By Michael N
Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on May 27, 1998.
Well kids, we are not quite two months into the minor league season and the Astros system seems to be holding its own, compiling an overall record of 89-96 despite a terrible start in Kissimmee. The (AAA) Zephyrs and (A) River Bandits are in first place, while the (AA) Generals are rebounding from their atrocious start. Somebody tell the Cobras that the season has begun already…
With this report we detail some of the guys who have impressed in the upper levels who are still prospects and some very interesting players and pitchers to watch in the lower minors. (Speaking of the lower minors, trying to assess the potential success of guys at that level is about as accurate and successful as Rafael Belliard at the bat.)
For our next installment we’d like to hear from the readers any questions you might have about the Astros’ minor leaguers and/or system. We’ll select some of the better questions to answer in the next issue of Minor Opinions. Also, Michael N. will be going on his annual trek to visit New Orleans and Jackson sometime in June or July and will be conducting interviews with several of the players. If you would like to ask a question (be nice), please pass it on to Kev & Scott’s e-mail box and it will be forwarded. Look for the interviews sometime in late July.
In the meantime, enjoy.
MIKE GRZANICH (Age: 25, AAA Pitcher, T: R, B: R)
Mike looked dead in the water this time last year – he was in the middle of a horrible first half in Jackson, putting up a 6.22 ERA and close to 2 baserunners per 2 inning. Then the Astros switched him back to the bullpen (where he’d been the previous two years) and he came back alive – 31Ks, 13 walks and 21 hits in 29.1 innings with a 1.84 ERA. He kept up the good work to begin this season, striking out 16 and walking 7 in 16.1 innings of work while allowing just 6 hits and 1 (count it) run, making him by far the most effective reliever in New Orleans. This performance earned him a call-up to the big league squad when Mike Magnante went down. Unfortunately it was only for better travel/hotel accommodations and buffet lines as he was sent back down at the end of the 15 days.
His walk totals are still a bit high for a major league pitcher, although not exactly out of place for the Astros’ pen (Henry, Magnante and Wagner all have higher ratios). He may not be a star, but he’s probably better than Bob Scanlan, at least. (TS)
PAUL O’MALLEY (Age: 25, AA Pitcher, T: R, B: R)
Of all the starting pitching in Jackson this year, Paul O’Malley had been the biggest surprise. A former fourth round selection in 1994 (out of Illinois State), he has spent 4 full seasons in the Astros’ organization, primarily bouncing around the A levels before a late season call-up to Jackson last year. His performance then did not set the Texas League on its ear, so who could have predicted the success he’s had so far this year?
O’Malley’s ERA has been in the top 10 in the Texas League all year and he sports a very nice 5-2 record, but his career numbers suggest a guy who has decent control and doesn’t beat himself, not the kind of overpowering stuff that reduces hitters to mumbling buffoons. His age and relative lack of experience at the proving grounds of AA baseball should be signs that the organization is still playing a wait and see game with O’Malley.
Hopefully he continues to show development, but I see him as no more than a potentially useful bullpen performer. (MN)
JULIO LUGO (Age: 22, A Shortstop, T: R, B: R)
A 22-year-old shortstop from Venez…whoops, make that the Dominican Republic, Julio Lugo really shouldn’t still be playing A-ball. He doesn’t have any homers yet, but he does have above average power for a SS (8 2B, 6 3B) and in a more normal park you’d have to figure that some of his extra base hits would have gone yard. He has good plate discipline, excellent speed and exhibits raw but promising defense (good range, but he makes a lot of errors).
So why is he still in Kissimmee?
The problem is that the Astros’ system is stacked with young shortstops. Carlos Guillen, up in AAA, is only 2 months older than Lugo. Jhonny Perez, in AA, is almost a year younger. If Lugo continues to hit in Kissimmee and Perez continues to struggle, perhaps you see them switch places. Or you may see a position change for Lugo. (TS)
JEROMIE ROBERTSON (Age: 21, A Pitcher, T: L, B, L)
We may have something here. Drafted out of high school in CA with a 24th round selection in 1994 (yes, that same draft as Elarton, Johnson and Castro), Robertson has steadily progressed through the system showing signs of ability with career totals of 3K/1BB ratio and 3.38 ERA. But 1998 seems to be a breakout year for him, (much like Miller, Sikorski and Garcia last year) at Kissimmee.
So far, Robertson has been one of the more dominant pitchers in the Florida State League. He sets the pace with 60 Ks, is second in innings pitched (60.1) and is tied for 7th in ERA (2.41). The only cause for concern may be his hits per 9 IP which is a little high, but nothing to really panic over.
Of all the pitchers at Kissimmee, this is the guy who had made himself the one to watch. If his progress continues and he has no arm troubles, he could contend for a spot in 2001. (MN)
THOMAS SHEARN (Age 20: A Pitcher, T: R, B: R)
Minor league watchers and roto players know better than to get excited about someone who comes out of nowhere, especially someone in the lower minors. But Shearn may qualify as a special case. This guy has not allowed a run in fifty-one (51!) innings spread over his last 7 starts. Folks, that is truly impressive. I am not familiar with what Shearn throws, but he doesn’t seem to be overpowering. In 60.2 IP he has 57 Ks. Not bad, but certainly not dominant. What his numbers say to me is that he must have serious life in his pitches in that he has given up only 30 hits and batters are reaching base less than 20% of the time against him.
Shearn was a 29th round pick in the ’96 draft from Briggs HS in Columbus, OH. You know, I have heard stories that wildcatters occasionally found oil while drilling blind.
Guys in low A ball are very difficult to project, but I hope he has his bags packed for Florida fairly soon as he turns 21 in August and has little if nothing left to prove in the Midwest League. (MN)
WILFREDO RODRIGUEZ (Age: 19, A Pitcher, T: L, B: L)
Even more so than Shearn, this is a guy to watch. A 6’3″ lefthander who throws gas (low 90s) and has control at age 19 (and won’t turn 20 until next year) is worth his weight in gold in baseball.
Andres Reiner and his Venezuelan baseball academy look like a solid investment for the Astros and Rodriguez is another in a long list of their products. In his first year in the United States, Rodriguez pitched for the Gulf Coast Astros and compiled an 8-2 record with a 3.04 ERA, a respectable 11.38 H+BB/9IP and 71 strikeouts with only 32 walks in 68 IP.
This season he has bettered his performance of last year in every category. His H+BB/9 is down to 9.72, his K/BB ratio is 61/17 and his ERA is 2.74. Very, very nice numbers for a young guy and probably making him the (lower minors) pitcher to watch in the Astros system. (MN)
SCOTT CHAPMAN (Age: 20, A Catcher, T: R, B: L)
Scott is a guy to follow for the next few years – he’s a long way from the majors and there are some holes in his game (one in particular), but he has shown some promise.
Last year, at the tender age of 19, Chapman put up a .344 average with 6 home runs in 211 plate appearances in short-season A-ball. Unfortunately, he only walked 6 times against 23 strikeouts. If he’s going to succeed at higher levels, he’s going to have to learn some plate discipline, but he has a lot of time and you have to like a catcher who’s shown that kind of power at an early age.
This year, he’s splitting time at Quad Cities with Mike Rose and not playing a whole lot. I’m not sure what’s up there. He’s still showing some power, but his batting average has fallen off quite a bit. Again, someone to look out for in the future, but I’d be shocked if he’s ready before 2002. (TS)