to attend Long Beach State if he doesn't sign. He's also only 17, young by Draft standards.
"He's so young, and we know going in he'll take time to develop," Elias said.
Astros make UNC lefty first pick of Day 2
Even with Houston's current crop of starting pitchers performing admirably during the last three weeks, the club appears hungry for more.
On Day 2, a day after spending their top two picks on right-handed starters, the Astros made North Carolina left-hander Kent Emanuel the first player taken in the third round of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft.
"I don't know too much about the specifics of the franchise, but I'm sure I will soon," Emanuel said. "I'm going to do my research, that's for sure. I know they're an up-and-coming bunch that wants to win again badly."
As the Friday starter for one of the top-ranked college programs in the country, Emanuel undoubtedly was undoubtedly surrounded by plenty of intrigue entering the Draft. He gets the job done, albeit without overwhelming stuff.
"He's been a fixture in that UNC rotation and dominant in the ACC, which is as good as college baseball gets," said Astros director of amateur scouting Mike Elias. "That's high-level experience he's bringing to the table."
Emanuel's fastball tops out around 91 mph, his breaking stuff is fringy and he has a solid changeup. The lefty said that's his main area of focus for improvement, whether he signs or not.
"Your stuff always needs to be better," Emanuel said. "The velocity on the fastball is getting toward the mid-90s, and the breaking ball could use a little more bite."
Yet what he lacks in pure stuff, Emanuel makes up for with pitchability. He has excellent command and knows how to mix his pitches extremely well, having walked only 27 batters in 120 innings for UNC so far this season.
"My ability to pitch around the edges and attack hitters is my strength," Emanuel said. "I'm grateful the Astros saw those skills in me."
Originally drafted out of high school in the 19th round by the Pirates in 2010, the Woodstock, Ga., native instead honored his commitment to UNC, where he's had a stellar college career. He went 9-1 with a team-best 2.33 ERA as a freshman in 2011 and followed that season up by posting an 8-4 record and a 1.96 ERA in '12. Through the regional round of NCAA Tournament play this season, he has again been outstanding, posting an 11-3 record with a 2.70 ERA to rank among UNC's all-time best in a variety of categories.
A lack of a true out pitch seems to be Emanuel's key limitation, but at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he's big and strong and understands his craft, giving the Astros hope he'll be a workhorse at the back end of their big league rotation in the future.
"We liked that he's a crafty thrower," Elias said. "He's a pitchability left-hander that spots up his pitches. When you have a competitor like that, it checks off a lot of boxes."
Emanuel is still a junior, and another year could potentially make him millions of dollars if he moves up Draft boards. But Emanuel said he hasn't given much thought to a decision yet.
"We played in Minute Maid Park earlier this year with Carolina [in the College Classic], and the park is really nice," Emanuel said. "It's thrilling that I might get a chance to play there for real, as a big leaguer. Right now, I have no idea whether that'll be any time soon. It's something that will have to wait until after the [College] World Series."
The Astros took a pair of Vanderbilt teammates, first baseman Conrad Gregor and second baseman Tony Kemp, in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively, before nabbing high school catcher Jacob Nottingham in the sixth round.
Outfield became a priority after that, as Houston nabbed a pair of center fielders in South Florida junior James Ramsay and California high schooler Jason Martin in the seventh and eighth rounds, respectively.
Brian Holberton, one of Emanuel's college teammates, could be joining him at the next level; the Astros selected Holberton in the ninth round. Houston completed its Day 2 haul by taking Virginia high school lefty Austin Nicely.
"Big picture, I feel like we executed part of a strategy that dovetails with what we did last year," Elias said. "Last year, we got some very exciting, young, talented high school kids supplemented by polished college players. I think we injected quite a bit of polish in there this year with position players from big schools and big, tested arms. The youth was more sprinkled in this time around."
Gregor's advanced eye a plus to Astros
Conrad Gregor, out of Vanderbilt, has an advanced college bat with an idea at the plate and power potential.
He didn't hit for as much power this year as many scouts would like to see from a college first baseman, but he has shown good power in the past and has shown the ability to hit for average and draw walks. Knowing that, the Astros made Gregor the 107th overall pick in the Draft.
