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November 30, 2006

Future Shock

Houston Astros Top Ten Prospects

by Kevin Goldstein

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Excellent Prospects
None
Very Good Prospects
1. Jason Hirsh, RHP
2. Hunter Pence, OF
3. Troy Patton, LHP
Good Prospects
4. Jimmy Barthmaier, RHP
5. Max Sapp, C
6. J.R. Towles, C
7. Matt Albers, RHP
Average Prospects
8. Juan Gutierrez, RHP
9. Felipe Paulino, RHP
10. Brian Bogusevic, LHP

1. Jason Hirsh, RHP
DOB: 2/20/82
Height/Weight: 6-8/250
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 2nd round, 2003, California Lutheran
What he did in 2006: 2.10 ERA, 137.1-94-51-118 at Triple-A; 6.04, 44.2-48-22-29 at MLB
The Good: Boasts an imposing presence on mound with three solid offerings: a 91-93 mph fastball with sinking action that he can dial up to 95-96 at times, as well as a solid slider and changeup. Throws strikes with all of his pitches, and will throw them at any point in the count. Excellent makeup and highly advanced approach play a clear role in his effectiveness.
The Bad: While all of his pitches are at least average or better, he may lack that one over-the-top out pitch that he can depend on at the major league level. At 25, it's hard to project him.
The Irrelevant: Hirsh is only the second player from Division III California Lutheran to reach the major leagues, the other being former All-Star Kevin Gross.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A solid middle-of-the-rotation starter, maybe slightly more than that.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. With Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens almost assuredly gone, competition for spots in the Astros' rotation is wide open, and Hirsh is all but a lock to take one of those slots immediately.

2. Hunter Pence, RF
DOB: 4/13/83
Height/Weight: 6-4/220
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 2nd round, 2004, Texas-Arlington
What he did in 2006: .283/.357/.533 at Double-A (592 PA)
The Good: Big, athletic outfielder with plus power to all fields. Surprisingly fast for his size, as he stole a career-high 17 bases in 21 attempts. Also has good instincts in the outfield.
The Bad: He's played center in the minors, but his range is a little short there, and his arm is not a classic right field cannon. His swing has a natural uppercut in it, leading some to question his ability to hit for average as he moves up. Pence needs to temper his approach, as intensity can get the better of him in clutch situations.
The Irrelevant: Pence's distinctive swing includes a significant choke-up on the bat, which he began as a teenager while imitating Barry Bonds.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A corner outfielder who hits 30+ home runs annually.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Pence has no glaring weaknesses, yet he's a few minor adjustments away from being ready for the big leagues. He'll begin the year at Triple-A, and will likely make his big league debut during the second half of the season.

3. Troy Patton, LHP
DOB: 9/3/85
Height/Weight: 6-1/185
Bats/Throws: S/L
Draft: 9th round, 2004, Texas HS
What he did in 2006: 2.93 ERA, 101.1-92-37-102 at High A; 4.37 ERA, 45.1-48-13-37 at Double-A
The Good: Excellent stuff for a lefthander--his 89-92 mph fastball touches 94 and features good tailing action. That complements a hard curveball, his second plus offering. He held his own at Double-A before his 21st birthday.
The Bad: He's pitched through arm soreness and various points in each of the last two seasons. A little undersized, and like many young pitchers, his changeup needs refinement.
The Irrelevant: Needing to warmup more? Batters hit .294 against Patton in the first inning of games this year, but just .238 thereafter.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An above-average lefthanded starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Patton has moved through the system ahead of schedule, moving up to High A in his full-season debut, and then reaching Double-A last year. He'll likely return there in 2007, but could push for a big league look by the end of the year.

