Few organizations could use a bright look to the future more than the Houston Astros. Currently at 35-51 and 14 games behind first-place Cincinnati, they're on pace to miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
The days of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Shane Reynolds are long gone, and the days of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt are seemingly becoming shorter with each passing week. But at the same time, it's tough to argue that this organization isn't going in the right direction, as difficult as that has been for management at times under meddling owner Drayton McLane.
I mean, who would've been included on this roster if we did the same exercise three years ago? Houston's best players included Berkman, Oswalt, Morgan Ensberg, Jason Jennings and the outfield of Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee and Luke Scott. The farm system included some intriguing names, like Troy Patton, Jimmy Barthmaier, and Fernando Nieve, but it had a serious lack of depth, and the best player to come out of that system, Ben Zobrist, ended up being included in a deal to land Aubrey Huff from Tampa Bay.
Young talent was clearly a problem in the system. So enter Bobby Heck. Heck was a key cog of Milwaukee's scouting team during their farm system's rise to prominence with elite prospects like Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun, and he was named Houston's director of scouting late in 2007. Essentially, Heck was expected to be one of the primary guys to rebuild one of the most underwhelming groups of young talent in recent memory.
As a healthy reminder, I'd just like to mention that these lineups DO NOT include any sort of speculated free agent, trade or draft acquisitions that could happen before the 2013 season, and one could almost be guaranteed that by the time that 2013 comes, each team will have acquired some new players through free agency, trades and/or the draft. That being said, these are still exceptionally useful looks at how the teams will look by 2013, so we can have a better idea of what kind of players each organization is lacking in, and which players they'll be more likely to target through free agency. Like, as commenter backtocali noted on Baltimore's post, the Orioles could possibly look to sign a Prince Fielder-type to make the 1B/DH situation a bit easier to deal with, as he'd be an obvious upgrade on Snyder/Reimold and with so many young players presumably there should be a good amount of payroll flexibility, too. But for this exercise, we're sticking purely with players that are either in the organization already or have been drafted this year with a reasonable likeliness of signing (so yeah, there's no Zach Lee for the Dodgers. Sorry). Additionally, after the trade deadline I'll probably do a few posts covering how trades changed these outlooks, particularly on teams where impact prospects could be dealt or acquired.
As I noted at the top, the Astros aren't really that close to being a legitimate contender, and will need to continue to infuse young talent into their organization after years of essentially turning a cold shoulder to the draft for a solid period of time. But Heck and GM Ed Wade have this thing moving in the right direction, and let's see what they could have in place by 2013.
(Additionally, here's a link to a similar exercise that The Crawfish Boxes, SBN's Astros Blog, did a couple weeks ago looking at the "Astros of the Future". There are a good deal of differences between each post beyond the differences in players selected, so it's a good read even after dropping by here, especially for some nice, healthy comparison.)
The Starting Lineup.
Catcher: Jason Castro, Opening Day 2013 Age: 25, Current level: MLB
Heck's first Rule 4 draft pick as scouting director, the Astros chose Castro with the 10th overall pick out of Stanford University in 2008. Considered somewhat of an overdraft as he wasn't regarded as one of the ten best prospects coming into the draft, Castro still established himself as the organization's best prospect coming into the 2009 season after a solid short-season debut in 2008 that included a .383 OBP in 164 plate appearances. For a prospect that retained most of his value as a quality defensive catcher, seeing some offensive upside was a very positive note for Houston's top pick.
At Advanced Single-A Lancaster in 2009, Castro did what one would expect from any decent hitting prospect: put up some shiny numbers. But his performance in one of the minors' highest-scoring environments was enough to convince management to send him up to Double-A, where he continued to impress with a .294/.363/.387 line. He was short on power, but his 25/34 BB/K ratio was very impressive.