Gregor said he had just left a team meeting when one of his teammates delivered the news.
"We just went crazy," Gregor said. "It was surreal, and I was speechless. I was shocked when I got picked in that spot. I had no idea where I was going to go. It's an honor to be selected by them. It's a dream come true to be drafted."
Gregor, a junior, hit .309 for the Commodores in the 2013 regular season and SEC Tournament. He had three home runs, 43 RBIs, 51 walks and a .443 on-base percentage. Some believe that Gregor may even be athletic enough to play a corner-outfield position professionally. Even if he is able to handle the outfield, Gregor will be carried by his bat.
The Carmel, Ind., native hit .329 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs for the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod League last summer. He also walked 38 times.
"He was viewed as a top-two- or three-round pick after last summer, but the scouts didn't see the homers this spring, and it hurt his stock," said Astros director of amateur scouting Mike Elias. "We saw his power in the Cape and in BP. Maybe it was just bad luck."
Gregor seems likely to sign, given his high Draft slot, but he said he's not thinking about a decision until Vanderbilt's season is done.
"Right now, I'm undecided, but the next few weeks are about my teammates, getting to the College World Series," Gregor said. "I'll make the decision with my family, because it's a big one."
Astros wowed by Kemp's effort, if not his size
One Jose Altuve might not be enough for the Astros, judging by their fifth-round pick.
With the 137th overall selection, the Astros took Vanderbilt second baseman Tony Kemp, a diminutive grinder who hits for average and goes hard on the basepaths.
The SEC Player of the Year in 2013, Kemp -- at 5-foot-7 -- looks a lot like Altuve, although he bats from the left side.
Kemp's coach at Vanderbilt, Tim Corbin, said he's "a small package that plays about seven feet tall."
"We loved Tony Kemp," said Astros director of amateur scouting Mike Elias. "The word 'sparkplug' is used quite a bit. He has a ferocious approach at the plate and treats at-bats like they're wars. That wears pitchers out."
The Franklin, Tenn., native moved from outfield to second base during his sophomore season and flourished as an infielder during his junior year. With Vanderbilt still playing in the NCAA Tournament, Kemp is hitting .398 with 64 runs scored, 102 hits, six triples and 33 RBIs.
Those numbers are almost identical to the stats he posted in his first two seasons, aside from a weak batting average in 2012. Kemp is one of only three players in history to win both SEC Player of the Year and SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
He projects as a leadoff hitter with great speed, having stolen 32 bases in his junior season. A patient approach at the dish could make Kemp a valuable top-of-the-lineup mainstay. Defensively, outfield is more likely his future home, and he's shown range and precise routes to the ball during his career.
"It's a sneaky good second base he plays, though," Elias said. "The guys who've seen him repeatedly rave about his defense. He's a grinder and has been an unbelievable performer in the toughest college baseball conference in the country."
Kemp's brother, Corey, played in the Milwaukee Brewers system. It's unclear how easy it will be for the Astros to sign Kemp, though he did get taken higher than most scouts projected.
Kemp could potentially join his Vanderbilt teammate, Conrad Gregor, in the Houston system. Gregor was chosen by the Astros in the fourth round.
"Tony's one of my best friends, and for there to be an opportunity to play together past Vanderbilt, that's something special," Gregor said. "It's like stars aligning for us."
Nottingham can give Astros catching depth
The Houston Astros addressed a weakness on Friday, nabbing standout high school catcher Jacob Nottingham with the first pick in the sixth round of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft.
A two-sport star for Redlands High School in California, Nottingham chose baseball over a scholarship offer to play tight end at Arizona. He has committed to play baseball for Oklahoma if he doesn't sign with the Astros.
Projected by most as a third-round pick, Nottingham could be tougher to sign because he slipped. He shot up Draft boards this season after missing much of his junior season with a knee injury.
"We think he's a steal," said Astros director of amateur scouting Mike Elias. "We evaluated Jacob as a top-five-round talent, at minimum."
Nottingham's best asset is his power, which has the potential to develop into a plus tool. His swing has a tendency to get long, but he doesn't get cheated at the plate. Defensively, he has the tools necessary to become a steady receiver, and he has a good arm.
