Friday, March 13, 2009

Minor League Preview

Today I'd like to preview which players I'm most excited about tracking once the season starts. The Astros minor league system has been stocked by Old Mother Hubbard for quite a while now (h/t to Tim Purpura). Still, they do have some talent down there, even if it is pretty sparse. Here are my favorites:

Most Excited to Follow
Name, Position (Year Drafted)

1) Jason Castro, C (2008): Castro may not be a star, but is one of the few prospects in the system who should be a solid starter. He's the best catcher prospect in the organization since Mitch Melusky. Hopefully, this ends better than Mitch. At the very least, Castro should be in the bigs sometime next season.

2) Collin DeLome, OF (2007): DeLome was drafted out of Lamar, so I already have a soft spot for him. Throw in his good power numbers in his 1+ seasons on the farm, and he's definitely intriguing. He still strikes out too much and doesn't walk enough, but he could make a leap this season.

3) Jay Austin, OF (2008): The high schooler out of Georgia didn't just hit under the Mendoza Line in his brief stint in the Appalachian League, he nearly hit under the Bob Uecker Line, striking out 69 times in 212 at-bats. He has all the tools to get better, and maybe as he matures, he'll make better contact with the ball. He ended up playing in left field mostly last season, but his skill-set projects as a centerfielder who could hit 15-20 homers a season.

4) Phil Disher, 1B (2008): Showed great power in short-season ball and a pretty good batting eye, but still struck out way too much. His bat has some good potential, and hopefully he'll keep it up this season.

5-tie) Jordan Lyles & Ross Seaton, P (2008): Both young pitchers were drafted in the first three rounds last season, but neither got much burn in the minors after signing. Teams are doing this more and more, bringing young guys along slowly. Pitching is such a tough commodity to actually capitalize on, though, as injuries and ineffectiveness doom most guys before they have any big league success. I'm still excited to see how they do.

Biggest Question Marks

1) Brian Bogusevic, OF (2005): When he was drafted, most scouts liked him more as an outfielder than as a pitcher. I was really disappointed when the Astros kept him on the mound, even as he struggled the past few years. However, he has hit fairly well, especially since transitioning to OF full-time. His age and lack of experience are big question marks, however, and I wonder if there's room for more Rick Ankiel's in this world.

2) Koby Clemens, C (2005): He hit better in his first stint in the Carolina League than in his previous two season in Lexington, but Clemens the Younger still struck out too much. He's walking at a pretty consistent clip and even hit for some power in the Astros' toughest farm ballpark. Unfortunately, he's got work to do behind the plate, as he allowed 31 passed balls and gunned down just 33 percent of would-be basestealers. I don't know whether the Astros will start him in Corpus or back at High A Lancaster, but he needs to step up his defense this season.

3) Bud Norris, P (2006): Norris has been getting a lot of burn this spring training, with many of the Astros pitchers either old, infirm or in the WBC. However, Norris is coming off an injury of his own last season that stole a good two months from his schedule. He strikes out a ton of batters, and his numbers last season were more indicative of a higher than normal BABiP than of any problem with his stuff. Still, having your most advanced pitching prospect with injury concerns can't be good. He'll probably start the season in Round Rock.

4) Brad James, P (2005): James has the exact opposite problem that Norris has; he can't strike anyone out. In 95 innings last season, he struck out 45 batters. That's not great, and it was just at Double-A. Very, very VERY few pitchers survive without missing bats, and James appears to be doing fine, as he finished his season with a 6-6 record and an ERA of 4.45. He's still got some big question marks on whether he can be effective at the next level if he doesn't start striking more people out (even if it is fascist).

5) Tommy Manzella, SS (2005): After a good 2007 season, Manzella started out okay in Corpus with his bat. His defense has always been great, so he's going only as far as his bat will take him. Whatever success he had with the Hooks was taken away by the stink bomb he laid in Round Rock, batting .219/.273/.294 in 223 at-bats. The other disturbing trend was his speed seemingly disappearing. After stealing 15 bases in 2007 with a success rate of 79%, Manzella only attempted 8 steals at Corpus and none at Round Rock. He'll have to bounce back on the basepaths to see time with Houston this season.

Most Intriguing

1) Eli Iorg, OF (2005): Iorg is old as a prospect, but isn't without talent. He's never shown much power, but has decent range in the field and a good eye at the plate. If he could ever stay healthy for a whole season, he might have a job as a fourth or fifth outfielder.

2) Tim Torres, SS (2006): Torres had a good year in Salem, which I've already mentioned is tough on hitters. He's 24 now, which is old for his level, but fits the profile of a guy they Astros typically are conservative on promoting. I could see Torres becoming sort of a Ben Zobrist type player.

3) Mitch Einertson, OF (2004): Einertson was very, very young three years ago when he hit the cover off the ball in short-season. The past few years, he's struggled with is consistency and his power swing, but is still relatively young. At 22 in Double-A, he hit 11 homeruns in 105 games. His batting average and OBP both suffered from an early season slump, but he could very well pop back into the picture with a strong 2009.

4) Leandro Cespedes, P (2007): Cespedes killed the Appy League two years ago, but fell back to earth a little at Lexington last season. He still struck out over a batter per inning and had a 3-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. He's very young, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to being promoted this season.

5) T.J. Steele, OF (2008): In 146 at-bats, Steele struck out at TON (51) and only walked six times. He's got some power, some speed (6 SB), and pretty good tools in the field, but will need to produce more in his first full season of pro ball.

Happy Trails to: Fernando Nieve, P -- The righthander was claimed by the Mets after the Astros put him on irrevocable waivers. Nieve always seemed on the cusp of breaking through to the big leagues, but Tommy John surgery followed by an asthma condition first diagnosed last season cut down on his productivity. I wish him the best of luck with the Mets.

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