Called up to Triple-A to begin 2010, Castro basically was what he was in Double-A last season, but with a lower BABIP that dragged down his numbers in general. He actually showed some improvement in his BB/K marks, with 32 walks compared to just 34 strikeouts in 239 plate appearances. That performance, along with the struggles of former top prospect J.R. Towles in Houston, was apparently enough for Houston to call-up Castro.
He's struggled so far in Houston, with a .194/.310/.306 line propped up by a 14.3% walk rate, but his BABIP is pretty low and there really aren't any conclusions to be made with 42 plate appearances worth of data. At this point, Castro is pretty short on star potential for a top prospect, but the Astros probably have themselves a solid defender at catcher who can get on-base some, and most teams will take that from their backstop every day of the week.
First Base: Koby Clemens, 2013 Opening Day Age: 26, Current level: Double-A
Known as Roger Clemens' eldest son for the vast majority of his professional career, Clemens emerged as a prospect worth keeping an eye on last year after putting up a .344/.419/.634 line with 43 doubles, 6 triples and 22 home runs in 489 plate appearances.
Generally, 22-year-olds who hit like that, even in Advanced Single-A, are considered to be pretty good prospects. But Clemens had a big question mark surrounding his numbers. It wasn't a big platoon split, or some wacky home/road splits. Rather, it's the fact that he was playing for Lancaster in the California League. For those of you who don't know, Lancaster is the biggest launching pad in a league that could realistically be considered one big launch station. Like with players from their Cal League counterpart in High Desert, you just have to take the numbers that a guy puts up in Lancaster with a grain of salt.
So when the Astros called Clemens up to Double-A for 2010, it remained to be seen whether he was actually showing some serious improvement in 2009 or if he was merely a Lancaster mirage. And, well, at this point it would seem that making contact is really the only question left on Clemens. His .255/.366/.507 line in Double-A is more than most expected from Clemens, particularly given his impressive walk rate (~13%) and power production (18 HR, .252 ISO). The strikeout rate, at roughly 32%, is the main red flag left on Clemens beyond his defensive limitations.
At this point, Clemens is both a prospect with a good deal of limitations and easily the best 1B prospect Houston has remotely close to the majors. He clearly has power and there's some good patience in his approach, but he's going to have some serious troubles at higher levels if he can't cut his K rate below 32% in Double-A. Clemens could end as Houston's first baseman some time next season, and while there's not a lot of star potential, he could be a solid one.
Second Base: Jose Altuve, Opening Day 2013 Age: 22, Current level: Single-A
When you see a second baseman with solid defensive scouting reports, 40+ steal speed, and a near-800 OPS in Single-A at age 20, that looks like a pretty damn good prospect. But it's a lot harder to get scouts excited about you when you're 5-5. Just ask Jose Altuve.
Signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old, Altuve hit well in rookie leagues for three years before the Astros decided to call him up to Single-A for 2010. Regarded as a solid defender at second base despite his short stature, it would seem that height is really the only thing that's holding back Altuve from being considered one of Houston's better young prospects.
He's currently putting up a .296/.353/.436 line with 8 home runs and 27 steals for Single-A Lexington. He'll always have limited power, which shouldn't be too surprising given his size, but as one would expect, he's also a very good contact hitter, with only 43 strikeouts in 314 at-bats so far this season, a rate of just 13.7%. And it's worth mentioning that his BABIP is pretty low for someone with his speed in Slngle-A, especially given his batted ball profile.
Altuve's still a work-in-progress in all facets of the game, including his base running, as he's just 27-for-39 on stolen base opportunities this season. But he has the tools and skill set to be an everyday player at second base, and I'm not ready to write this guy off just because he's 5-5. And that's especially the case when his competition appears to be the likes of Tommy Manzella, Enrique Hernandez, Jose Vallejo, and Angel Sanchez.
Third Base: Mike Kvasnicka, Opening Day 2013 Age: 24, Current level: Short-season
Currently playing with the Tri-City Valleycats in the New York-Penn League, Kvasnicka has looked pretty awful in 73 plate appearances thus far. That being said, Kvasnicka is still one of the best prospects that Houston has after signing with the club last month.
