1. J.R. Towles, C
2. Felipe Paulino, RHP
3. Bud Norris, RHP
4. Brad James, RHP
5. Josh Flores, OF
6. Chad Reineke, RHP
7. Mitch Einertson, OF
8. Eli Iorg, OF
9. Jordan Parraz, OF
10. Sergio Perez, RHP
11. Collin DeLome, OF
Just Missing: Samuel Gervacio, RHP; Tommy Manzella, SS; Polin Trinidad, RHP
1. J.R. Towles, C
Drafted: 20th round, 2004, North Central Texas JC
2007 Stats: .200/.339/.278 at High-A (26 G); .324/.425/.551 at Double-A (61 G); .279/.354/.279 at Triple-A (13 G); .375/.432/.575 at MLB (14 G)
Year In Review: The sweet-swinging catcher began the year at High-A but climbed all the way to the big leagues by the end of the season.
The Good: Offensively, Towles has the potential to be well above-average for a catcher. He has good plate discipline, an excellent feel for contact, and should hit .280-.300 annually with 10-15 home runs. He’s a plus defender as well,in that he calls a good game, blocks pitches very well, and has an arm that’s a tick above average. He has a calm demeanor on the field, and earns praise for the manner in which he deals with a staff.
The Bad: Towles doesn’t offer a ton of projection, and will never have more than gap power. He changes his approach against left-handers, which allows him to hit for average, but with very little pop. His strong arm is stymied somewhat by a slow release.
Fun Fact: During his 14 big leagues games, Towles went 7-for-12 with four doubles when batting with runners in scoring position.
Perfect World Projection: Not a world-beater, but one of the better catchers around.
Timetable: For the first time in recent memory, Brad Ausmus‘ contract and role make sense in Houston, as he’ll back up Towles and guide him through his first year as an everyday big leaguer.
Year In Review: A Venezuelan fireballer, Paulino found greater consistency at Double-A, and made his big-league debut at the end of the year.
The Good: Paulino easily has the most electric arm in the system. His fastball is generally parked in the 93-97 mph range, but he he’s gotten into triple digits on several occasions. His curveball flashes as a plus pitch at times, and he’s made great strides with his command and control, which are now both average after being a liability in the past.
The Bad: Paulino’s numbers have rarely matched his stuff. He often loses confidence in his off-speed stuff, becoming a one-pitch pitcher, and while his heater has outstanding velocity, it’s more than a bit straight. Scouts are in two camps on Paulino, with many believing he’d be far more effective working out of the bullpen.
Fun Fact: In Paulino’s only day start in the minors last year, he threw six no-hit innings. In his only day start in the majors, he spun six shutout innings against the Braves.
Perfect World Projection: There is no question that Paulino has big-league stuff, but he’s yet to harness it completely, and at 24 it’s hard to imagine he’ll suddenly blossom into any more that a solid contributor.
Timetable: Paulino will compete in spring training for a big-league job, first in the rotation and then in the bullpen. He’ll need a strong showing after his bouts with wildness returned in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Year In Review: Initially a fairly nondescript right-hander, Norris turned into the Astros‘ best arm in the lower minors with a strong full-season debut.
The Good: Norris has two plus pitches. His low-90s fastball can get up to 94 at times and features plenty of sink and run, while his curveball features outstanding spiraling break and generates as many strikeouts as the fastball. He’s a very good athlete with smooth, repeatable mechanics.
The Bad: Norris’ changeup needs plenty of work, and he telegraphs it with poor arm speed. His control is below average, and he’s prone to making in-game adjustments that only worsen the issue. He turns 23 in spring training, yet he’s only proven himself at Low-A. He’s a bit smallish, and there are still questions about his stamina after a light workload in 2007.
Fun Fact: Norris’ 4.75 ERA at Low-A with very good peripheral numbers is better explained by the fact that Sally League batters facing Norris with the bases empty hit .183/.270/.317, but .306/.389/.442 with runners on.
Perfect World Projection: A fourth starter, or a quality set-up man if the changeup doesn’t come around.
