Minors : : General
Sunday, January 01, 2012

Top Prospects: Houston Astros

David Rawnsley        
Photo: Perfect Game
General Manager: Jeff Luhnow
Minor League Director:
Fred Nelson
Scouting Director: Bobby Heck

AAA:  Oklahoma City Red Hawks (Pacific Coast League) 68-75
AA:  Corpus Christi Hooks (Texas League) 50-90
Hi A:  Lancaster Jethawks (California League) 55-85
Low A:  Lexington Legends (South Atlantic League) 59-79
Rookie Adv.:  Tri-City Valleycats (New York-Penn League) 33-42
Rookie:  Greenville Astros (Appalachian League) 25-43
Rookie:  Astros (Gulf Coast League) 20-34
Dominican:  DSL Astros (Dominican Summer League) 27-40

System Overview

Much has been written about the Astros in the last six months, much more than you would otherwise expect from an organization that finished the 2011 season with a 56-106 record and firmly secured the first pick in the 2012 draft.

The Astros went through a long and often unsure sale process during those six months, with new owner Jim Crane (and his thirty-something minority partners) only getting approved when Major League Baseball forced a 2013 transfer to the American League on the franchise as part of the final approval. Some have maintained that Crane, a Houston resident/businessman, is more leveraged financially than former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt.

Crane’s first major hire after dismissing General Manager Ed Wade and Team President Tal Smith was to bring on Jeff Luhnow from the world champion Cardinals as the new GM. Luhnow is a highly intelligent but somewhat polarizing figure in the baseball industry with some non-traditional ideas about scouting and player development

Crane and Luhnow’s first job is to bring stability and direction to the organization’s scouting and player development departments. Scouting Director Bobby Heck has done a credible job of putting the Astros amateur scouting department back in order since taking the job in 2008, as the team’s drafts from 2001 to 2007 brought in virtually no talent that remains with the organization. The Astros infamous 2007 draft, where they sacrificed their first two picks due to Major League free agent signings, then were unable to sign their third and fourth round picks when then owner Drayton McLane refused to go over the MLB recommended draft recommendations, has hamstrung the system’s talent pipeline.

It’s notable that all seven of Houston’s minor league affiliates had losing records in 2011 and had the worst overall won-loss record of any of the 30 Major League organizations for the third time in the last four years. There has been a tremendous turnover of coaching and administrative personnel in the Astros development staff over the past 3-4 years and that has undoubtedly contributed to some of their talent difficulties.

Even before Crane and Luhnow took over, things were beginning to look up for the organization’s young talent base, though. Wade made very productive trades for veteran outfielders Hunter Pence (to Philadelphia) and Michael Bourn (to Atlanta) in 2011, along with a similar prospect driven trade involving RHP Roy Oswalt in 2010, and restocked the top of the team’s prospect lists. The team’s Top Prospect List would look even better if young players such as right-handed pitcher Jordan Lyles, outfielder J.D. Martinez, second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Johnny Paredes weren’t forced to make premature big league debuts in 2011 and burn their rookie status.

Still, it’s going to be a long road back to respectability for the Astros, who were in the playoffs as recently as 2005. Crane’s patience may be tested by a couple more 90-100 loss seasons before the rebuilding has taken hold.

2011 Draft

The Astros had a “straight” draft in 2011, meaning that they owned their own picks, beginning with the 11th selection, didn’t lose any picks for signing free agents and didn’t pick up any compensation picks for losing free agents either.

They played it pretty straight and reasonable in their selections as well, picking UConn outfielder George Springer, Oklahoma high school right-handed pitcher Adrian Houser, Vanderbilt right-handed pitcher Jack Armstrong Jr., Florida JC left-handed pitcher Chris Lee and UNY-Stony Brook right-handed pitcher Nick Tropeano with their first five picks. All were projected before the draft to go approximately where the Astros selected them.

Springer is obviously the key pick here as befits the No. 11 pick in the country. He has a chance to become a 5-tool player if he hits, and his hitting skills are the only reason that he even slipped to 11th overall. He immediately goes to near the top of the organization’s prospect charts.