The 33rd overall pick in this year's draft, the Minnesota product is currently splitting time between catcher, third base and right field, with many in management holding out hope that Kvasnicka will be able to stick behind the plate. Most evaluators agree that Kvasnicka has the tools to stay at catcher, including a good arm, but he's pretty raw there given that he wasn't even a full-time catcher with the Golden Golphers.
As a hitter, Kvasnicka has some good hitting ability and plate discipline, but his power upside is limited as he doesn't properly utilize his lower-half, and his running speed is decent at best. He should be able to hit for a solid average and get on-base at a solid clip, as evidenced by his 19% walk rate in Tri-City so far this year, but it would be fair to say that he doesn't exactly project as a star hitter.
If he can stick at catcher, he's a fantastic prospect, but it's questionable whether his bat will be able to play in an outfield corner unless he alters his swing to produce more loft and power. Most scouts believe that he'll be able to play a solid third if Houston gives up on him as a catcher, and while the limited offensive upside makes it pretty important that the Astros see if he can be a backstop, there's a good chance that third base is his final destination.
Houston probably didn't add a star when they drafted and signed Kvasnicka, but there's a decent chance that he emerges as a solid regular somewhere on the diamond.
Shortstop: Jiovanni Mier, Opening Day 2013 Age: 22, Current level: Single-A
Currently the double-play partner of Altuve in Lexington, Mier was considered by some to be Houston's best prospect coming into the season, but a rough full-season debut has left some feeling far less bullish about his future prospects.
The 21st overall pick in the 2009 draft, Mier was drafted out of a California high school and immediately made an impact in his short-season debut in the Appy League last season. In 51 games, he put up a .276/.380/.484 line with 7 doubles, 6 triples, 7 home runs and 10 steals, good enough to be ranked as the 73rd-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America coming into this season and a top-100 prospect by both Keith Law and Kevin Goldstein as well.
At just 19 years old, the Astros called up Mier to Single-A for the 2010 season, and while few considered it an aggressive promotion by any means, Mier has ended up looking pretty overmatched thus far. His line currently sits at .226/.320/.304 in 336 plate appearances, although there are a few reasons to be optimistic about Mier. First off, there are his walk and strikeout numbers. He may be struggling, but he's still walking nearly 12% of the time along with a reasonable 20% strikeout rate. Secondly, his .279 BABIP is absurdly low for a player with his athleticism in Single-A. And the third point is that he's actually improved as the season has wore on, including a .257/.349/.386 line since the beginning of June.
Mier probably isn't going to be making any Top-100 lists this year, but he's still one of Houston's best prospects, and he's absolutely still their shortstop-of-the-future. Sorry, Oswaldo Navarro.
Left field: Austin Wates, Opening Day 2013 Age: 24, Current level: Unsigned third-round pick
If you didn't notice yet, I think that a few of Houston's draft picks from this year will emerge as top prospects in the system pretty clearly. While that's both because of Bobby Heck's good work and the lack of quality talent in the organization, I feel pretty good about putting Wates here in favor of prospects currently in the system.
While Wates could conceivably end up not signing with Houston in order to return to Virginia Tech for another year before re-entering the draft, that would seem to be a huge risk given that Wates is already almost 22 and the 2011 draft class is expected to be absolutely stacked. So I'm going to go with this under the impression that the Astros will eventually sign Wates, which would seem to be a no-brainer even if he wants good second-round money.
Rated by Keith Law as the 24th-best prospect in the 2010 draft class, the Astros snagged Wates with the 90th overall pick. Regarded as a pretty advanced college bat with a good swing and bat speed, he's also a fairly well-disciplined hitter with above-average running speed. Basically, the question marks surrounding Wates mostly are related to his defensive position and how well he'll play it.
