By Michael N
Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on May 4, 1998.
Welcome to our second installment of Minor Opinions, our attempt to make some sense of the Astros’ farm system. Last issue, we took a look at the top position player prospects in AA and AAA. This time, we’ll be looking at pitchers. But first, this disclaimer:
Position players are much, much easier to project than pitchers. I have no problem looking at a Ray Montgomery or a J.R. Phillips and saying, “this guy could give a little help off the bench for a couple of years, but not much more” or at a Lance Berkman and saying “this guy is going to be a star”. With pitchers, it’s not so simple. Pitchers are injury-prone, fragile, susceptible to mental lapses and sometimes fall off the face of the earth for no discernable reason. This goes the other way as well – a pitcher can suddenly put it all together at the age of 30, go to the big leagues and start winning games – think of Jamie Moyer or Rick Reed. There are some generalizations that work most of the time – guys with good stuff are more likely to work out than “crafty” pitchers. Guys who strike out a lot of people and don’t walk many are a better bet than guys who put up a low ERA while pitching out of jams all the time – but there are no certainties.
What we’re going to do is focus on the five best pitching prospects in the upper levels of our system – the guys we think have the best chance of eventually becoming #1-3 starting pitchers on a good staff. Any of the staff currently in AAA could potentially be a decent middle reliever, and most of them could be #5 starters if the stars were right, so think of the guys we’re writing up as better bets than most, but hardly a sure thing.
You’ll notice that most of our top prospects are in AA ball this year. There are two reasons for this: 1) Most of our top upper-level prospects from last year are either playing for Houston or in the Florida Marlins’ system (Alou trade). 2) Last year’s Kissimmee staff, which is now (less Mark Johnson) this year’s Jackson staff, was one of the best the Astros’ organization has ever seen.
And now, the prospects:
SCOTT ELARTON (Age: 22, AAA Pitcher, T: R, B: R)
The class of the Astros minor league pitching corps. Taken as a high school phenom in the first round of the 1994 draft, Elarton has progressed steadily and impressively through the system. During the 1994-1996 seasons spent in rookie, low and high A ball, Elarton amassed the following record:
W-L GS IP H R ER BB SO ERA
33-15 67 404.2 354 176 150 148 312 3.34
When you consider that he was 18-20 years old when he earned these numbers, it’s all the more remarkable. A better than 2K/1BB ratio shows he had a good command of the strike zone at a young age and deserved a promotion to the minor league proving grounds at AA Jackson in 1997. Elarton did not disappoint. In fact, he improved on his already impressive resume by lowering his ERA to 3.24, striking out more than 1 batter per inning pitched (133.1 IP, 141 K) and increasing his K/BB ratio to 3/1. This performance led to a late season call up to AAA New Orleans. He won his debut in spectacular style on July 21 (8IP, 4H, 1R, 1ER, 1BB, 7K). The rest of the season was an up or down affair for him as he finished with a 5.33 ERA in 54 IP. The best news was he maintained an excellent 50K/17BB ratio.
Elarton is a huge guy at 6’7″ and 240 pounds. You would expect the next coming of James Rodney Richard given that frame and reach, but Elarton does not possess that kind of rifle for an arm. He has a good fastball that reaches 90-91MPH, but it is his command of an above average curve and change that makes scouts drool. If he continues his development by lowering his H+BB/9IP we could have the #1 starter Astro fans have been clamoring for in a couple of years. Given that he is young, highly intelligent and a disciplined hard worker, I do not expect the Astros to rush this guy, despite the current desperation for quality starters.
His first three starts for New Orleans this year were less than spectacular, but after his opening day disaster in Albuquerque (1.2,7,8,8,4,1), his next two starts were passable (12.1,8,5,5,7,18 combined). His fourth start was dominating (8,3,1,1,0,8). But be wary of an increase in ERA, HR allowed, etc. this season compared to last. New Orleans is now a part of the Pacific Coast League, a notorious hitters league with some parks that make Coors Field look like the Astrodome. The only downside could be that Elarton has thrown a ton of innings for a young guy (1995-149.2, 1996-172.1 and 1997-187.1+29.1 in winter ball), but he has no history of arm problems. Let’s hope none develop from overuse.
ETA: Could have mid to late season call up 1998. Fixture in rotation by 1999. (MN)
FREDDY GARCIA (Age: 21, AA Pitcher, T: R, B: R)
Yet another product of the Venezuelan baseball academy, Freddy came to the Astros’ organization as a skinny 17-year old with a mid-80’s fastball – one of those guys the scouts call “projectable”. Score one for the scouts. Freddy is now a 6’4″, 220-pound monster with a fastball in the low-to-mid 90’s. He wasn’t utterly dominant last year – only 6.6K/9IP, which isn’t fantastic – but he had good control (2.5BB/9, 2.7K/BB) and didn’t allow a lot of baserunners or runs (2.50 ERA, 10.8 H+BB/9). And he seems to have taken a huge step forward this year – in 33.1 innings so far this season, he’s struck out 39 and allowed only 19 hits with an ERA of 1.62, including 8 innings of no-hit ball in a start on 4/18. His walks are up a bit (18 so far), but if he can keep this up, who cares?