Houser was a deserving strong armed high school hurler who was somewhat overshadowed by fellow Oklahoma right handers Dylan Bundy (fourth overall) and Archie Bradley (seventh). Armstrong is a classic hit or miss pick, as he has shown a first round arm during the few times he’s been healthy enough and had enough command to take the mound for extended stretches. Lee is essentially a high school pick as a very young, loose armed JC freshman, while Tropeano is a very polished and successful college pitcher with a plus/plus change up.

You really couldn’t script a more “hey, that’s what they should have done” type of draft.

One thing the Astros didn’t do, though, and with the franchise for sale realistically couldn’t have been expected to do this past June, was to jump on the industry bandwagon and draft/overpay talented high school players in the mid to later rounds of the draft. For an organization with a pronounced talent hole in the minor leagues, this has become an increasingly popular route back to respectability and one of the major factors that resulted in the big draft changes in the new CBA.

Of course, one of the major reasons that the Astros are in the talent predicament they are in is because former owner Drayton McLane steadfastly toed the line on every draft bonus slot recommendation put forth by close friend Bud Selig prior to the new CBA. While one can question some of the drafting decisions made by the team over the last 5 years, it remains defensible to say that no scouting department in the game was more handicapped by their owner during that time than the Astros.

Two interesting questions arise from the 2011 draft that will have to be addressed in some way by the new Astros management.

The first is that the team is primarily college oriented in their draft philosophy. Perhaps this a matter of budget more than a matter of philosophy, but the fact is that the Astros only signed 5 high school players in 2011 (one of whom, right-handed pitcher Dustin Kellogg, was tragically killed in a car accident following the season). Only three of those were prior to the 29th round. In recent years many of the team’s best draft prospects (Tanner Bushue, R.J. Alaniz, Ross Seaton, Mike Foltynewicz, Delino DeShields) have basically skipped rookie leagues all together and played in the South Atlantic League as teenagers. Yet the organization has three rookie league teams, including one in the Gulf Coast League and one in Appalachian League, which seems redundant and not cost effective.

The second also relates to spending philosophy, is probably rendered irrelevant by the new CBA, but still bears mentioning as a reflection on the organization’s decisions over the past few years.

The Astros spent either $2.6 or $2.8 million (published reports differ on the amount) signing a Dominican outfielder named Ariel Ovando last year (and sent him to the Appalachian League instead of the Gulf Coast League for some reason). Ovando is a 6-foot-4, 190-pound left handed hitter and very well might become a huge talent as he develops. But spread that bonus amount over all the players who the Astros haven’t signed or not drafted over the past five years and see what you might have. What you’d have is plenty more prospects in an organization that really needs quantity over quality right now.

Top 10 Prospects

1. 1B Jonathan Singleton - Baseball-reference player profile

Singleton first gained prospect notice in 2008 when he won the Rawlings Home Run Derby at the Perfect Game National Showcase, blasting several balls into the upper deck at the Metrodome (albeit with an aluminum bat). The fact that Singleton was only 16 years old at the time made the 460+ foot blasts even more impressive. Unfortunately for Singleton in the short term, he didn’t show much power between the National and the June, 2009 draft, including homering only twice in his senior high school season, and slipped to the eighth round of the draft.

Since then, Singleton has established himself as one of the top hitting prospects in all of minor league baseball and was the prized prospect in the Phillies/Astros trade that netted Philadelphia OF Hunter Pence last summer. Where the left handed hitting Singleton has impressed the most is with his maturity as a hitter rather than his present power, as he has consistently hit for a high average and showed advanced pitch recognition and patience even while hitting against much older pitchers (he hit .333-4-16/.917 OPS in 35 games in the Hi A Cal League as a 19 year old after the trade). The Phillies, with Ryan Howard firmly entrenched at first base, tried Singleton in left field but decided that experiment was going to work, so Singleton is likely to remain at first base defensively.