While he has the body and tool set to play center field, his instincts have reportedly looked pretty ugly in the outfield, and he spent most of his time at Virginia Tech playing first base and left field. His upside will likely be somewhat limited if he's forced to stick at first base, but he could conceivably develop into a solid defensive left fielder with some work, which makes him a very interesting prospect given his hitting ability.
At this point, the Astros still need to focus on simply getting Wates signed, but he should give them a fantastic hitting prospect once that happens. And at this point, I'm having a pretty tough time buying into current Houston OF prospects like Jon Gaston, T.J. Steele, Collin DeLome, Brian Bogusevic and Jay Austin.
Center field: Delino DeShields Jr., 2013 Opening Day Age: 20, Current level: Unsigned first-round pick
Houston's top pick in the 2010 draft and the 8th pick overall, DeShields has yet to sign and the idea of him making the 2013 team out of Spring Training is a bit optimistic, but he'll immediately become the team's center-fielder-of-the-future once the ink dries unless the team tries him as a second baseman first.
With Michael Bourn hitting free agency after the 2012 season, the Astros will likely need to find a new center fielder, and the son of former big leaguer Delino DeShields would seem to be an obvious option, assuming that he's big league ready. At this point, the 5-8 DeShields is still pretty raw, but guys with his combination of hitting ability and plus-plus speed are truly rare, especially when they come with some nice, shiny Major League bloodlines.
DeShields is one of those rare players who actually warrants an 80 for his speed on the 20-80 scouting scale, which makes him a good bet to become a quality defender in center field given his freakish range. With a good enough arm and the potential to hit for average and solid power, DeShields has huge upside if his bat comes through.
Some questioned whether he was a good pick at No. 8, most considered him a first-round talent but not a top-10 kind of guy. But it's tough to argue that DeShields isn't a very, very intriguing prospect, and apparently Houston had serious doubts about whether he'd still be on the board at No. 19, their next pick. With his swing, speed and pedigree, there's a whole lot to get excited about with DeShields. There's a chance that he doesn't make it to Houston by the beginning of 2013, but with the other options, guys like Steele, Gaston and Austin, are all struggling, I opted to go with DeShields, who at the very least should be stud defender and baserunner by 2013.
With all of this said, though, Houston could potentially opt to see if DeShields can play second base before trying him in center field, which would presumably open this spot up for one of the guys mentioned above, most likely Austin.
Right field: Hunter Pence, Opening Day 2013 Age: 29, Current level: MLB
One of the only established MLB players in the lineup, Pence emerged as one of the best right fielders in the game the past three years before stumbling into some troubles at the plate and in the field this season.
Once regarded as a top prospect, Pence burst onto the scene in 2007 with a huge debut performance, batting .322/.360/.539 in 108 games with Houston, accumulating 3.8 WAR along the way. He's been unable to repeat that kind of offensive dominance since then, but he's made up for it by proving to be one of the better defensive right fielders in the game, putting up roughly +12 UZR marks in both 2008 and 2009. After putting up a 3.1 WAR in 2008, Pence finished last season at 4.0 WAR, good for third-best among NL right fielders behind only Jayson Werth and Justin Upton.
Coming into this season, most projected Pence to put up another 3.5-4.0 WAR performance in 2010, but an apparent change in approach along with some nasty luck on balls in play has led to by far Pence's worst season in the majors. Compared to last season, Pence is holding his swing rate steady, but he's actually swinging at balls in the zone 6% less while swinging at balls out of the zone 6% more often. Generally speaking, that's not a particularly good combination. There have been some good things to come out of this new approach, including much improved contact and whiff rates that have helped him cut his K rate from 18.6% to 13.9%. But he's not walking as much as before, and maybe more importantly, he's hitting the ball in the air less often, which has led to a substantial decline in his power numbers. He's actually posting the highest HR/FB of his career this season at 17.6%, but with a lower FB rate he's seeing little to no improvement in his actual home run output.
