The SnS 2008 Top 10 turned out to be generally, well, not good. J. R. Towles, our #1, was given the starting catching assignment for the Astros to start the season, and he flopped. After 2 months Towles was basically a mess at the plate and behind it. For his troubles he was demoted to AAA Round Rock where he failed to distinguish himself. Our numbers 2 (Paulino), 3 (James), 6 (Flores), and 8 (Perez) spent all or parts of the 2008 season on the shelf. Numbers 5 and 10, Reineke and Parraz respectively, are no longer with the organization. Tommy Manzella, #4, had a mostly respectable 2008 season, as did #7 Sammy Gervacio. #9 Yordany Ramirez lived up to the hype in the field but had lots of trouble at the plate.
As we did last year we present to you not just our top 10 but our top 20. Additionally we present you our view of the short-season prospects to keep an eye on. Keep in mind the SnS top 10/20 does not include short season prospects. In other words, you won’t find Jason Castro on the list. This year’s top 10 includes a few hold overs from last year but is mostly made up of newcomers to the list and those that made big jumps up the ladder. Our top 10 includes 1 third baseman, 5 right-handed pitchers, 2 infielders, 1 outfielder, and 1 left-handed pitcher. Enough introduction. Here is the SpikesnStars top 10.
1. Chris Johnson – Third base. Johnson jumps from #16 last year to the top spot in this year’s top 10. 2008 marked the first time Johnson entered a season as the full-time third baseman. Prior to 2008 he had played all over the infield. We remarked last year that he is a good defender who needed to step up with the bat in 2008. Offensively in Corpus he pounded the baseball putting together his finest season of offensive work to date. Johnson spanked AA pitching to the tune of a .324 average and a .506 slugging percentage. Johnson, a free swinger, did not walk much but also did not strike out much. Defensively, however, he had some struggles. Johnson committed 23 errors over 84 games, but most of those errors were in the first 60 games of the season. In the second half of the season Johnson settled in and improved his work and confidence. His hard work in AA earned him a later season promotion to AAA Round Rock. There Johnson struggled at the plate and, though he committed few errors, in the field. Chris showed some rawness and suffered from lack of exposure to more seasoned pitchers. But it appears that experience helped in fall ball. Assigned to the Arizona Fall League, Chris picked up the pace again hitting .296 with a .490 slugging percentage against some of the best minor league pitchers. The error bug did bite him again as he committed 8 in 25 games. Early in spring training this year Astros Assistant GM Ricky Bennett asserted that Johnson is major league ready defensively and expects him to be major league average at the hot corner. Johnson is also viewed as being ready or near-ready offensively. We expected him to be assigned to Round Rock to start the season before Boone left with a heart ailment. Now however, as of this writing, Johnson stands a good chance of opening the season in Houston. If he is assigned to Round Rock, how long he remains there will be dependent on how well he plays, obviously, and how well Blum or a Blum and whoever platoon perform.
2. Bud Norris – Right-handed pitcher. Norris is the second big mover from last year’s top 10. Bud jumps from #14 to #2, nearly a 1a in our minds. Spending the 2008 season at Corpus Christi Norris pitched well in the limited time he was on the mound. He spent a good deal of time in the middle of the season on the shelf with arm problems. Still, he struck out more than 1 batter per inning pitched over 19 starts. The Astros sent Norris to the Arizona Fall League along with Corpus teammate Chris Johnson. There he worked exclusively out of the bullpen. Working in relief, Norris stepped up his game. Facing many of the minors best hitters Norris struck out 20 over 19 innings. He limited the opposition to just 14 hits and finished with a 1.89 ERA. That solid work opened the Astros eyes to the possibility of Norris being a quality late-inning reliever. Bud continues to sport the mid-90’s fastball and solid breaking pitch. He continues to work on his change up as it is not yet major league caliber. Development of that third pitch will likely dictate whether Bud remains a starting pitcher long-term or is eventually converted to a reliever. For now though Norris will start at Round Rock and continue to develop as a pitcher.