2. SS Jonathan Villar - Baseball-reference player profile

If it seems like the Phillies are the Astros best development tool…..well, that’s hard to argue with. Houston as acquired four of their top seven prospects in the Oswalt/Pence trades, along with LHP A.J. Happ and OF Anthony Gose, who they flipped for 1B Brett Wallace in another trade. It speaks well of both the Phillies scouting/player development departments and the Astros pro scouting staff.

Villar’s physical tools could put him at the top of this and many other teams prospect lists, as his speed, arm strength and defensive ability are all top of the scale and his power has a chance to reach that level, too. However, items such as 36 errors and 156 strikeouts in 2011 indicate that the Dominican native still has a ways to go in polishing his skills. In all fairness to Villar, like many players in the Astros system he has been rushed to a higher level than his age would generally put him at and spent the majority of the 2011 season as a 20 year old in the Texas League. To put Villar’s age in perspective, he has over 1,500 professional plate appearances, including 367 at the AA level, and is 20 months younger than 2011 first round draft pick George Springer.

3. OF George Springer - Baseball-reference player profile

The Connecticut native and UConn star was the 11th pick in the 2011 draft after speculation that he could have broken into the top 10 leading up to the draft. Springer is a potential five-tool talent with present plus running speed and arm strength and the ability to play centerfield at the Major League level. The only issue that scouts had with Springer were questions about his swing mechanics and approach at the plate, although Springer is far beyond being a right handed hitting version of Drew Stubbs (not a bad overall comparison acknowledging a much more advanced hitting tool than Stubbs had at the same age). He hit .343-12-77 with 36 walks (vs. only 40 strikeouts) and 31 stolen bases at UConn in 2011.

4. RHP Jarred Cosart - Baseball-reference player profile

Cosart, the second major prospect chip in the Hunter Pence trade, was more interested in being a position player in high school despite throwing up to 93 mph off the mound at Perfect Game events. He was a 6.8 runner who hit .506 as a high school senior while playing shortstop and outfield when not on the mound. But he couldn’t hide his arm strength, especially when he threw a PG record 101 mph from the outfield at the 2008 PG World Showcase. The Phillies took a flier on him in the 38th round in 2008 after scouts backed away due to Cosart’s commitment to Missouri as a two-way player but eventually signed him for a $550K bonus strictly as a pitcher. Cosart is still considered on the raw side as a pitcher despite reaching AA as a 21 year old in 2011, with a high energy/max effort delivery and inconsistent off speed stuff, but he sits in the mid-90s with his fastball and tops out at 98 mph with improving command. That type of arm strength, combined with Cosart’s athleticism, makes him the top pitching prospect in the Astros system.

5. OF Domingo Santana - Baseball-reference player profile

Santana was the fourth chip in the Hunter Pence trade. The Dominican native has the best raw power in the organization, surpassing even Singleton and Springer, and will play most of the 2012 season at 19 years of age despite this being his fourth year in the United States. He profiles as a prototype middle of the batting order right fielder at the Major League level, with consistent contact and pitch recognition (284 strikeouts the past two years) being his biggest obstacles to overcome.

6. LHP Brett Oberholtzer - Baseball-reference player profile

Oberholtzer, a native of Delaware, was somewhat overlooked out of high school despite being an athletic left hander capable of hitting 90 mph and flashing a plus breaking ball. He was a late round pick by the Mariners and decided to go to junior college in Florida at Seminole CC.

Oberholtzer was drafted one round after Paul Clemens (below) by the Braves in 2008 and their career paths have remained virtually parallel since, even to the point of their being roommates in the Braves system. Oberholtzer has a different profile as a prospect than Clemens, with four solid pitches but no true plus pitch, but his polished command and left handedness put him at the same prospect level. You could flip-flop them on this prospect list and it would make little difference.

7. RHP Paul Clemens - Baseball-reference player profile

Clemens was part of the Braves highly unconventional 2008 draft class, where they spent 7 of their first 10 picks and 10 out of their first 15 on junior college players. Part of that haul was 2011 ROY Craig Kimbrel, along with LHP Brett Oberholtzer (above). The Astros acquired Clemens and Oberholtzer, along with OF Jordan Shafer and RHP Juan Abreu, in exchange for Gold Glove CF Michael Bourn.