The other concern is Pence's defense. After putting up fantastic UZR and DRS marks of +24.2 and +30, respectively, in 2008/2009, he's sitting with a -1.9 UZR and +1 DRS at this point in the season, far cries from his previously established level of play. He probably isn't a +12 fielder over a full season going forward, but it's fair to say that he's better than average.
ZiPS projects Pence to post a .345 wOBA for the rest of the season, which isn't that far off from the .351 wOBA he posted in 2009 and would seem to be entirely reasonable. At age 27, Pence is supposed to be in the middle of his prime offensive years, but there's a chance that he never puts up another 4-win season again. That being said, he's still an above-average regular, and the closest thing that Houston has to a homegrown young star on the team right now.
The Starting Rotation.
No. 1: RHP Jordan Lyles, 2013 Opening Day Age: 22, Current level: Double-A
No. 2: RHP Michael Foltynewicz, 2013 Opening Day Age: 21, Current level: Short-season
No. 3: RHP Tanner Bushue, 2013 Opening Day Age: 21, Current level: Single-A
No. 4: RHP Bud Norris, 2013 Opening Day Age: 28, Current level: MLB
No. 5: LHP Dallas Keuchel, 2013 Opening Day Age: 23, Current level: Advanced Single-A
If you did this same exercise with Houston's pitchers two or three years ago, what would the rotation have looked like? Roy Oswalt, Troy Patton, Wandy Rodriguez, Felipe Paulino and Norris?
Basically, the young pitching in this organization has come a very long way the past couple years. And this new group of pitchers is headlined by arguably Heck's best draft pick since coming to Houston, right-hander Jordan Lyles. The Astros drafted Lyles with their second pick in the 2008 draft, the 38th overall pick. Most considered it to be an overdraft at the time, as Lyles wasn't regarded as a top-40 talent by most evaluators, but Lyles' development the past couple years has more than vindicated the pick. He's currently posting a 3.42 FIP for Double-A Corpus Christi, and he's improved so much that he actually came in at No. 24 on Keith Law's updated Top-25 prospect list at the end of June. He may not quite have top-level ace upside, but with the potential for three above-average pitches along with good command he absolutely profiles as a top-of-the-rotation starter. His performance as a 19-year-old in Double-A has been truly special so far this season.
A hard-throwing right-hander drafted out of an Illinois high school this summer, Foltynewicz was regarded as one of the best high school arms in the draft thanks to his clean mechanics and an impressive fastball that can touch 96 MPH with plus movement. His breaking stuff is still a work-in-progress and his command isn't near MLB-ready, but he has legitimate top-of-the-rotation upside with the proper development. His fastball is still easily his best pitch at the moment, as he generally sits 89-93 and induces a good deal of grounders with some sinking movement, and his changeup is already a solid pitch with decent arm action and good fade. He also employs a low-to-mid 70's curveball that's really more of a show-me pitch at this point, but with some work he could potentially have three solid offerings, including his plus fastball and change. There's a lot of projection here with "Folty", but he could emerge as one of the best pitchers in this organization pretty quickly.
Like Foltynewicz, Bushue was drafted by Houston out of an Illinois high school, as the Astros tabbed him with the 69th overall pick in the 2009 draft. In a short stint in the GCL after signing last summer Bushue pitched well, and the Astros sent him up to Single-A Lexington to begin the 2010 season. After a very strong April, Bushue has slowed down the past two plus months, with a 5.74 FIP as his fly-balling ways (35% GB rate) caught up to him. His K/BB ratio has continued to be strong (72/28 K/BB in 76 innings), though, so there's reason to be optimistic. He's still fairly raw in terms of his offspeed stuff, but he's projectable with his velocity and build, and the emergence of a third pitch to go along with his fastball/curve combination would go a long way. When it comes to high-upside arms, the Astros are still lacking, but Bushue is one of the best in the bunch.
