Thursday, January 13, 2011

TEAM #24 – Houston Astros

There is a huge gap between Lyles and the rest of the Astros Prospects

While coming in at #24 for a lot of teams would be considered a major disappointment, when you have been at the bottom for as long as the Astros have ( TEAM #27 – Houston Astros )#24 is cause for celebration. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. The organization remains scarily thin at the top, as the gap between #1 and #2 is probably as big as just about any team in the league. Looking for a potential left-handed starter—not here. The Astros do not have a left-handed starting pitcher prospect in their Top 20. Additionally, we’ve spoken at length about the failed strategy of drafting raw, underdeveloped, ‘toolsy’ ‘athletes’ with an accent on speed. The Astros have rapidly replaced the Phillies as the poster child for this failed strategy. Not that DeShields was a horrible pick, but he was a significant overdraft at the #8 slot.

Now to the positive, few teams, this decade, could match the draft futility experienced by the Astros under Gary Hunsicker/Tim Purpura (and Scouting Directors Paul Ricciarini and David Lakey). Save for 2004, second rounder, Hunter Pence, the draft record was abysmal. One need to look no further than here to find out why the Astros have been at the bottom of these rankings for so long. Mercifully, Ed Wade and Bobby Heck were brought in, in 2008, and have begun the long slow climb back to respectability. Their first pick, Jason Castro, made his Major League debut in 2010, and their second pick, Jordan Lyles, tops this year’s list. Don’t get us wrong, they haven’t completely turned things around yet, but the signs of progress are apparent in a multitude of areas. One of the most obvious of these is in their emphasis on Latin American talent, and they made the franchises’ most historic signing in this area when they inked Dominican Outfielder Ariel Ovando to a $2.55 million deal this summer. While the organization still lacks the quality ‘can’t miss’ ‘high-ceiling’ prospects at the top of the organization, there is a reasonable amount of depth throughout the rest of the system to provide cause for optimism. Expect the Astros to continue to climb these rankings for the next couple of seasons.

Best Pick from 2010 – For us this was easy, as our selection of Altuve at #10 not only was ahead of the curve, but was dead-on accurate. More below on Altuve’s future, but the Lexington fans witnessed everything we predicted.

Worst Pick from 2010 – Some people may say this should be our selection of Mier at #1, but we haven’t given up on him yet. The honor here goes to our selection of Chia-Jen Lo at #6, who was shut down at the end of April with an elbow injury. T.J. Steele at #11 was another serious consideration here, as he was badly exposed in the Texas League in 2010 and isn’t likely to show enough hit skills to play at the next level.

Grade A

1) Jordan Lyles, RHP (2010 Performance Scores– Dominance 50; Control 63; HRrate 55; Stamina 74)

The Astros blind-sided the baseball world when they selected Lyles with their sandwich round pick in 2008. They have been saying “I told you so” ever since. 2010 saw Lyles earn the Top Performance Score in the Texas League (TXL) and debut in AAA before his twentieth birthday. While Lyles lacks an overpowering fastball (his is a low-90s offering), he has a plus change and a solid curve—all of with which he demonstrates excellent command. While he is likely never going to be much more than a solid Major League #2/#3, he looks like a strong bet to get there. Lyles is still young and will likely get at least one-half season in AAA before the Astros consider bringing him to Houston. That said, it is likely that he debuts sometime in 2011.

Grade B+

2) Delino DeShields, OF (2010– Power 42; Discipline 37; First Base Rate 63; Speed 65)

We weren’t surprised that someone would draft DeShields in the first round. In fact we were fairly certain that someone would—despite that we had him rated #40 on our board. But we have to admit to being more than a little surprised that he went off the board at #8. With a Big League pedigree and appearing on the scouting radar since junior high, DeShields was perhaps the most athletic prep player considered in the first three rounds. Speed is his major asset, although he makes decent contact and projects to have potentially average power. Defensively, he makes up for marginal fundamentals with his blazing speed that provides him with excellent range. Not prototypical for either, he should be playable in either center field or second base. His father makes a very solid comp for him. While there are those that will likely try to convince you that his ceiling is higher, DeShields is unlikely to ever possess the hit tool that will make him more than an average hitter with excellent speed. He could develop into a true top of the order offensive catalyst, but the likelihood is something short of that. Look for DeShields to begin 2011 in the South Atlantic League (SAL).

