By Michael N
Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on April 15, 1998.
Welcome to our first attempt to make sense of the Astros minor league system and the players trying to make it to the Show. For some background, a little about our philosophy of how one defines a true prospect. Player ages, statistical comparisons versus peers/leagues, defensive prowess and good old-fashioned guesswork are the tools with which we work. Failing any one of these criteria could move a player from prospect to suspect on the list, but age is the primary factor. For example, J.R. Phillips is not a prospect. A 28-year-old AAA first baseman that strikes out 3 times as often as he walks is not a future star. He barely qualifies as an injury replacement player even in these days of expansion. Despite a sub-par year in 1997, Carlos Guillen is an intriguing prospect primarily because he is only 22 years old. Comprende?
There are extreme cases, though. Daryle Ward is a defensive liability, but anyone with his kind of plate discipline and power will play major league baseball. Billy Wagner is another example. A lefty who can consistently throw 95 MPH will find a way onto a major league roster even if he cannot throw anything but fastballs.
For the first installment of our hardly humble opinions, we profile the guys we feel are the top positional prospects at AAA New Orleans and AA Jackson. We will follow their progress in future issues. Have fun and feel free to agree or slam the hell out of us at Kev & Scott’s Mail Box. We don’t mind, except we know how to find you. (Michael and Tom)
DARYLE WARD (Age: 22, AAA, 1B/OF, B: L, T: L)
At age 22, Ward is the leading hitting prospect in the Astros system. The only thing keeping this guy off the major league roster is Jeff Bagwell. Viewed by some as an afterthought in the multi-player Detroit deal in late 1996, Ward was that year voted Baseball America’s top hitting prospect in the Florida State League (.297, 43 XBH, 68 RBI). Still, there were concerns about his fat gut (230 lbs.), his defense and lack of speed. Little did anyone know what we really had on our hands, or would see from him in 1997. Ward completely terrorized the pitching friendly Texas League in his first year of AA ball hitting .329 with 19 HR and 90 RBI in only 422 AB. Great numbers, but the stat that should have everyone drooling is his K/BB ratio (1/1.46). We are not talking an Eric Anthony, Sammy Sosa-type free swinger here; this guy is a legitimate HITTER who just also happens to be able to smack a ball 500 feet. The weight and speed issues remain, but I seem to recall a few fat guys who earned major league paychecks, but they could all knock the cover off of a baseball. So can Ward.
Ward is not, to put it mildly, a very good defensive player. Not exactly light on his feet and erratic with his arm, he will have to put in an awful lot of time shagging flies at the Shrine on Airline if he expects to see a certain major league roster this season. However, all indications are that Ward is very competitive and a hard worker. Does anyone remember Greg Luzinski? If Daryle even becomes an adequate left fielder (read: better than Ryan Klesko), the Astros have a future star or, at least, HUGE trade bait for the pitching everyone seems to crave in baseball these days. I expect Ward to be a star for someone in major league baseball someday. Hopefully it is in Houston.
Estimated time of arrival: September 1998. Sticks with a major league team in 1999. (MN)
MITCH MELUSKEY (Age: 22, AAA Catcher, B: S, T: R)
Picked up as a Class A catcher in one of those moves that doesn’t even make the paper, Meluskey was traded by Cleveland for Buck McNabb, an outfielder who played in the Astro system for approximately 50 years. At the time, he looked like a dime-a-dozen, can’t-hit-his-way-out-of-a-wet-paper-bag catcher. The Indians’ instructors had messed with his natural swing, and it took him some time with the Astros to recover, as he hit only .215 in most of a year with Kissimmee. The Astros’ instructors apparently gave him a few good tips the next offseason (Hey, Mitch, why don’t you try and hit the little white thing with this stick!”), because the next year he busted out with a .333 AVG in Kissimmee. This earned him a mid-season call-up to Jackson, where his average fell all the way to .313. So, where could he go from here? Apparently he got another tip (“Hey, Mitch, if you hit the ball over the back fence, you don’t need to run so hard!”). In his second go-round in Jackson, he hit 14 HR, or one more than he hit in his first five minor league seasons combined. Put that together with a .340 AVG and you have a recipe for another mid-season call-up, this time to the hitter’s graveyard in New Orleans. Meluskey responded with a .316 AVG and 2 more homers in his first month up there before running out of gas in August and finishing on a month-long .169, 1 homer slump.
Reviews of his defense have been mixed. From what I hear, he has a good arm and is reasonably agile around the plate, but his head isn’t always in the game. Hopefully he can pick up a few pointers from Brad Ausmus while he takes away his job over the next two years. Mitch has always had a good batting eye (1 walk per 8 or so batting appearances his last three years, about the same as Biggio) to go along with his newfound average. If his power is for real, he can be a star – not a Mike Piazza, but maybe a Javier Lopez. Even so, he’s still a better hitter right now than Ausmus or Eusebio.