Norris is the only one of these pitchers that's actually in Houston already, as he's been in Houston's rotation all season with the exception of a roughly one-month stint on the disabled list. Norris was consistently regarded as one of Houston's top prospects from his full-season debut in 2007 through his MLB debut last season, primarily thanks to an impressive fastball/slider combo. Many evaluators pegged his future in the back of a bullpen given his velocity, lack of command, durability questions and quality out-pitch, but Norris is doing his best to prove to Houston's front office that he can stick in the rotation long-term. While his W-L and ERA marks are pretty ugly at 2-5 and 5.87, respectively, his FIP and xFIP marks are both below 4.00, reflecting that he's actually pitched pretty well in Houston so far. As a fly ball pitcher with shaky command, he's always walked a pretty tight rope, but he has enough bat-missing ability and command to make it all work. The lack of a quality third pitch is still a problem, he uses his fastball or slider roughly 93% of the time according to Pitch F/X data, and there aren't a lot of pitchers who succeed with a walk rate as high as his current 4.85 per 9 innings mark. But he's performing well right now, he's only 25, and there's a good deal of room for improvement. Norris may have limited upside, but he should be able to stick in the back of a rotation for a while.
Keuchel is probably one of the more surprising names here, as he beats out the likes of more well-known guys like current Astro Felipe Paulino and former top pick Ross Seaton, but I think that this is a guy that deserves some more attention. A seventh-round pick out of The University of Arkansas in 2009, Keuchel wasn't considered much of a major prospect coming into the draft but his 2010 performance has been nothing short of eye-popping when you consider where it's been done. Keuchel currently has a 3.41 ERA along with a 7.2 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, and an awesome 62% ground ball rate in Advanced Single-A. Those are impressive numbers, for sure, even for a 22-year-old. But what makes them truly impressive is that Keuchel is pitching in the Cal League, and his home park is in Lancaster. As I noted above with Koby Clemens, Lancaster is an absolute launching pad in one of the highest-scoring leagues in the minors. Putting up those kind of numbers while pitching for Lancaster takes some truly special performance. And the numbers agree with this, as he's pitched essentially the same at home and on the road, but his HR/FB and BABIP marks are significantly higher in Lancaster than on the road. Keuchel doesn't have great stuff or a shiny pedigree, but these kind of numbers are too significant to ignore.
Closer: Sam Gervacio, Opening Day 2013 Age: 28, Current level: Triple-A (Disabled List)
Before the season, it appeared that Houston had two fantastic long-term closer candidates near the majors in Gervacio and right-hander Chia-Jen Lo. Now, both are on the mend as Gervacio is coming back from a rotator cuff injury and Lo is still rehabbing a torn ligament in his right elbow.
That being said, each still has the look of a potential back-of-the-bullpen pitcher long-term given their bat-missing abilities, and Houston could have themselves a pretty nice looking bullpen by the time that 2013 rolls around. Gervacio, less than a year younger than Lo but with three more years of professional experience, was regarded as one of the Astros' top pitching prospects coming into 2009, and he followed through with an awesome MLB debut in 29 appearances with the big league club last season. In 21 innings as an Astro last year, Gervacio struck out 25 hitters compared to just 8 walks, and topped it all off with an uncharacteristically high groundball rate of 57.4%. Those numbers were good enough for 2.14 ERA, 2.62 FIP and 2.85 xFIP marks, respectively.
With a solid spring, Gervacio won a job in Houston's bullpen to begin the 2010 season, but lasted just a couple days before landing on the disabled list with the aforementioned shoulder injury. When he came off the DL, he struggled in four appearances with the Astros and Houston sent him back down to Triple-A to get things sorted out. But after 10 strong innings with Round Rock, he ended up back on the DL in the minor leagues and has yet to return to the mound.
The Astros should have a few interesting options for the closer role by 2013, including Gervacio, Lo, Henry Villar, Matt Nevarez, and Daniel Meszaros, but I like Gervacio's combination of strong raw stuff and a good, consistent track record of success. If Lo or Villar is closer in 2013, nobody should be shocked, but for now Gervacio is the choice.