3) Jio Mier, SS (2010– Power 37; Discipline 54; First Base Rate 64; Speed 62)

After a blistering Appalachian League debut after being drafted in 2009, Mier didn’t quite live up to expectations in his full-season debut in 2010, posting a top thirty Performance Score in the SAL—a few notches below, now teammate, Jonathan Villar. There are many in the organization that prefer Villar to Mier, which should create an interesting dynamic. We are not among those. Mier played the 2010 season as a 19yo in full-season ball and held his own. He shows excellent plate discipline skills, good contact skills and average speed for the shortstop position. Defensively, although he struggled a bit in 2010, he has plus defender skills. We are encouraged by the upward projectability in his power tool, as his 6’2” frame should carry 25lbs more than he ended the season at. The Astros will have to figure out a way to separate Villar and Mier to get them both regular playing time. Judging by 2010, this may mean Mier returns to the SAL or that Villar plays at AA. We would take the conservative path and allow both players to taste a fair amount of success, but it will be interesting to see how the Astros handle it.

4) Austin Wates, OF (2010– Power 68; Discipline 69; First Base Rate 79; Speed 79)

We actually had Wates graded within five spots of DeShields prior to the draft, and the Astros were able to wait until the third round to grab him. Another in the athletic mold, Wates scores much higher than DeShields on the certainty scale. For us, Wates is a true center fielder that has plus speed, solid contact skills, good plate discipline and average power. He closed his collegiate career by posting a Top 25 Performance Score last spring. While we don’t expect him to be a superstar, his ceiling is that of an above average offensive center fielder. Wates is already fairly polished and was obviously more advanced than his competition in his brief New York-Penn (NYP) debut. For that reason, we expect Wates to begin 2011 in the California (CAL) League. It would not surprise us to see him in Houston sometime in 2012.

Grade B

5) Michael Foltynewicz, RHP (2010 – Dominance 44; Control 44; HRrate 52; Stamina 55)

We had Foltynewicz projected as a sandwich round selection, prior to this past June’s draft. The Astros instead selected him with their second first round pick (19th overall). At 6’4”, Foltnewicz has additional projection left on a fastball that is already a low- to mid-90s offering. With a plus change already in his arsenal, the Astros see him as being only a solid breaking ball away from front of the rotation potential. The Astros felt strongly enough to debut him in the Appalachian League after signing last summer. He was able to make twelve starts and posted the League’s #10 Performance Score. Although he struggled in his first couple of professional outings, in his final nine starts he posted a 3.15 ERA with a 36:10 K:BB ratio over 40 innings. Look for Foltynewicz to begin 2011 in the SAL.

6) Ariel Ovando, RF –

We had Ovando rated as the #7 Latin American 16yo prior to the July signing date. We were a bit surprised that the Astros aggressively went after him with a bonus that was topped only, thus far, by Seattle’s signing of Peguero and Toronto’s signing of Cardona. That said, Ovando has an advanced bat, with excellent power. Defensively, he projects to be an adequate right fielder as his 6’4” frame fills out. The organization was impressed with his performance in instructional league and will likely start him in the Gulf Coast League, in 2011, after extended Spring Training. There is a huge ceiling here—perhaps the tops of any position player in the system, but it is likely quite a few years before attaining it.

7) Jose Altuve, 2B (2010– Power 60; Discipline 74; First Base Rate 65; Speed 69)

As much as we have been leading the Altuve band wagon for the last couple of season’s now, it is important to frame him in the proper perspective. Our projection methods utilize a comparative player methodology. Altuve stands all of 5’5”, 148lbs. During the last 60 years only three players under 5’6” have accumulated 200 or more Major League At Bats, and only Freddie Patek had a distinguished career. None of the diminutive players, or players that possess in a reasonably similar phenotype, in our extensive database has ever posted the #1, #3, #2, #3 and #6 Performance Scores that Altuve has over the last four seasons. My point is that we are operating in uncharted territory here when it comes to projecting Altuve. None of his skills, excepting phenomenal strike zone management skills rate above average. Although he has consistently posted mid .400 SLG numbers throughout his career, there is little reason to believe that he can generate much in the way of power at the Major League level. That said, in 2011 we can have a serious conversation about what he will be capable of producing at the Major League level, whereas we were laughed at when we brought him to people’s attention in 2009. The scouting community will root for him to fail, as they have been adamant in their belief that he can’t succeed. We don’t know, but we wouldn’t bet against him. Our best guess is that Altuve ends up becoming the 4th player under 5’6” to accumulate 200 At Bats, as he knocks around for a few seasons as a utility infielder. He’ll begin 2011 back in the California League, but will likely see AA by mid-season.

8) J.D. Martinez, OF (2010– Power 65; Discipline 61; First Base Rate 71; Speed 42)

We aren’t as high on the 2010 SAL MVP as some, as he has posted some gaudy numbers since being a late round selection in 2009, but has only managed Performance Scores of #17, #11 and #39. We tend to discount the numbers that a nearly 23yo puts up in lo-A ball and believe what we witnessed in the TXL last summer is probably closer to reality. If it sounds like we are Martinez bashing—think again. There is probably 15-20 homerun potential with a .340 OBP here. Our concern is that Martinez is likely to be stuck as an outfield corner—more unfortunately in left field. This makes him, at best, a below average everyday player. While that may be good value for a 20th round draft pick, it isn’t the type of talent that will turn the organization around. Look for Martinez to return to the TXL to begin the 2011 season. A strong showing could earn him a September call-up.