"He's not a polished catcher, but there's a big arm and we hope [Astros] Player Development can take care of the rest with those tools," Elias said.
For a catcher, he has excellent speed, having stolen 16 bases in 18 attempts during his senior season. That kind of variety makes him an intriguing prospect, especially at a position as demanding as catcher.
"Any time you can get a power-hitting catcher who is really athletic with a strong frame, you're happy," Elias said.
Ramsay sees stock rise to Astros in Round 7
After focusing on the infield through the early rounds of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, the Astros decided to look for an outfielder who could potentially navigate Tal's Hill in Minute Maid Park.
The Astros selected South Florida junior outfielder James Ramsay with the first pick of the seventh round. Ramsay was a 38th-round pick of the New York Yankees in 2010, but he decided to test the collegiate waters.
The move paid off. Ramsay improved almost every aspect of his game in three years as a Bull, becoming a consistent threat at the plate and in the field.
In 2013, he hit .337 while starting 57 of his team's 58 games and making the All-Big East First Team. While he hit only three home runs, his 43 RBIs display his run-producing potential and gap-to-gap ability.
"Ramsay has more of a slash approach," said Astros director of amateur scouting Mike Elias. "He's one of the feistiest at-bats in the country and gives pitchers fits."
Ramsay's left-handed bat also makes him a dangerous bunter due to his speed, which helped him steal 31 bases during his college career. Defensively, he made four career errors in 163 appearances and routinely tracks down balls in the gap.
"He's a 'need' player who's a plus in almost every category," Elias said. "He turned into one of the most captivating leadoff guys in college baseball and was arguably the best center fielder in the country."
Astros drawn to Holberton's poise
With so many high school players drafted every year, maturity is not a word thrown around often on Draft boards.
That's often the first word scouts use to describe North Carolina utility player Brian Holberton, whom the Astros selected on Friday in the ninth round of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft.
Reliable and versatile are the other words that fit Holberton. The junior has seemingly played wherever the Tar Heels needed him this spring. He has moved between second base, the outfield, catcher and designated hitter fluidly during his collegiate career, and he even stepped into temporary leadoff and cleanup duties this year due to injury.
The Charlotte native is only 5-foot-10, but his bat doesn't suffer. He's hit .308 with 13 doubles, 10 homers and 52 RBIs for UNC, which has been ranked No. 1 for most of the spring.
"He's one of the guys who made that lineup click," said Astros director of amateur scouting Mike Elias. "He has the power and the bat to slot anywhere in your order."
Holberton doesn't have a set position, but his ability to dabble and even excel in every part of the field is ultimately what got him drafted. Elias said Holberton will get a shot at catching.
"What pushed him into our top 10 rounds was that we saw him catch in the ACC Tournament, so we're going to try him out there," Elias said. "If that works out, we might really have something. He's just a solid ballplayer."
Though he's not a physical specimen likely to shoot up Draft boards with another year of college, Holberton is academic minded -- he's a business major at UNC. He even said in high school it would take "being drafted in the first round" to lure him away from UNC. That could make him tough to sign.
Astros round out Draft's second Day with lefty
The Astros wrapped up Day 2 of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft the way they started it -- by drafting a left-handed pitcher.
Houston selected Austin Nicely out of Spotswood High School in Virginia in the 10th round, making him the fourth starting pitcher they selected with their first 10 picks.
Nicely sustained a stress reaction in his back last spring and didn't play all of last summer. He returned to the mound in time for late-fall showcases and has been healthy this year.
"We're not really concerned about the injury," said Astros director of amateur scouting Mike Elias. "He's an athletic kid, and we saw him healthy at our player tryouts a few weeks ago. He impressed."
Nicely's fastball generally sits in the upper 80s, occasionally touching 91 mph. The left-hander also throws a changeup and curveball, both of which need work. Nicely has good athleticism and helped Spotswood High School to a runner-up finish in Virginia's Division III state basketball tournament.
"The scouts in that region, they loved the kid," Elias said. "They couldn't stop talking about him, and it's always good to get a high-upside lefty in the 10th round."
In time, Nicely could add velocity as he gets stronger; he could eventually have three solid offerings. He is committed to Virginia.
Chris Abshire is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.