3. Brian Bogusevic – Outfielder. What a difference a year makes. Last year we had Bogusevic at #18 and in desperate need of consistent work on the mound. This year he checks in at #3 thanks to the well documented position change. We won’t go into the details here as you can find plenty about it elsewhere with a quick Google search, but suffice it to say Bogusevic wasn’t improving on the mound by mid-season last year. So, the Astros decided a move to the outfield was his best bet to reach his potential. Recall from the 2004 draft, Bogusevic was considered a first round talent in the outfield as well as on the mound. It should not surprise anyone that he has shown high level ability in the outfield. What is surprising is how quickly he took to being an outfielder again. After a brief stop at high-A Salem to get his hitting eye, Bogusevic finished the 2008 season torching AA pitching at Corpus. Bogusevic was then sent with Johnson and Norris to the Arizona Fall League to get more at-bats. There he continued his hot hitting, finishing with a .338 average. The Astros want to see Bogusevic build his stamina and be able to play everyday. Further they expect to see his hitting refine. He is able to hit to all fields now for average, and the Astros expect to see him mature into a power hitter beyond simply settling for singles. Defensively Bogusevic is best suited to right field, but he is also capable of manning center competently. We expect to find Brian patrolling center field and right field in Round Rock.
4. Polin Trinidad – Left-handed pitcher. Polin Trinidad is a pitcher, not a thrower. His fastball barely breaks 90, but his ability to put it where he wants to and his ability to keep hitters off balance with a change up has allowed him to move up the Astros system and join the 40 man roster. Trinidad spent 3 seasons in the DSL before coming to the states. Then he spent two seasons in Greeneville. Since joining full season ball in 2007 he has earned a mid-season promotion in each year, finishing 2008 in Corpus. He is projected to start in Round Rock this year. The skinny lefty is reported to be working on being more consistant with his curve ball so that he can be an effective starter at the big league level.
5. Felipe Paulino – Right-handed pitcher. Paulino drops from #2 to #5 this year. Despite missing most of last season to arm injury the Astros expect his power arm to rebound in 2009. We all know about the mid- to high-90’s fastball and his brief but fairly successful stint in Houston in 2007. But he must prove he can stay healthy if he wants to be a regular major leaguer. Paulino did not pitch competitively in the Venezuelan Winter League but did throw on the side to the satisfaction of the Astros. The Astros will continue to have Paulino start despite his history of injury. He is expected to take a rotation spot in Round Rock.
6. Drew Sutton – Infielder. Sutton came out of nowhere in 2008. Repeating AA he blasted Texas League pitching with a .317 average and .523 slugging percentage. His first go around in AA was unremarkable, and so it is not so much a surprise he was better with the bat as it is surprising he hit so well and so consistently. Impressing the Astros with consistent quality work in the batters box led them to sending Sutton to the AFL along with Johnson, Norris, and Bogusevic . There Sutton continued to smack the baseball. He hit .315 and slugged .611, including 7 homers in 108 at-bats. Drew is a steady but not spectacular fielder. He’ll get the job done when he gets to the ball and demonstrates more or less average range and arm strength. The Astros had been so impressed they talked about the possiblity of Sutton breaking training camp with the team as a utility infielder. His work at spring training though led them to wanting Sutton to spend the start of the 2009 season at Round Rock playing second base.
7. Sergio Perez – Right-handed pitcher. Perez had a tough 2008 season. He was limited to just 27 innings on the mound at Corpus Christi. He was unremarkable in his short time there. The Astros sent him too to the Arizona Fall League. For Scottsdale he logged 26 innings over 7 starts and was inconsistent. At times he showed flashes of his talent. At other times he was utterly hittable. The Astros continue to consider him a starting pitcher and expect him to develop as a starter in 2009 with Round Rock. He will be looking to be more consistent with the location of his fastball and breaking pitch and improve the quality and consistency of his change up.
8. Chia-Jen Lo – Right-handed pitcher. C. J. is the first big signing from Asia for the Astros. He was signed in October to a contract with a signing bonus of about $250,000. Lo’s fastball topped out at 92-93 in bullpen sessions for teams looking to sign him. Lo has been pitching in international competitions since 2004. Most recently, he pitched for Taiwan in the Olympics on a limited basis. Throwing two innings against China giving up one run. His command caused some concerns. He was on the preliminary roster for Taiwan in the World Baseball Classic but did not pitch. He is projected to be a late inning reliever/ closer type. In addition to his heat, he is supposed to have a pretty solid splitter and a decent curve that he uses to keep hitters honest. It is expected that these secondary pitches aren’t strong enough to allow him to move into the role of a starter. He will turn 23 just as the season begins and is expected to start the season at high-A Lancaster.
