Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
Carlos Correa reached into his pocket as he strolled to the podium, pulled out a small Puerto Rican flag and waved it at the cheering crowd.
The 17-year-old slugging shortstop just had made hometown history at the baseball draft, and the Houston Astros hope it’s only the start of many big moments for the first No. 1 overall pick from Puerto Rico.
“I was very surprised,” Correa said Monday night at the draft site at MLB Network studios. “I was like, ‘Is it a dream, or is it true?’”
Yep, it all actually happened. The handshake and hug from Commissioner Bud Selig. The big smiles in the Astros’ cap and jersey. The pride of an island that has produced its share of baseball royalty.
“This means a lot,” Correa said. “We’ve got a lot of good players there.”
And plenty have come from there, too: from Roberto Clemente and Ivan Rodriguez to Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado. While some of those signed as free agents, none ever has been the top pick in the draft. Catcher Ramon Castro had been the highest drafted player out of Puerto Rico, going No. 17 to Houston in 1994.
“I feel so excited to be the No. 1 pick,” said Correa, who was congratulated by Delgado on Twitter. “I’ve worked so hard to be here.”
Correa was one of five players in attendance at the draft, but his introduction was far from the most entertaining. Texas high school outfielder Courtney Hawkins did a backflip – after being prodded by a television reporter when a video was shown of him landing one – a few moments after going No. 13 to the Chicago White Sox.
The 6-3, 220-pound Hawkins, wearing a White Sox cap and jersey, spoke to general manager Kenny Williams right after he stuck his landing.
“They said, ‘Go do it,’ so I went and did it,” a smiling Hawkins said. “But Mr. Williams said: ‘No more.’”
Added Commissioner Selig: “I hadn’t seen one before, so it only goes to prove if you live long enough you’ll see everything.”
While the NFL has a few dozen players show up for its draft, baseball slowly has made its event a place to be with the televised first round and major league representatives on hand – just a few years after it once was held entirely by conference call. The five players in attendance this year were the most since the draft moved to MLB Network studios in 2009.
“I hope we can work on that,” Selig said. “The more people we can have here, the better I like it, you bet. Five is a good start, but we need to do better than that.”
Joining Correa and Hawkins were Oklahoma State lefty Andrew Heaney (No. 9, Marlins), Louisiana high school shortstop Gavin Cecchini (No. 12, Mets) and Washington high school catcher Clint Coulter, who went 27th to the Brewers.
Heaney, a draft-eligible sophomore, had tears in his eyes after Miami selected him. Sitting with the other prospects in a makeshift dugout, Heaney headed over to shake Selig’s hand and soon was wearing a Marlins cap and jersey.
“That’s about all that went through my mind is, ‘Don’t trip,’” a beaming Heaney said.
While recent drafts lacked first-pick intrigue, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow said the Astros didn’t settle on Correa until about an hour before they went on the clock. Several mock drafts predicted the Astros would select Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, but instead Houston made a somewhat surprising selection – although Correa was considered one of the top five players available.
Appel slid a few spots lower than projected, going to Pittsburgh at No. 8. The Pirates took UCLA righty Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 selection last year.
It was the first time Houston had the top pick in the draft since 1992, when the Astros selected Phil Nevin – passing on a young shortstop named Derek Jeter, who went five spots later to the Yankees.
“I have read about that,” said Correa, calling Jeter his idol as much for the New York captain’s character off the field as on. “I want to be like him. He’s awesome.”
Luhnow said the 6-4, 190-pound Correa “has a chance to be a star” who could hit 20-30 home runs in the pros, whether it’s as a shortstop or “ultimately maybe third base.”
Correa said he’d like to stay at shortstop, and he plans to use his signing bonus to help his family financially. The Santa Isabel native starred at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and is committed to the University of Miami but most likely is headed to Houston’s farm system instead.
With the second pick, Minnesota took speedy Georgia prep outfielder Byron Buxton, considered a five-tool player with a bat considered the best among all draft prospects.
University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who has drawn comparisons to Jason Varitek for his leadership and ability to handle a pitching staff, was taken No. 3 overall by Seattle.
Baltimore went with LSU right-hander Kevin Gausman with the fourth pick, adding a potential ace to its system.
Kansas City took University of San Francisco right-hander Kyle Zimmer, a converted third baseman, with the No. 5 overall pick.
The draft opened with uncertainty about the talent – many teams considered this crop of players weaker than recent groups – and several significant rule changes in place.
Under baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, teams will have a pool of bonus money from which to sign players. They’ll also face a punitive tax and the possibility of losing draft picks if they go over the prescribed bonus total. If a player doesn’t sign, the team loses the amount for that slot. Clubs now have until mid-July to sign draft picks, instead of the previous mid-August deadline.
“Let’s see how it works out,” Selig said. “I am very optimistic. I think this will work out very well. And I think these are changes clearly helping the game.”