Down On The Farm
Every year, Major League Baseball teams spend millions of dollars on player development, scouting, and assessment. So it should come as no surprise to learn that prospect evaluation is a tricky process. One must watch a lot of different things, fully aware that the numbers can be deceiving, and can only tell part of the story. Unfortunately, it’s usually the only part that we, the casual fans, can observe.
So any time I evaluate prospects, it has to be understood that these are simply educated guesses, based on the available data. Still, I think it’s important to be aware of where the Astros minor league system stands today, and to that end I’ve taken a look at the players in each of the four primary minor leagues (Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A, and A-Advance) to see how their 2011 seasons are shaping up.
The defensive element of a catcher is so vital to his development, which makes their offensive numbers somewhat misleading. Still, of the six prospects (Robinson Cancel, Federico Hernandez, Chris Wallace, Roberto Pena, Rene Garcia, and Ben Heath) with at least 100 plate appearances this season, very little jumps off the page.
Cancel, recently called up to the majors, has the best numbers (.324/.384/.431 at Triple-A Oklahoma City), but at age 35 he can hardly still be called a prospect. Which turns the eye toward Wallace, who’s hitting .293/.372/.550 in Single-A Lexington. Still, a twenty-three year-old in the South Atlantic League comes with a distinct advantage, so his numbers must be taken with a grain of salt.
Heath (.260/.324/.423) has looked decent at the plate in Lancaster, where he splits time with Garcia, but those numbers don’t exactly get the pulse running.
At first glance, Kody Hinze’s numbers (.333/.469/.635) look impressive. But again, he’s a 23-year-old playing in the low minors… worse than Wallace, he’s playing in the California League, against pitchers five years younger than he. Still, he’s got great size and a nice pedigree (he was on the Chronicle’s 2005 All-Greater Houston team with Jay Bruce, Kyle Drabek, and Koby Clemens).
Clemens himself is one of the more interesting prospects in the system. After time spent behind the plate, at third base, and in the corner outfield, he seems to have found a home at first base, where he’s effectively blocked by Brett Wallace. Clemens’ .247/.335/.418 in Oklahoma City isn’t glowing, but he’s just 24, and could be knocking on the door sooner than later, especially with his experience around the diamond.
Brian Dopirak, at 27, is fast losing his prospect status, and Tyler Burnett has shown some ability at the plate (.287/.357/.395 at Lexington), but his low power numbers put a big question mark on any evaluation.
Again, primarily a defensive position, it’s rare for second basemen to really pop out on a stat sheet. Which makes it all the more surprising that the Astros have two players in Brandon Wikoff (.402/.478/.939 at Corpus Christi) and Jose Altuve (.408/.451/.606 at Lancaster), who both look like they might be able to contribute.
Altuve’s power numbers are a bit inflated because of his 7 triples, but he’s a prototypical leadoff hitter (19 SB, .451 OBP, 38 RS).
Delino Deshields, Jr. is still a bit of a work-in-progress, but his .221/.294/.369 line in Lexington is quickly propelling him down on my evaluation.
Once again, a primarily-defensive position, but one where the Astros have lacked real production for a long time. Wladimir Sutil, at 26, is a bit old for the Texas League, but his .302/.375/.755 in Corpus Christi isn’t bad.
Jiovanni Mier (.254/.367/.405 inLexington) hasn’t turned into quite the prospect his first-round draft status promised, but he’s just 20 years old still. Jonathan Villar’s numbers (.259/.353/.414) are comparable, and are buoyed by his 20 stolen bases, tied (with Corpus Christi second baseman Jimmy Paredes) for the most of any Astros’ prospect.
A quick glance at the Astros’ third base prospects brings Michael Kvasnicka’s name front and center. Hitting .307/.371/.453 at Lexington, his age (22) is right on the upper border of the SAL.
Farther up, in Oklahoma City, Oswaldo Navarro is putting together a competent .253/.381/.330. Astros fans saw Navarro take 20 mostly-disappointing plate appearances last year, and before that, he spent four games with the Seattle Mariners in 2006. Still, he’s hardly a bankable commodity.
A few names leap out on the stat sheet when looking at the Astros’ minor league outfielders, not the least of which is Jacob Goebbert, the left fielder in Corpus Christi, who’s hitting .326/.415/.511. Just 23, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make the leap up to Oklahoma City before the July All-Star break.
Adam Bailey is hitting .310/.355/.552 for Lexington, but at 23 years old, he should be hitting well against California League pitchers.
Another 23-year-old, Daniel Adamson, has a .329/.402/.503 line, but again in Lexington, he’s at a competitive advantage over the much-younger pitchers.
The next look, then, must be at center fielder Brandon Barnes (.245/.348/.554 in Oklahoma City) and left fielder J.D. Martinez (.329/.406/.486 in Corpus Christi), both of whom are putting together very nice seasons in their respective leagues.
If it’s hard to evaluate position players in the minors, it’s next to impossible to evaluate pitchers. I will always remember the time I was watching Homer Bailey, then an uber-prospect for the Cincinnati Reds, pitching for the Dayton Dragons. He had an awful game, and when I asked why, I was informed that he had been instructed to only use off-speed and breaking pitches, because his fastball was already solid.
So judging a pitcher from a few games is a tiring process. Still, it’s important to look and see what the Houston farm has to offer.
There are 15 pitchers currently with FIPs below 4.00, which is where I’ll start my look. In order of lowest FIP to highest, they are: “Old Man” Andy Van Hekken, Jason Chowning, Fernando Nieve, Gabriel Garcia, Jorge De Leon, Fernando Rodriguez, Murilo Gouvea, Danny Meszaros, Sergio Escalona, Jordan Lyles, Wesley Wright, Alex Sogard, Xavier Cedeno, Dallas Keuchel, and Ross Wolf.
Nieve, Rodriguez, Escalona, Lyles, and Wright should be familiar to Astros fans from 25-man rosters past and present, but here we’re just going to evaluate their minor league numbers from this season.
31-year-old Van Hekken, who has always pitched well but far above his age range, strikes out 11 batters for every nine innings pitched. But a high WHIP (1.681) and H/9 (11.6) are causes for concern.
Garcia has had a much more promising season: a razor-thin WHIP (0.815), 10.0 SO/9, and 7.5 strikeouts for every walk he’s issued. He’s been pretty lucky with balls in play (hitters who put the ball into play are just .246 against him), but overall he’s looking very sharp in Lexington.
Also of note in Lexington is Chowning, despite some pretty alarming hints at some character issues. Still, with a 1.069 WHIP and 10.6 strikeouts per 9 innings, he’s pitching well, though being a 23-year-old in the SAL helps. He has an extraordinarily-high strand rate (83.9%), which is contributing to his success. The third pitcher in Lexington’s stable is De Leon, another 23-year-old, which a 0.969 WHIP and 4.8 strikeouts for every walk issued.
The scarcity of starters among this group is of concern. Cedeno and Keuchel are the only starters without big-league resumes, and while neither has been amazing, they’ve both pitched well in Corpus Christi this season.
Sogard has some nice numbers: 1.081 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, but the 1.3 HR/9 is alarming, especially in Lexington, where the balls tend to stay in the park. He will need to work on that if he’s going to advance. Meszaros is the other outlier, with a 1.214 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in Corpus Christi, and his 7.1 H/9 is pretty good among this group.
Overall, there aren’t a lot of guys who leap out at you, but definitely some developing players who could make solid contributions in the future.