9. Sammy Gervacio – Right-handed pitcher. Yet another bullpen arm in the system. Sammy is an oddity in that he has never started a game in his minor league career. He has appeared in 175 games, all out of the pen. He has finished over 100 of the 175 games. In his minor league career, he has never had a season where his innings pitched exceeded his strike outs. That trend continued when he got a short promotion in 2008 to AAA where he pitched 8 innings, striking out 14. One would think with those K numbers that he is a flame thrower. However, Sammy never hits 90 on the gun. He tops out at 88-89 and his out pitch is a slider, which Baseball America called the best in the organization. Gervacio turns 24 this year and should start the season at Round Rock. It will be interesting to see if he is in a set up or closer role for them.
10. Tommy Manzella – Shortstop. Manzella falls from #4 to #10 this year. Recall from last year’s top 10 Manzella had a very good 1/2 season run at Corpus Christi followed by a solid AFL season. He began 2008 at Corpus and continued to hit the ball well, hitting .299 and slugging .446. His defense remained solid, and the Astros promoted him to Round Rock. There, he found facing more polished pitchers a more difficult task than facing the younger guns of the Texas League. Though not overwhelmed by the Pacific Coast League pitchers, Manzella could manage just a .219 average and had trouble making solid contact. Right now the Astros believe he has the size and strength to hit consistently at the major league level. However Tommy needs to control the strike zone better, making better choices on pitches to hit and let go, and improve his ability to make consistent contact. He needs to work on hitting line drives instead of fly balls.
11. Mitch Einertson. Mitch continues to have an up and down career. However, his age (turns 23 right after opening day) and the glimpses of being a solid ballplayer keep him on the prospect watch for another season. Last year, he had a decent season in his first at AA but it like his career had it’s ups and downs. He hit just .221 prior to the all star break and then missed most of July with an injury. He returned and hit .350 in 120 at bats to finish out the season. But with the solid ending of the season, the return of a higher strike out percentage returned. Mitch doesn’t have the range for center but lacks the pop for the corners. He can play all adequately but none spectacularly. He is looking like a 4th outfielder type for the future if he can bring his strike outs down. We suspect he will begin the season at Round Rock this year, though we wouldn’t be shocked if he returned to Corpus Christi.
12. Brad James. Brad got a great deal of good press heading into the 2008 campaign. He was being looked at as a possible September call up at worst. Brad had a forgettable 2008 season on the mound. He missed a great deal of time with injuries only throwing 93 innings, and finishing with a 4.45 ERA. He also had trouble keeping the ball in the yard, giving up 9 HR. He then went out to Arizona and has a less than stellar performance out there. So why keep him in the top 20? Because he still throws a hard sinker that people pound in the ground. We are going to chalk up last year up to Brad being injured and also being taught to use his change up effectively. He has fallen from #3 last year all the way down to #12 this year. If improvement is not seen, James won’t be on this list next year, much less the 40 man roster.
13. Chris Blazek. Blazek makes his first appearance in our top 20 on the strength of his 2008 campaign. He a lefty so that’s a plus and was effective at AA, another plus. Working exclusively out of the bullpen Blazek finished with a respectable 1.36 WHIP and fewer hits allowed (67) than innings pitched (69.2). As has always been the case for Chris, he continues the high strike out rate. He K’d 84 batters in those 69+ innings. He is Rule 5 eligible, but a solid 2009 season at AAA could find him placed on the 40-man roster this winter.
14. Koby Clemens. Koby continues to be an interesting figure in the Astros system. Offensively in 2008 Clemens held his own despite distractions learning a new position. He hit .268 and showed good gap power. In his first year as a full-time catcher though Clemens had all kinds of problems. He was not a good receiver, did not show great mobility, and his throwing technique continues to be a work in progress. The Astros will keep him there and expect improvement. The extent of any improvements will determine how long the Astros keep him. He could start 2009 at Corpus.
15. Josh Flores. Flores tumbles out of the top 10 thanks to a 2008 season lost to knee injury. He needs to get back into playing shape. Losing a year cannot have helped his development so we’ll be keeping an eye on his progress. He’ll start 2009 at Corpus.