Clemens has a big arm, with a fastball capable of reaching 95-96 mph at times, to go with curveball, slider and change up. He’s made big strides in improving his command over the past two years as he’s moved up the minor league ladder and further improvement could land him in the big leagues in 2012. He profiles as a third/fourth type starter at the ML level.

While it was probably a quick tease for Astros fans, it’s worth noting that Clemens, who was born in South Carolina, raised in Virginia and went to school in North Carolina, is no relation Houston native Roger Clemens.

8. 2B Delino DeShields - Baseball-reference player profile

DeShields was a surprise pick in the number 8 slot of the 2010 draft (the next 5 picks were RHP Kartsen Whitson, OF Michael Choice, RHP Deck McGuire, C Yasmani Grandal and LHP Chris Sale) and was picked on the basis of his outstanding speed and athleticism, not on his present polish and skills. For reasons that can be second guessed, the Astros chose to put him the South Atlantic League as one of the youngest players in that league and he predictably struggled, hitting .220-9-48/.627 OPS with 30 stolen bases.

DeShields’ father also got off to a relatively slow professional start and didn’t see full season A ball until he was 19 years old, but quickly made adjustments and was second in the NL ROY race as a 21 year old.

9. RHP Mike Foltynewicz - Baseball-reference player profile

Foltynewicz’s tools and development into a first round pick in 2010 can best be summarized in the following report from the 2010 PG Indoor Showcase (February, 2010) prior to Foltynewicz’s senior season.

Michael Foltynewicz is a 2010 RHP with a 6'5'', 200 lb. frame from Minooka, IL who attends Minooka HS. Pro profile build, good overall strength, some physical maturity. Outstanding power arm, comes through fast and clean, hip turn delivery, gets plenty of power from lower half, does tend to occ drift to the plate and leave FB up. FB to 94 mph, lots of 93/94's, gets late hard running action even at 94, flashed power CB with sharpness, big 11/5 shape, inconsistent release this date, change also had good deception and running action. Potential first round pick, keeps improving. Signed with Texas.

It’s easy to compare Foltynewicz to another top Astros prospect, RHP Ross Seaton (below). The interesting thing that both young power right handers have in common is that they both strike out very few hitters considering their raw stuff and the fact that they have a pretty sound idea of the strike zone. Strikeouts in the lower minors are often a function of having a breaking ball or change up that you can throw for strikes; it often doesn’t even have to be that good of a breaking ball when you throw low to mid 90’s as both pitchers do. But both Foltynewicz and Seaton have noticeably mediocre IP:K ratios. That has to be something that comes from the philosophy/coaching in the Astros player development system.

10. RHP Ross Seaton - Baseball-reference player profile

Understanding Seaton as a top prospect despite his basic minor league numbers requires putting things in perspective. To wit:

Seaton definitely has a prospect’s arm and age. He has a plus present fastball that regularly reaches the mid-90’s and a breaking ball that flashes plus potential. He pitched the entire 2011 season at age 21 in AA. If he had honored his commitment to Tulane out of high school instead of signing for $700K in the third round, he would have been a junior in the 2011 draft classes. College RHPs with his raw stuff get picked in the first round.

Seaton was a primary outfielder for much of his high school days and shot up the prospect lists during the spring of his senior season, when his fastball went from 88-90 to 92-95. He has a fresh arm and has never been injured.

If you are looking at his minor league performance, don’t underestimate the twin factors that a) Seaton, along with virtually every other Astros prospect, has been rushed at least a level beyond where most organizations would have placed him, and more importantly, b) his teams in 2010 and 2011 were simply awful, finishing a combined 72 games under .500, including Corpus Christi’s 50-90 mark in 2011. It’s hard to be a successful young pitcher in that environment.

Others in the Conversation:  RHP Tanner Bushue, RHP Adrian Houser, 1B Telvin Nash, OF Ariel Ovando, OF Austin Wates

Copyright 1994-2018 by Perfect Game. All rights reserved. No portion of this information may be reprinted or reproduced without the written consent of Perfect Game.