In Ricky Bennett’s eyes, the cupboard is far from bare. In charge of a farm system with nowhere to go but up, the Astros‘ assistant general manager and director of player development sees a lot of promising signs amid a talent pool in serious need of an upgrade. The rankings haven’t been kind, and there is no disputing that the system lacks depth, but Bennett sees more than just a little promise in young players like Jason Castro, Jordan Lyles, and Jiovanni Mier. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma who went on to play three seasons in the White Sox system, Bennett spent eight years in scouting and player development with the Tigers before joining the Houston organization in 2005.
David Laurila: Your system is ranked at, or near, the bottom of most prospect rankings. Is that fair, or are you better than a lot of people think?
Ricky Bennett: I think we are better. When you look at 2009 and the players in our system-the players that are performing-we think that they have a chance to be very good major-league players. That’s starting from the lowest level, all the way through. Jiovanni Mier, J.D. Martinez, and Enrique Hernandez had good years. We had some young arms in (Low-A) Lexington this past year. We had Koby Clemens, Jonathan Gaston, J.B. Shuck. Shuck was second in baseball in hits. Gaston led the minor leagues in home runs. Koby led the minor leagues in RBI. You can look through our system and see bright spots. Do we have the depth we’d like to have? No. Can we be better? Yes. But there are signs of good players in our system. I personally don’t do the rankings; I leave that up to you guys, but I think that we’re making progress.
DL: What needs to be done in order for those rankings to improve?
RB: I think we need to continue to draft and sign the players that we feel have ceilings. (Scouting director) Bobby Heck and his staff have done a good job of identifying players and getting players in our system that we feel can help us, and we just have to keep doing that year in and year out. Since 2008, Bobby’s first year, we are doing the things we need to do to get better. I think that if you look at our system, you can see signs. They may not be reflected in the wins and losses right now, because we don’t have the depth. Frankly, in 2005, 2006, and 2007, we struggled to sign our picks, and that’s pretty apparent in our system. We don’t have the depth, but we’re starting to build some and I think 2010 will give us a good indication as to where we are, and how far off we are, from really having prospects throughout our system from top to bottom.
One thing that’s not talked about a lot, even in our organization, in regards to a win-loss perspective, is that we added a seventh (farm) club here in the states last year. When you add 35 more players, you spread the depth throughout your clubs, and your clubs become thinner from a prospects standpoint. For that reason, you might not win as many games, because as opposed to stacking two clubs in Low-A ball, we had to focus on fielding three clubs. In 2010, we’ll have more depth, so we won’t have to spread our talent quite so thin. That’s one aspect of player development that people don’t talk enough about. Yeah, we’re getting better, but you can’t necessarily see it in the wins and losses.
DL: What is your relationship with Bobby Heck when it comes to the draft? Is there an “Astros style” of player you’re both looking for?
RB: Yes, and we’ve talked about that. To start to see the end product will take a few years, but we believe in drafting high-ceiling players. We like players who have athletic ability, players with speed and tools. We also like players who understand the game and know how to play the game. Those are the criteria we try to focus on. I have a good relationship with Bobby and his staff, and we continue to talk about ways we can get better and what type of players we want to draft. We had a summit where we talked about some of those things earlier this winter here in Houston. We got our department heads together and talked about the Astros’ way and how we can improve what we’re doing.
DL: When Jason Castro was taken 10th overall in 2008, some people called it an overdraft and still don’t feel that he possesses a high ceiling. How do you see him?
RB: I think he’s going to be a very good player. Everybody’s evaluations are different to a certain extent, and when we evaluate Jason and his ability on the field, I think that you can really use your imagination. He’s very good defensively behind the plate. He continues to make improvements with his game calling, his handling of a pitching staff, and just his speed of the game is starting to slow down for him. He’s really starting to make progress. Offensively, I think he’s going to be a good hitter. He’s not going to be a guy who is going to hit 30 or 40 home runs, but he’s going to have the ability to drive the ball and hit lots of doubles. And I think that when all is said and done, he has a chance to hit 15 or 20 home runs, and at that position, there aren’t many players in the big leagues who can do what he does, both offensively and defensively. We think he has a high ceiling.
DL: What are your early impressions of Jiovanni Mier?
RB: He’s going to be a good one. One thing that stands out more than just the tools is his leadership ability and his makeup. He’s really a natural leader. Guys gravitate to him. He’s got a knack about himself where he is self-confident. He understands the game and really helps the guys around him, and when you see that in a 17- or 18-year-old kid, you know that’s not going to change. For him to have that ability at such a young age is huge. That’s what stands out the most with him. From an ability standpoint, we’re happy with what we see. He’s got soft hands, he’s very instinctive, and he has good range to both his left and his right. He’s not a blazing runner; he’s probably average, which is fine. And he’s also got a chance to hit. He puts the bat on the ball and doesn’t strike out a lot, and he should be able to drive the ball once he gets bigger and stronger. In all aspects of the game, he has a chance to be a really good player.