16. Fernando Abad. Fernando was successful in his first full season in the States. He pitched in 45 games for Lexington striking out 94 batters in 76 1/3 innings pitched. Abad is a bit old for the level (turned 23 in December) but has been impressive since coming to the States. Abad doesn’t throw hard but he pitches well. He has a mid 80’s fastball, mixed with very good change and curves. He will keep you off balance and swinging at air. How he adjusts to higher level hitters at a hitter friendly park in Lancaster will be interesting to watch.
17. Reid Kelly. It may seem a little strange to have a low-A right-handed reliever in here at all, but Kelly pitched very well in the Lexington bullpen as a 21 year old. He’s got a strong arm, had a 1.35 WHIP last season, and struck out more than 1 per inning pitched. He saved 4 games last year and could be one the Astros look to to fill a late inning role down the road. He will stand a solid test in 2009 at hitter friendly Lancaster.
18. Colin DeLome. DeLome split last year between Lexington and Salem and has become something of an enigma. Known mostly as a speed guy not as a power hitter, he smacked 22 home runs last year. The trouble is he was expected to develop his eye at the plate but didn’t. He hit a combined .246 and struck out in over 27% of his at-bats. The Astros don’t view him as a power guy long-term and would like to see him cut down on the strike outs and get on base much more often.
19. James Van Ostrand. Had a busy year last year. He was on the Canadian Olympic Qualifying team during Spring Training and then was assigned to Salem. He hit well at Salem and then got a brief call up to Corpus Christi. He struggled during his short visit, hitting just .160 in 25 at bats. He then went back to Salem only to head out to Bejing for the Olympics. When he returned, his bat continued to struggle going 8 for 30 to wrap up the season. He has shown improvement every year at the plate. Due to limited range and speed, he is viewed as a first baseman now and not an outfield prospect. He should begin the season at Corpus Christi and since he was not on theWBC roster for Canada, he should be able to focus solely on development.
20. Douglas Arguello. Arguello was the ace of the Salem staff in 2008. He accounted for 10 of Salem’s 56 wins last year. He is a soft throwing lefty who won’t break 90 on the gun but will keep hitters off balance by changing speeds. He struggles with control at times as you can see looking at his walks (69 in 142IP ), hit batters (10) and wild pitches (14). However, he had his best season as a pro and should be interesting to watch as he likely steps up to Corpus Christi this season.
Continuing our analysis of the Astros minor league system we take a look at a list of other prospects to keep an eye on. The first thing you should notice is that we did not include any other full-season prospects. After looking at who was left in the system above short-season we came to the conclusion there were no players worth noting at this time. If you would like to take the time to find others’ of interest to you, we suggest you start by heading to last year’s top 10 and seeing who was there but not here and still with the Astros organization. The players we have included here are from the 2008 short-season leagues. Here you’ll find the top draftees from 2008, a few from previous drafts, and some from last season’s Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues. Keep in mind that with the following players time and patience are virtues. All of the following players have a great deal of development ahead of them and, as we know from history, most will wash out. This year there are 3 catchers, 2 first basemen, 4 second basemen, 3 third basemen, 1 shortstop, 6 outfielders, 8 left-handed pitchers, and 6 right-handed pitchers listed.
Short-season Watch List
Jason Castro – The 1st round draft pick showed why he was highly touted giving a solid showing in the NYPL and then tearing up the HWL. Could be in for rapid advancement.
Federico Hernandez – Quick backstop, made outstanding plays on pop flies during the season. Showed solid work at the plate as well hitting .298 in 114 at bats. Is the cousin of Baltimore catcher Ramon Hernandez.
Rene Garcia – Started the conversion process to catcher following being drafted out of Puerto Rico. Showed promise at the plate in limited exposure in Greeneville.
Phil Disher – Slugged 13 homers and 20 doubles in his first season in the NYPL. Add to that a .304 average and you have a 1st baseman to watch.
Luis Alvarez – Short at 5’11” and listed as a 1st baseman but played third and caught also in the VSL. Demonstrated power and patience at the plate as an 18 year old in 2008.
Albert Cartright – Played a solid second while raising his average every month in Greeneville.
