A few minutes after 7 p.m. Thursday, the Phillies will make their most important decision of the season, a decision they hope will justify the ubiquitous nights of Sean O'Sullivan and Jerome Williams and the pain of 99 losses that led to the No. 1 pick in Major League Baseball's draft.

But, for now, they are engaged in a game of chicken.

The franchise's entire braintrust has spent more than a week prioritizing players to build a draft board. The Phillies know who they would pick if money was not part of the equation, but money is a part of every equation in baseball.

That is why the team's first pick remains a secret.

The pool is believed to be whittled to three players: La Costa Canyon High (Calif.) outfielder Mickey Moniak, Mercer University outfielder Kyle Lewis, and University of Florida pitcher A.J. Puk. It is quite possible the Phillies emerge from the first night of the draft with two prep players who could be five years from reaching the majors. Such is the nature of the baseball draft.

No one player has separated himself, and the Phillies will attempt to use that to their advantage.

If one player agrees to a lesser signing bonus, that allows the Phillies to spread their allotted $13.4 million pool to coax prep players with college commitments later in the draft to sign. The assigned slot for the No. 1 pick is $9.02 million; the Phillies could strike a deal that saves them millions to use on their second pick, No. 42 overall.

But the Phillies are not alone in that strategy. Multiple teams in the top 10 see little separation between the available players. Agents for players and executives for teams behind the Phillies are not yet willing to commit to deals because they do not know how much of a discount the Phillies will reach with the No. 1 pick. The Phillies won't commit because those teams won't commit, and agents are reluctant to deal without knowing what players' numbers below them are.

It has created a stalemate.

The bonus pool covers a team's picks in rounds one through 10, and the values are set by MLB. Picks cannot be traded.

The Phillies, a source said, have had their board set for days. Johnny Almaraz, the team's scouting director, said earlier in the week that "a really good scenario" would be to split the first two picks on a hitter and pitcher. Speculation in the industry has pegged numerous high-school pitchers as candidates to drop out of the first round because of financial demands. One of those arms could be the Phillies' pick at No. 42.

If the Phillies choose Moniak, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound outfielder, it would align with the draft's historical trends for the first-overall selection. The most productive cohort of the players picked first since the draft's inception in 1965 are high-school position players. Moniak, 18, does not project as a power hitter, but scouts gush about his hitting abilities.

Lewis, 20, visited Citizens Bank Park earlier in the week for a private workout. None of the players are known quantities, but Lewis is even less so because his dominance came in the unheralded Southern Conference. He may have a higher upside than Moniak, but his potential to bust is higher, too.

Puk, 21, could be Randy Johnson or Ryan Anderson. He is big, lefthanded and throws hard. But he could not pitch deep into games for Florida and lacked composure at times. The Phillies, under the guidance of Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak, have stated their desire to build the franchise's future around pitching. That made Puk the favorite for much of the amateur season, but the front office is said to be divided on Puk's potential.

"I think all of us at the end of the day know we're buying a human being, buying a person," Almaraz said. "That's what I believe. Character is extremely important. He has to be somebody who can handle that label of being 1-1."


@MattGelb www.philly.com/philliesblog