Timetable: Norris will begin the year in High-A, but because of his age, the Astros would like to get him some Double-A experience by the end of the year.
4. Brad James, RHP
Drafted: 29th round, 2004, North Central Texas JC
2007 Stats: 1.98 ERA at High-A (95.2-72-33-55); 5.17 ERA at Double-A (47-53-20-22)
Year In Review: This organizational soldier seemingly came out of nowhere to be one of the Carolina League’s top pitchers, but James struggled after a promotion to Double-A.
The Good: James is a ground-ball machine, with a plus-plus low-90s sinker that consistently gets pounded into the ground, and he also throws a tight slider that is a solid pitch when it’s on. He has a good pitching frame, clean mechanics, and controls the pitch well. He understands his limitations and is comfortable pitching to contact.
The Bad: James doesn’t have much of a changeup, which makes him highly susceptible to left-handed hitters, who torched him at Double-A. Because he doesn’t have a dependable out pitch, he has little margin for error, and needs good defensive play behind him.
Fun Fact: In the first and second innings of Arizona Fall League games, James allowed just one run over 10 frames. After the first two innings, however, he gave up 13 over eight.
Perfect World Projection: A back-of-the-rotation arm, or a solid reliever.
Timetable: James will get another shot at starting in Double-A to begin the season.
Year In Review: After a disappointing full-season debut, the excellent athlete was having a breakout year at High-A, but then his Double-A showing tempered enthusiasm.
The Good: Flores shortened his swing and worked on a more patient approach in 2007, and the results were encouraging. He has a line-drive bat with gap power, and now draws a decent share of walks. He best tool is easily his plus-plus speed, which is made even better by outstanding instincts, as he stole 39 bases last year and was successful on his last 15 attempts.
The Bad: Flores has no plus tool other than the wheels. He’ll likely never hit for enough average or draw enough walks to profile as a pure lead-off hitter. An infielder in college, he’s still a bit rough in center, using his speed to make up for poor jumps and routes.
Fun Fact: Triton College is the rare Midwestern junior college with a good baseball pedigree, counting Kirby Puckett and Lance Johnson among its alumni.
Perfect World Projection: A second-division starter or valuable bench outfielder.
Timetable: Flores had a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, and Houston hopes that he can build some confidence from that as he prepares for another shot at Double-A.
Year In Review: The big right-hander who made significant step forward in 2006 had an inconsistent year at Triple-A while splitting time between starting and relief roles.
The Good: Reineke has a solid fastball that sits in the low 90s and can touch 93-94 at times. He primarily uses it to set up a plus slider that has nice two-plane break, which Reineke uses as an out pitch. He has a big durable body, and maintains his velocity late into games when he starts. He has a good pickoff move and controls the running game well.
The Bad: Reineke’s changeup is no more than a show-me offering that he’s uncomfortable using in pressure situations. His command and control is below average due to a herky-jerky delivery that is difficult to repeat. He turns 25 at the beginning of the 2008 season, so there’s not much projection left in him.
Fun Fact: Batters facing Reineke with the bases loaded last year went 10-for-17 with 28 RBI.
Perfect World Projection: A back-end starter or solid middle reliever.
Timetable: Reineke will compete for a big-league job in spring training, but he’s more likely heading back to Triple-A for more seasoning.
Year In Review: After two years marred by poor productivity and personal issues, Einertson came back in 2007 to win Carolina League’s MVP honors.
The Good: Einertson shortened his swing in 2007 and got away from his previous pull-happy ways. He thus became a much better all-around hitter who uses all fields and has gap power, while projecting to hit somewhere in the area of 20 home runs annually. He’s an average runner with a solid arm in the outfield.
The Bad: Einertson isn’t especially big or athletic, limiting his ceiling. He needs to develop a more patient approach, and often makes weak contact on pitches that he should instead let go by. He doesn’t profile as a center fielder in the long term, and some question if he has enough bat for a corner.
Fun Fact: When batting in the fifth inning last year, Einertson went 23-for-49 (.469) with ten doubles.
Perfect World Projection: A solid big-league outfielder.