Jose Altuve – Shared 2nd with Cartwright and both showed flashes of being solid in the field. Altuve is extremely quick and showed decent pop out of his 5’4” frame. Will turn 19 during spring training.
Michael Diaz – Put in a solid showing at Tri City. He hit .282 with 17 extra base hits.
Miguel Arrendell – Speedy 20 year old. .459 OBP and 20 stolen bases over 57 games.
Ebert Rosario – In his second season in Greeneville, Rosario improved in all aspects of the game. He improved his average from .273 to .304 and reduced his errors from 28 to 15. Good range and quickness, needs more pop in bat.
Johnny Medrano – Missed all of last season with a knee injury. Was expected to be the best position player in Greeneville.
David Flores – Showed corner infield pop with 11 homers and 17 doubles at Tri City.
Ricardo Bonfonte – Was outstanding at SS and had several clutch hits. Started very hot but faded at year’s end.
Jay Austin – 2nd round pick didn’t turn 18 until August. Is a speed burner and can run any ball down in the outfield. Was overmatched at the plate to begin the year and started showing frustration at the end of the year.
Jack Shuck – the lefty hitting former Buckeye got his pro start hitting .300 in the NYPL for Tri City. He also had more walks (35) than strikeouts (34) in 263 AB.
T. J. Steele – Started hot and then faded some down the stretch. Still hit .283 on the season. Fanned too many times (51 in 159 AB).
Nathan Metroka – hit .400 in 17 games in August to wrap up his first season in Greeneville. Had 25 K’s in 53 AB in June & July with only 11 K’s in 60 AB in August. Looks like something may have clicked.
Frank Almonte – Started the season hot with the bat but cooled as the year went on in Greeneville. Still finished with a decent .271 average. Showed a strong arm in RF.
Renzo Tello – Showed flashes in corner outfield positions. Hit .288 on the season.
Luis Cruz – Little lefty drafted out of Puerto Rico was dominant before being shut down with a shoulder injury.
Brad Dydalewicz – only made four starts, pitching 10 innings but was impressive.
Colton Pitkin – Struck out 45 in 44 innings. Struggled with control some in his second year in Greeneville but finished with a strong August (5 games, 3 saves, 23K in 16 IP). Won’t turn 20 until August.
Patrick Urckfitz – looking for a long shot to follow? Pat is your man. A NDFA signed after the season started became a solid arm in the bullpen. In 19 1/3 IP, he fanned 23 and finished with a 1.40 ERA.
Eduin Ciriaco – Impressive year out of the pen in Tri City. 47 K in 37 1/3 IP while only giving up 42 combined walks and hits. A bit old for competition.
Radaulin Vargas – Good size. 1.19 WHIP and 64 K’s in 59.2 IP in DSL. 20 years old for 2009.
Angel Gonzalez – Smaller frame but very successful in DSL and did not turn 20 until August.
Jordan Lyles – Struck out 64 in 49 2/3 IP while only walking 10 batters, in Greeneville. The 1st round supplemental pick got 2 starts in Tri City. The first being awful and then coming back with a solid outing against the same team he struggled against. Showing good maturity.
Kyle Greenwalt – Showed significant improvement in his second year in Greeneville. Was MVP of the team. Only allowed 2 home runs in 77 2/3 IP this year.
Ross Seaton – You can’t tell much from 4 innings of pitching but we should definitely watch him this summer. Expect him to be in Greeneville to start out.
Christopher Hicks – Had limited action in Tri City but pitched well out of the pen in the HWL. Control needs to be watched as he walked 12 in 18 IP in HWL.
Brian Wabick – split between Greeneville and Tri City, enjoyed another solid year out of the pen. 39 Ks in 39 1/3 IP with only 6 walks.
Andrea Lucati – The Italian teenage signee only got in 7 innings in Greeneville. He fanned 12 during that brief stretch.
Juan Mojica – Long and thin with a frame to fill out a bit. Successful in the DSL as a 19 year old in 2008.
13 contestants vied for the Top 10 Guessing Game Championship and coveted Greeneville Baseball Glove Ovenmitt this year. The winner this year is muircheartaigh with a total score of an impressive 92 and more impressively all 10 players correct. Three players tied for second. Russe, jaklewein, and CarolinaStro scored 81 and 9 correct players. You can go to the Top 10 Contest page and view all the scores.