Freddy needs to work on his breaking pitches (a curve and change) if he is going to fulfill his potential, and he has had some elbow trouble in his career, so the coaches at Jackson had better be really careful with his pitch counts. They weren’t afraid to yank him after 8 no-hit innings, which is a good sign.
ETA: Freddy is very much a work in progress – don’t expect to see him in an Astro uniform before September of 1999. (TS)
WADE MILLER (Age 21, AA Pitcher, T: R, B: R)
Wade Miller was drafted in the 20th round out of the town of Topton, Pennsylvania in 1996 and has set the Astros’ organization on fire since then, playing at 4 different levels in 2 years and starting on his 5th this year. His main assets are his 95 MPH fastball and pinpoint control – he averaged 1.5 BB/9 at Quad City last year and dropped that to 1.3/9 when he moved up to Kissimmee. His other numbers were similarly impressive – 5 and 5.4K/9, 8.4 H+BB/9 at both levels and 3.36/1.80(!) ERAs. His strikeout numbers were good, but not quite what you expect from a guy with a mid-90s fastball (7.6 and 6.8 K/9).
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Miller’s season last year was that he accomplished all that while using only one pitch (three guesses which one, and the first two don’t count). He is developing a change and slider, which he’ll have to master if he’s going to be a major-league starter.
Miller has been successful so far in the Texas League (his 2.57 ERA puts him in the top 10), but he’s unaccountably stopped striking people out – only 8 in 21 innings. Hopefully that just means he’s working on his breaking pitches, but it’s something to watch. The rest of his game (outrageous control and not many hits) has been there, so I’m optimistic, although I think Garcia has passed him as my #1 Texas League pitcher. Oh, one other thing that I should mention about Miller: No history of arm injuries. You have to like that in a young pitcher.
ETA: Miller also is unlikely to make the major-league roster before September of ’99. Once he arrives, though, the sky is the limit. (TS)
BRIAN SIKORSKI (Age 24, AA Pitcher, T: R, B: R)
Taken in the fourth round of the 1995 draft out of Western Michigan University, Sikorski has quietly and quickly moved up the ranks, starting by eating up the lower A levels. In 204 IP at Auburn and Quad Cities (’95-’96), Sikorski managed a 2.25K/1BB ratio, 10.9BB+H/9IP and an ERA of 2.91. That kind of performance earns you a fast ticket to the high A leagues. In 1997, Sikorski so thoroughly dominated the Florida State League, that after just 11 starts, he was called up to AA Jackson. The hitters of the Texas League slowed him a little, but he rebounded with an excellent season of winter ball for a combined yearly stat line of 201IP, 2.5K/1BB and 11.24BB+H/9IP.
Yet another control pitcher in the Astros system that has a fastball (90-91MPH), slider and change, Sikorski does not have a history of arm problems and is at an age where you are not terribly concerned over the number of innings he threw last year. Through 4 starts this year, he has put up his machine like numbers (25IP, 23K, 31BB+H, 3.60 ERA), with each start better than the last.
I have yet to find any publication or minor league pundit who thinks very highly of Sikorski, but all he does is produce. He’s not Elarton and I’m not certain that he can be a head of the rotation kind of pitcher, but he has the potential, if he lowers his walks or hits per 9IP, to be a real surprise. I’d also like to see him pitch a little in the hitter-friendly PCL, but I am very confident that he can be at least an excellent long relief man, or #4-5 starter, and that is where he should get his earliest shot at the big leagues.
ETA: 1999 Spring Training surprise. (MN)
ALBERTO BLANCO (Age: 21, AA Pitcher, T: L, B: L)
Blanco is the only lefty being reviewed in this issue and is really an enigma (is that to be expected from a southpaw?). Guess where he’s from…has a Latin surname…OK, you guessed it, Venezuela. Signed as a 16-year-old, Blanco has teased the organization for 5 years with his great assortment of breaking stuff, a low 90s fastball and increasing control. 1997 proved to be his breakout season. After two rehab starts in rookie ball to start the season, Blanco toyed with the Florida State League. In 19 starts totaling 114.1 IP, he allowed only 83 hits and 10.1BB+H/9IP. Those are outstanding numbers for a young guy in his first year of high A ball.
You may have noticed that I listed Blanco as AA pitcher. Unfortunately it looks like he suffered some unreported injury in winter ball. Blanco has had some history of arm trouble as he missed parts of 1995-96, but he is currently pitching in extended spring training games in Florida and is due to report to Auburn for the June short A season. My guess is that he will pitch a few games there and, if there are no ill effects, he will report to Jackson by July.
Everyone should be excited by this guy’s potential. But until we see him repeat, or build, on his previous successes while at Jackson, Blanco is a wild card. The man has the kind of stuff to be a dominating pitcher in the Hampton, Denny Neagle mold. Yet, with the arm history, he could also be an Alvin Morman or total bust.
ETA: Sometime in 2000, if we’re all still here. (MN)