4. Jimmy Barthmaier, RHP
DOB: 1/6/84
Height/Weight: 6-4/210
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 13th round, 2003, Georgia HS
What he did in 2006: 3.62 ERA, 146.2-137-67-134 at High A
The Good: Continually improving, Barthmeier has slowly evolved into a good prospect by developing a pair of plus pitches: a 91-93 mph that touches 95 at times, and a hammer curve. A big-bodied athlete with excellent stamina who maintains his stuff deep into ballgames.
The Bad: He turns 23 in January and has yet to pitch in Double-A. Mechanical inconsistency leads to control issues, and his changeup is shaky.
The Irrelevant: Barthmaier went undefeated in his last ten starts, winning six decisions with a 1.53 ERA.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A No. 3 or 4 starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Barthmaier will face the big test at Double-A this year. If he passes it with flying colors, he's on the radar for a starting job in 2008.

5. Max Sapp, C
DOB: 2/21/88
Height/Weight: 6-2/220
Bats/Throws: L/R
Draft: 1st round, 2006, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: .229/.317/.301 at Short-Season (189 PA)
The Good: A left-handed-hitting catcher with big-time power potential--ignore the numbers in his pro debut, as he was generally facing pitchers three to four years older than he was. With a smooth swing and good pitch recognition, Sapp should produce solid averages and on-base percentages. Behind the plate, he controls the running game well with an arm that earns plus grades for both strength and accuracy. Big, durable body.
The Bad: Other than the arm, Sapp is well below average in all defensive aspects of the game. His approach can get pull-conscious at times, leading to strikeouts.
The Irrelevant: Scouts going to see Sapp at Bishop Moore High School in Orlando walked away intrigued with the team's pitching ace, Mike Mehlich, as well. The Braves drafted him in the 11th round, and he was impressive in his Gulf Coast League debut, striking out 25 in 22.1 innings.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A catcher who hits in the middle of the order.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. Sapp is still a teenager, and much of his projection depends on his ability to stay behind the plate, as his size limits his other options in the field.

6. J.R. Towles, C
DOB: 2/11/84
Height/Weight: 6-2/195
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 20th round, 2004, North Central Texas JUCO
What he did in 2006: .317/.382/.525 at Low A (321 PA)
The Good: A catcher with that rare combination of hitting skills and defensive chops. Towles has a quick bat and excellent contact abilities that generate hard-hit balls from gap to gap. An excellent defender, agile behind the plate with soft hands and a plus arm.
The Bad: He's still relatively unproven, as he was 22 in Low A last year. Power projects as no more than average, and approach can get over-aggressive. Has problems against lefthanders.
The Irrelevant: Towles hit .275 with three home runs at home, yet .353 with nine home runs on the road.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An everyday catcher.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. While Towles offers much to like, he still has plenty to prove. The Astros would like him to at least finish the year at Double-A in 2007.

7. Matt Albers, RHP
DOB: 1/20/83
Height/Weight: 6-0/205
Bats/Throws: L/R
Draft: 23rd round, 2001 (DFE), San Jacinto JUCO
What he did in 2006: 2.17 ERA, 116-96-47-95 at Double-A; 3.96 ERA, 25-24-10-26 at Triple-A; 6.00 ERA, 15-17-7-11 at MLB
The Good: Excellent command and control of low 90s fastball and a slider that becomes a plus pitch at times. Good feel for a changeup.
The Bad: A little short, and his pitches tend to come in straight. He began to nibble as he moved up levels, walking too many batters at Triple-A and a brief big league stint. He can overthrow his slider at times, causing it to flatten out, while also giving him trouble against lefties.
The Irrelevant: Albers pitched at JUCO powerhouse San Jacinto, not far from the San Jacinto Monument, which commemorates the Texas Revolution, and at 570 feet is the world's tallest masonry tower.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A back-of-the-rotation starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. By reaching the big leagues last year, Albers has a shot at sticking in the Astros rotation next year despite limited Triple-A experience.

