The main difference I saw last season was a willingness to take young talent. Three of their top four picks were high school kids. So far, teenage starting pitchers Jordan Lyles, Ross Seaton and Brad Dydalewicz have been great at Lexington. However, there's a big difference between Lexington and Houston. It's probably going to take these kids three to four years to get there...and that's a good thing. The biggest risk with young pitchers is a catastrophic injury. Tommy John surgery has been made very accessible and pitchers do come back from it at nearly full-strength. The problem is it takes them 18 months, which is a lot of lost development time.
I think the strategy the Mariners took with Felix Hernandez has been very instructive. They kept him on strict pitch counts in the minors, they did not let him throw a slider AT ALL, and they brought him along slowly. I'm not sure I agree completely with Tom Verducci's theory that any pitcher who jumps up more than 30 innings over the previous seasons total is an injury risk. I do think the organization that invested in these players needs to take all the precautions it can to avoid injury.
While the Single A boxscores don't list numbers of pitches, you can tell by the number of batters faced and the number of innings pitched that the Astros are trying to limit the exposure of their young arms. In his second start, Lyles couldn't get out of the fourth inning. It wasn't that he was ineffective. He just struck out quite a few batters and gave up some hits, so I'm sure his pitch count was getting close to 90. The team pulled him to avoid overtaxing his arm (or so it would seem). That's the kind of protection you don't mind seeing.
Is it fool-proof? No, because these kids are also learning how to be pitchers. For instance, Seaton has pitched well, but gives up a few too many fly balls. That's led to him giving up a home run in each of his two starts, including one last game which ended up hanging him with a 1-0 loss. He's also got a inordinately low Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABiP) at .129. While this number varies for hitters, a pitcher's BABiP should normalize at .300. If it's below that, it means he's been lucky so far. If it's above, he's been pretty unlucky. Dealing with adversity is just part of becoming a great pitcher. So far, I think the Astros are handling them well. So far.
Onto the rest of the minor leagues:
- At Round Rock, Jose Capellan got rocked...for the second straight start. So far this season, Capellan has given up 9 and 10 hits in starts of 5 and 3 1/3 innings. Needless to say, he lost out to Russ Ortiz for that roster spot for a good reason....On the other hand, Felipe Paulino looked great again. He's struck out a batter per inning in his two starts and is being considered to start Sunday's game with the Reds. In his two starts, he's got a BABiP of .212 and 21 ground ball with 3 fly ball outs, which means he's been lucky so far. Let's hope his luck continues....I was kinda bummed to hear that Drew Sutton was the player completing the Jeff Keppinger trade Sutton has been good if not great for the Express so far and ultimately has more value than Keppinger did, simply because he's younger. But, I guess Ed Wade doesn't mind spending Drayton's money....Yordanny Ramirez has been on a killer roll with the bat lately. Primarily playing right field, the 24-year old is hitting .714 in last four games. He's got a little pop in his bat and has stolen two bases so far. Watch out, Michael Bourn.
- Down south in Corpus Christi, T.J. Burton is doing fine work in the setup role. In five innings, Burton has given up one earned run and four hits, striking out four and walking none. He throws a large percentage of strikes (74.2%), which definitely is a part of his success and has good strikeout rates. His BABiP is a little under .300, so his performance has been pretty true to talent so far....Shortstop Wladimir Sutil has reached base four times on errors this season. He's also committed four errors in the field. Maybe we should start calling him Even Steven instead of Wladimir....Collin DeLome hit his fourth home run on Thursday. While Lancaster's Brian Pelligrini has one more home run than him, DeLome leads all farm hands in runs scored with 8. He's also struck out six times in 29 plate appearances. If he keeps walking some and hitting for that kind of power, he'll make a nice addition to the Astros lineup.... Highest number of runs created in Corpus? First baseman Mark Ori holds the honor, with 7.15 so far. He just got his first RBIs last night, but they came in bunches of 5. He's 10 for 24 with three doubles and six walks this season....Starting pitchers Polin Trinidad and Sergio Perez have both been effective for the Hooks. Perez has won both his starts and holds the lowest ERA on the team but has only two strikeouts. Trinidad is 1-1 with a 3.75 ERA but has 11 strikeouts to 1 walk in two starts.
- The main difference between moving from Salem to Lancaster? There were not many three home run games last season in the minors for the Astros. On Wednesday night, Lancaster had TWO players hit three home runs. What's more, one of those players, Brian Pelligrini, has seven hits this season, five of which have been home runs....2008 first-round draft pick Jason Castro has 12 hits in 34 at-bats with four doubles, one triple and one home run. I doubt he will be long for Lancaster, especially since Corpus Christi's main catcher is 31-year old Brian Esposito, who is perfect for demotion or release once Castro is ready to be called up....The starting pitching has not been kind for the JetHawks this season. 25-year old Jeff Icenogle has been the best so far, going 9 innings over two starts with 14 strikeouts and two walks. Icenogle was hurt at the beginning of last season, but is repeating High A ball again this season.... Another reliever who has been solid for the farm teams is 23-year old Taiwanese pitcher Chia-Jen Lo. Signed in November of 2008 by Astros director of Pacific Rim scouting Glen Barker, Lo has pitched in three games, allowing three hits and one earned run while striking out 10 and walking three. He has a good GB/FB ratio and looks like he could ascend the system quickly.
- We already covered the young guns at Lexington, so let's quickly trip through the hitters....It's been a rough first week for 18-year old centerfielder Jay Austin. After being picked in the second round of last year's draft, Austin hit just .198 in 212 at-bats with Greenville. This season, he has two hits in 23 at-bats but has played respectable defense. Sometimes, it takes young guys a little while for their bat to develop. I'm sure the organization will give Austin the time to do just that....A prime example of that is 23-year old Brandon Barnes. I wrote about him some last season, and he looks to be putting it together in 2009. Barnes was a former football player who was transitioning back to baseball. He didn't hit much last season, but has gone 9 for 22 to open the season with two doubles....