DL: Can you talk a little about Jordan Lyles?
RB: He is probably… no, he is the best pitching prospect in our system. He’s very competitive. He’s aggressive. He works hard. He has a chance to be really special. His ability speaks for itself, but I think that the separator for him is his ability to compete and challenge hitters. He’s not afraid. He’s going to be good. His fastball is average to above. He’s got an OK breaking ball that is still a work in progress; we’re trying to tighten his breaking ball up. We introduced a slider to him halfway through the summer, and he really felt good about his progress throwing it. He’s also got a cutter that he hadn’t used much since we signed him, but going into 2010, we’ll have him use his cutter a little bit more. And his changeup is developing, so he has a chance to have three average to above-average pitches. At least three, maybe even four, depending on his comfort level and how he develops that fourth pitch.
Jordan hit the ground running, and I think that at times last year he was… I don’t want to say bored, but he needed to be challenged in different ways. Not so much at a higher level, but challenged in terms of his repertoire and his delivery. We always needed to challenge him with something new to keep him focused on the task at hand and to continue to develop as a pitcher. And he did that from start to finish. Going into 2010, we’re going to give him the ball and let his talent dictate where he goes, whether that’s High-A in Lancaster or Double-A in Corpus Christi. It’s a little too early to tell right now, but he’s definitely going to get the ball.
DL: Is Lancaster a concern for you when it comes to young pitchers, given the extreme hitter-friendly environment?
RB: A little bit. We’ve heard the rumors, and we’ve heard the issues in years past from other clubs about the wind and the ballpark and the mental piece of it for pitchers, especially young pitchers going through that league for the first time. So, it’s a little bit of a concern, but I think that if pitchers can locate and command their fastballs to both sides of the plate, regardless of which park they’re pitching in, they can have success. That includes Lancaster. It’s not a big concern, but we’ve talked about it.
DL: Conversely, how difficult is it to judge a hitter’s readiness for a promotion when he is putting up inflated numbers in Lancaster?
RB: That’s a good question. We’ve talked about that as a staff, and one thing I’ve shared with them is that we can’t just evaluate our players based on pure numbers. And that’s not just in Lancaster; it’s all of our players. We have to look at what they’re doing, if they’re putting up quality at-bats. We want to see if they’re swinging at a lot of first pitches, or balls in the dirt. We want to make sure they have quality at-bats, and if they have a consistent number of quality at-bats, regardless of their average, that will tell us more about their ability to handle the next level. As a staff, if we focus on that, we’ll make the right decision for each and every player, and for the most part, last year we did that. We understand that, because of the conditions in Lancaster, the offensive numbers are going to look better, but we still have to evaluate the talent of each individual player and make the decision based on what we’re seeing from a quality standpoint.
DL: Where is T.J. Steele developmentally right now?
RB: He’s been limited. We’ve had trouble keeping him on the field and keeping him healthy. I’ve only seen him play a handful of times, his first year in the New York-Penn League and a game or two during the regular season in 2009, so everybody tells me that he’s the best player I’ve never seen. I mean, he’s got a world of ability. He can run, he can throw, he can play center field, he can hit for average, he can hit for power; he’s got close to five tools. That’s when you see him play. You can easily argue that he’s a five-tool player. He’s got that ability, so the key for us is keeping him healthy. I’d like to see what he does over 550 at-bats, because he’s a good talent; he’s got a great makeup and he works his tail off. It’s just unfortunate that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in his first year and a half of professional baseball.
DL: How about Jay Austin?
RB: Jay Austin is a young kid we drafted out of high school, and he played at 18 this past year; he turned 19 late in the year. He wound up hitting .265 or .270 (for Lexington) and for a young high school kid in his first full year, that was pretty good. He’s a true center fielder, a speed guy at the top of the order. He made huge strides, but there are still a lot of things that he needs to work on. He’s a good talent with a chance to be a really good player in the future. I feel we have a number of players who have a chance to be really good players.
DL: What would your reaction be if Ed Wade were to trade some of the veteran players on the big-league roster for prospects and announced that the organization is going build from the ground up with a strong player development system?
RB: That’s our goal. Our goal is to develop each and every player in our system, and the more players that we can develop for the organization, for Ed to make decisions and make deals at the major-league level, the better off we are. That’s what we do. That’s my job, and I look forward to that challenge each and every day. I enjoy player development. I see it as a challenge, not only for me, but for our staff. I like seeing players get an opportunity to develop and go on to play at the major-league level. The more we can do that, the better off we’re going to be as an organization. I want our philosophy to be to have a strong player development system.