9) Jonathan Villar, SS (2010– Power 38; Discipline 26; First Base Rate 48; Speed 75)

Villar is another player that the organization appears to be higher on then we are, as they have seemingly vaulted him past Mier in the system’s depth chart. That is likely due to that whole ‘toolsy’, ‘athletic’ thing that we described earlier. Speed is his only above average offensive skill, but it is of the plus-plus variety. Defensively, he is fundamentally raw, but he has a cannon for an arm that makes up for a lot of mistakes. In time he could develop into a plus-plus shortstop defender. On the downside, his power is nearly non-existent and isn’t likely to develop much. He has never met a pitch he doesn’t like and fans more than 28% of the time (way too much given his lack of power). Of his hit skills, only contact looks to be an average skill. This has produced Performance Scores of #36, #16, #21 and #38 in his four professional stops. Don’t get us wrong, it isn’t that Villar is without tremendous ceiling, it is just that the probabilities for players with his profile are not strong. As we described earlier, the Astros have a bit of a dilemma with Villar and Mier being at similar developmental stages. They will have to be separated and Villar is likely to be given the more advanced assignment. For his sake, our hope is that it is in a return trip to the CAL, as TXL pitchers will feast on him.

10) Jimmy Paredes, 2B (2010– Power 53; Discipline 61; First Base Rate 47; Speed 80)

Although Paredes likely ranks higher here than on most lists, we would have liked to rank him higher but can’t seem to figure out his defensive destination. Paredes was the key acquisition in the deal that sent Berkman to the Yankees. He followed up the 2009 season where he posted the #16 Performance Score in the NYP, with a top forty score in the SAL in 2010. Like Villar above, Paredes is a ‘toolsy’, ‘athletic’ prospect with plus-plus speed. Paredes possesses more raw power and raw speed, as well as better plate discipline, than does Villar. Unlike Villar, we aren’t quite sure with what to do with him defensively. Paredes possesses the arm and quickness to play either of the left-side positions in the infield. However, his footwork is fundamentally flawed, and his raw approach leads to significant mental lapses. Currently he is playing second base, but if he can’t get the defense figured out he may have to move to the outfield—resulting in a significant downgrade. The Astros are seemingly loaded with this prospect profile—for better or for worse. Look for Paredes to join either Villar or Mier in the CAL in 2011.

11) Tanner Bushue, RHP (2010 – Dominance 45; Control 46; HRrate 21; Stamina 72)

Consider him to be a slightly lesser version of Foltynewicz—right down to his Illinois roots. Bushue was the Astros second round pick in 2009, a two sport athlete in high school. With a solid projectable 6’4” frame, Bushue has a 90mph fastball that could become a low-90s offering in time. Bushue is the more athletic of the two, and also possesses the better secondary offerings. He managed to post a Top 20 Performance Score in the SAL in 2010. The downside…Bushue’s fastball regressed a bit in 2010 from his prep days. More concerning is Bushue’s tendency to pitch up in the zone, which yielded a 0.79 GO/AO ratio in 2010. From a ceiling standpoint, he appears to be little more than #3/#4 starter potential—possibly less. The Astros have skipped some of the better arms over the CAL in the past. We don’t believe that Bushue is polished enough to make the jump to AA, so expect him to have a difficult challenge at Lexington in 2011.

12) Telvin Nash, LF/1B (2010– Power 79; Discipline 26; First Base Rate 49; Speed 33)

As we wrote last year about Nash, he is a one-tool guy, but that tool is exceptional raw power. Nash demonstrated that in 2010, as he posted a .531 SLG while belting 13 HRs in just over 200 At Bats, propelling him to the #9 Performance Score in the APY. Nash possesses decent contact skills and near base-clogging speed. However, success or failure for prospects like Nash is often determined by their ability to manage the strike zone. While Nash will take the occasional walk, his 30% strikeout rate is cause for concern. The Astros have been trying Nash in LF. We don’t believe his defense will allow him to be anything more than a first baseman, so his bat will have to carry him. The profile is full of down-side risk, but the ceiling here is substantial. Expect Nash to get his first taste of full season ball in 2011.

Other Potential Top 300 Prospects – None.

Feel free to post any questions and or comments. We will try to answer them in our weekly Mailbag segment.

You can find an explanation of our grades here Diamond Futures Annual Prospect Rankings Series and an explanation of our 2009 Performance Scores here Do-It-Yourself - Understanding Performance Evaluation and here This Week's Mailbag - Prospect Rankings Questions. The Performance scores represent the player’s performance relative to the leagues that they played in during the 2009 season.

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