8. Juan Gutierrez, RHP
DOB: 7/14/83
Height/Weight: 6-3/200
Bats/Throws: R/R
Signed: Venezuela, 2000
What he did in 2006: 3.04 ERA, 103.2-94-34-106 at Double-A
The Good: Big-bodied power pitcher sat at 91-94 mph this year while touching 95-96 nearly every time out, and he backed it up with a hard curveball. His control improved throughout the year, and his performance followed.
The Bad: His changeup is still well-below average. While the Astros still see him as a starter, many already think his future is as a two-pitch power reliever.
The Irrelevant: After missing nearly six weeks with arm soreness, Gutierrez returned in mid-August and finished the year with 14 scoreless innings over four appearances.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: See above--it all depends on the changeup. The number of pitchers we could say that about can be counted in the thousands, possibly.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Gutierrez is in an interesting place, as he's ready for Triple-A, yet his future role is not clearly defined. Either way, he'll see the big leagues in one way or another by 2008.

9. Felipe Paulino, RHP
DOB: 10/5/83
Height/Weight: 6-2/180
Bats/Throws: R/R
Signed: Venezuela, 2001
What he did in 2006: 4.35 ERA, 126.1-119-59-91 at High A
The Good: Arguably the best raw arm in the system, Paulino has hit 100 mph in the past, and topped out at 98 this year while more usually sitting at 92-95. His curveball is second plus pitch. Long and lanky with good mechanics.
The Bad: Control has been a consistent problem, as the organization has worked with Paulino to dial down the fastball in order to gain precision and movement. His offspeed pitch only resembles a changeup.
The Irrelevant: Paulino's full name is Felipe Paulino Del Guidice, which is a bit hard to fit on a uniform.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: Maybe a closer, but he's not moving to the bullpen yet.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average-to-high. Paulino has the stuff to rank towards the top of this list, yet his performance leaves people wanting for more. The Double-A Texas League will be a significant test for him, and one gets the feeling that he'll either sit near the top of this list next year, or be completely off it.

10. Brian Bogusevic, LHP
DOB: 2/18/84
Height/Weight: 6-3/215
Bats/Throws: L/L
Draft: 1st round, 2005, Tulane
What he did in 2006: 4.09 ERA, 11-10-5-6 at Short-Season; 4.73 ERA, 70.1-76-24-60 at Low A
The Good: A lefthander with plus velocity and a very good slider, and his command and control are both advanced. He's battled arm soreness since being drafted, but finished the year healthy and successful, allowing four earned runs over 22.1 innings in his last four games.
The Bad: Health has been as issue since signing, so Bogusevic will turn 23 in spring training with just 70 innings of full-season ball under his belt.
The Irrelevant: A two-way star who saw limited position player time in his junior year at Tulane due to a hamstring injury, there are scouts who preferred Bogusevic as a hitter and saw him as a first-round talent based solely on some impressive shows he put on in batting practice.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An above-average lefty starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. For Bogusevic it's all about health. What he did in August was impressive, but he needs to do it over a longer period of time. He'll likely start the year at High A.

The Sleeper: While it was his third year in a half-season league, outfielder Jordan Parraz finally came alive in 2006, batting .336/.421/.494 for Tri-City in the New York-Penn League. He's behind the development curve, but he's also a six-foot-three, 220 pound tools-laden monster with more athleticism than anybody in the system. All the ingredients for a breakout are there.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger (As Of Opening Day 2007)

1. Jason Hirsh, RHP
2. Hunter Pence, OF
3. Troy Patton, LHP
4. Fernando Nieve, RHP
5. Jimmy Barthmaier, RHP
6. Willy Taveras, CF
7. Max Sapp, C
8. J.R. Towles, C
9. Matt Albers, RHP
10. Juan Gutierrez, RHP

There's very little to add to the list, as the Astros system hasn't produced much of late. Nieve had an inconsistent year out of the bullpen, but he's still a young power arm who can contribute out of the bullpen or the rotation. Taveras isn't an especially good player overall because of his lack of power and patience, but he's nonetheless a proven big leaguer at this point, and his skill set is not without value.

While the Astros system has done a nice job of developing arms, and has plenty more on the way up, the organization is completely barren when it comes to advanced hitting prospects beyond Pence, and the lower levels aren't much better. There aren't really that many arms either, and the pitchers ranked between eight and ten are really a mish-mash from a pool that includes Raymar Diaz, Tip Fairchild, Sergio Perez, and Chad Reinke.

Coming Friday: The Los Angeles Dodgers

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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