Estimated time of arrival: September 1998, or earlier if Ausmus or Eusebio gets hurt, or Eusebio gets traded. (TS)
CARLOS GUILLEN (Age: 22, AAA Shortstop, B: S, T: R)
Despite playing in only 59 games the previous 3 seasons due to injury, Carlos Guillen was promoted to AA Jackson in 1997. The Venezuelan academy product was touted by everyone prior to last year as the savior at shortstop, because Guillen has everything you dream of for the position: great size (6′ 1″ 180 lbs.), good speed, good range, power from both sides of the plate and a gun for an arm (rated highest among all Astro minor leaguers). For two years, minor league watchers have heard the cry, “wait until you see him play a year injury free.” Well, we got it in 1997 and the results were a big, fat, smelly egg. A .254 average with 10 HR and 16 2B in 390 at bats while his stolen base totals plummeted from 13 in 26 games in ’96 to 6 in 115 games in ’97. His defense even suffered, but that may be attributed to the less than stellar infields in the Texas League. What the hell happened?
Taking another look at what Guillen has done in his career should give Astro fans some hope and may provide an answer for the organization’s decision to promote him to AAA this year. He has a grand total of 620 AB in the minors, which roughly translates into 1.25 years. His totals: .276 AVG, 47 XBH, 63 RBI, 36 SB. Those are not bad numbers for a shortstop and compare favorably to those of Richard Hidalgo in 1996, the year prior to his promotion to AAA. I saw some flashes of his potential in a series against San Antonio last year. Turned the DP well, rifles the ball to first from deep in the hole and he hit a ball (from the left side) that I swear would have gone 450 feet to center had it not been blown down by a 25 MPH wind.
All reports indicate that Guillen has the same type of work ethic as Hidalgo and he won’t turn 23 until after the season ends. Given his age, the Astros may be tempted to give him a little longer to develop. But my guess is that if we don’t see more of the Guillen potential turned into results this year that he might get buried behind the other guys we have coming up.
Estimated time of arrival: Best case, wins Houston SS job next year. The guy could also disappear (anyone hear from Andujar Cedeno lately?) (MN)
CARLOS HERNANDEZ (AGE: 22, AAA Second Base, B: R, T: R)
Where the hell did this guy come from? Signed on my birthday in 1992, the Venezuelan Hernandez had not exactly burned up the lower minors (unless you count the base paths – 128 SB in 289 games) prior to his promotion from lower A ball in Quad Cities to AA Jackson last year. At Jackson, Hernandez enjoyed a respectable season hitting .292, stealing 17 bases and scoring 62 runs in 92 games. He is no power threat and must use his good wheels to take the extra base. His OBP was also respectable, but not quite where you would like a leadoff hitter’s to be at .355. His strength lies in his defense where he is known to be a very reliable performer, very quick with soft hands and a good arm.
Not sure where to project this guy with the Astros as long as Mr. Heart and Soul is still patrolling second base at Kirby and 610. Watch his progress at AAA new Orleans this year for a better picture of what the future holds for Hernandez. He could be a utility infielder on a major league roster someday which is more than I can say for my pathetic baseball career.
Estimated time of arrival: Your guess as good as mine, 1999? He could be Joey Cora; he could be Luis Rivera. (MN)
RUSS JOHNSON (Age 25, AAA 3B, SS, 2B, B: R, T: R)
OK, I know you all know about Russ, but damn it, this guy is the hardest luck prospect I can remember in the Astro system. I’ve seen this guy play ball for 6 years now, starting at LSU, and he is the very definition of a baseball PLAYER, a lesser talented version of Craig Biggio. He will do anything to win a game, his uniform is always dirty and fans, as well as teammates, love a guy like that. So, why isn’t he on the major league roster? He does not have the desired range of a shortstop, he does not hit for enough power for an everyday third baseman (neither does Spiers, but that is another story) and the Astros signed enough veteran infielders this offseason to guarantee his return to the minors. Did Johnson call Hunsicker’s mother a choice name? What does a guy have to do? His combined average stats for the last two years (minors only) are: .294 BA, .380 OBP, 79 R, 35 XBH and 8 SB. Wouldn’t you all like a guy with a .380 OBP hitting second or eighth in the Astro lineup?
I know this report is a little biased, but I am a big fan of gritty ballplayers and Johnson qualifies. Look for him to have his usual season at AAA New Orleans and get a late season call up (barring injury to Berry or Spiers and Johnson comes up earlier). The key to his future in Houston is the health of some feeble hot corner men, but if he does not break through this year or in spring ’99…he will be on another major league roster.
Estimated time of arrival: September 1998, or earlier due to injury. Sticks with a major league club in 1999. (MN)
LANCE BERKMAN (Age: 22, AA OF, B: S, T: R)
The best hitting prospect the Astros have had since, well, ever. After posting an aluminum bat & college pitching assisted .431 AVG, 41 HR and an incredible 1.600 OPS in only 63 games, he somehow fell to the 16th pick in the 1997 draft, where the Astros scooped him up, figuring they could damn well find a position for the next Frank Thomas. And then, of course he has to adjust to the wood bat, to professional pitching and to one of the worst hitter’s parks in one of the toughest high Class A hitters leagues in the country. In spite of this, his HR/AB ratio fell all the way to 1 per 15 AB , he walked once per every 6 plate appearances and he put up a tidy .293 AVG and .955 OPS. Not too shabby. For comparison, Frank Thomas, in his first pro year in the same league, walked once per every 7 plate appearances, hit only 4 HR (1/47 AB) and put up a .277 AVG and .778 OPS. Will Clark, who had the best first pro year I could find, walked once for 4.5 AB, hit 10 HR (1/22 AB) and put up a .309 AVG and .917 OPS in a better hitter’s league.
But wait, I hear you cry! Haven’t we heard this before? What about Phil Nevin or Eric Anthony? Neither of these players showed the plate discipline that Berkman did in his first year – Nevin struck out twice as often as he walked in the minors and Anthony THREE times as often. If minor leaguers can find a hole in your swing, you can rest assured that major leaguers will do even better. Berkman struck out almost exactly as often as he walked last year, which was as good a ratio for a first year slugger as I could find for anyone but Will Clark.
OK, does he have any downsides? Sure. He doesn’t play shortstop or throw a 93-MPH slider for strikes, heal the sick or raise the dead. He also hasn’t faced pitchers that consistently throw breaking balls for strikes, or who have a “book” on him. He might suffer a career ending or threatening injury, or join a cult or forswear professional sports forever. Barring any of that, he has the plate discipline, bat speed and plain old fashioned power to be one of the best players in baseball by 2001, if not earlier.
Estimated time of arrival: Spring 1999. It should be interesting to see what happens if no outfielders are traded or injured by that time and we have Alou, Bell, Hidalgo, Ward and Berkman fighting for 3 spots. (TS)
RAMON CASTRO (Age: 22, AA Catcher, B: R, T: R)
Ramon Castro has the distinction of being the first Puerto Rican baseball player ever drafted in the first round. He was selected in the same year (1994) as Scott Elarton and Russ Johnson in what could go down as the greatest draft day in Astro history. Ramon was considered the best defensive catcher available, with good power potential as he developed. He has proven the scouts correct (hey, a blind dog finds a bone once in a while) as evidenced by his slow and steady progression through the Astro system. Castro dominated rookie and short season A ball his first two years in the system hitting a combined .291 and showing excellent plate discipline (41BB/41K, 1 BB per 7.75 plate appearances). His hitting faltered the following year at mid-A ball in Quad Cities, but he still made the All-Star team due to his work behind the plate. Last year was perhaps Castro’s finest yet as he finished the year at Kissimmee as the team MVP (Berkman only played 53 games) hitting .280 with a .755 OPS and a team leading 65 RBI. The lone disappointment could be his 8 HR, but remember that the Florida State League is a notorious pitchers league and homer totals are lower versus other high A leagues. If he is able to raise his power numbers in AA Jackson this year, like Meluskey last year, Houston may have an embarrassment of riches at catcher.
Castro continues to live up to his reputation behind the plate. He is a huge guy at 6′ 3″ and 225 lbs. and also one of the slowest guys you will ever see running to first, but pitchers need not worry about throwing 55 foot curves or stolen bases with Ramon wearing the tools of ignorance. He is quite agile around the dish and also possesses a cannon right arm. His mastery of English will assure his future as a major league backstop simply due to his defensive prowess. If he hits for more power, he becomes a star.
Estimated time of arrival: Earliest could be mid-season 1999. (MN)
JHONNY PEREZ (Age: 21, AA Shortstop, B: R, T: R)
Perez is one of about 5 guys who could potentially step into the shortstop job by 2000. He had a terrific 19-year-old-season, tearing up Class A Kissimmee to the tune of a .457 SLG and 12 HR in a terrible home run hitter’s park. Then, last year, he injured his shoulder, spent most of the year at DH, some in the outfield and lost a lot of his power. He is healthy again and has started the season back at short.
Jhonny doesn’t have much of a batting eye (only 26 BB in 450+ plate appearances, or less than Berkman got in half the time) and doesn’t hit for much average (.270s at best), so he NEEDS that power stroke to be a decent player. This could be a make or break season for the man who cannot spell his first name (although he is still young). If he can show that his slump of a year ago was an aberration and not a step in the wrong direction, then he may force the Astros to find SOME place to play him (SS, utility guy, whatever). If he can’t, then at least we’ll be spared ten years of dyslexia jokes.
Estimated time of arrival: Mid-1999 if his stroke comes back, never if it doesn’t. (TS)