Timetable: Einertson had a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, and will face a big test in 2008 with an assignment to Double-A.
Year In Review: Ever the toolsy outfielder, Iorg had a very good two months at High-A Salem before Tommy John surgery ended his year early.
The Good: Iorg’s raw tools rate as average or above across the board. He’s an adept hitter with average power, and possesses good outfield instincts, a plus arm, and above-average speed. Like many who come out of baseball families, Iorg has an outstanding feel for the game and earns raves for his makeup.
The Bad: Like his brother, Iorg went on a two-year mission for the Mormon church before signing, and missing most of the year put him even more behind the standard curve. He’ll go into 2008 as a 25-year-old player who has yet to make it up to the upper levels, and he could stand to develop a more patient approach at the plate.
Fun Fact: Three of Iorg’s five home runs last year came in the seventh inning.
Perfect World Projection: An everyday corner outfielder with solid all-around productivity, but not a star.
Timetable: Because he’s a hitter, Iorg won’t need as much time to come back from Tommy John surgery, and is expected to be ready for a Double-A assignment to being 2008.
Year In Review: Finally making his full-season debut three years after being drafted, Parraz had a solid all-around campaign.
The Good: No other player in the system can match Parraz’s size and athleticism. He’s an impressive physical specimen with speed and plus power potential, as well as surprisingly good barrel control. He’s a good right fielder with a plus arm, and he plays with a lot of intensity.
The Bad: Like many Astros prospects, Parraz’s age and level don’t sync up, as he’s 23 years old while coming off of his first full season. He needs to tighten his approach, especially against left-handers, and is still prone to chasing balls off the plate. Scouts cite few examples of players his size maintaining their speed into their late twenties.
Fun Fact: Jordan’s older brother Zeke was drafted out of high school, junior college, and college, but played one year in the Athletics system, batting .262/.361/.361 in 2005.
Perfect World Projection: A decent big-league outfielder.
Timetable: Parraz will begin the year at High-A Salem, but the Astros hope he’ll be ready for Double-A by mid-season.
Year In Review: A 2006 second-round pick, Perez was challenged with a full-season assignment at High-A, where he held his own.
The Good: Perez is a big power right-hander with two good pitches. His fastball ranges from 90-93 mph and has a little bit of late sink in it, while his hard slider can be a true out pitch at times. He provides an intimidating presence on the mound, and pitches aggressively.
The Bad: Perez didn’t show the same velocity that he did in college, when he often sat in the 92-94 range while touching 97. He ran out of gas at the end of the year, and needs to improve his conditioning, as his big body bordered on soft by August. His changeup lags behind, and his command is spotty.
Fun Fact: While the University of Tampa has produced a number of draft picks, with Tino Martinez being the most famous baseball alumni by a wide margin, only two pitchers drafted out of the school have reached the big leagues. Tampa’s all-time leader in major league wins is Sam Militello, with four.
Perfect World Projection: A decent starter, although some scouts already wonder if he’d be more effective in a bullpen role.
Timetable: Perez will begin the year at Double-A. A conversion to a relief role will indicate that Houston wants him to move quickly.
Year In Review: The highest signed pick for the Astros had some scouts subsequently wondering why he lasted so long in the draft during his impressive pro debut.
The Good: DeLome does bring an intriguing set of tools to the table. Long, lean, and muscular, DeLome showcases plus power potential to go with the wheels to play center and the arm for right. He plays with a high energy level, bordering on almost reckless abandon at times, and coaches raved about his work ethic.
The Bad: Coming from a small high school and college background, DeLome is still highly unrefined. He has a long, loopy swing that is highly exploitable, and he struck out more than once every four at-bats in his debut. His jump and routes in the outfield are poor, and all of his baseball instincts need significant polish.
Fun Fact: In his first 10 games against Oneonta in the New York-Penn League, DeLome went 17-for-38 with a pair of home runs. In his final three games against them, he went 0-for-12 with eight whiffs, including a five strikeout game on September 3rd.
Perfect World Projection: DeLome’s ceiling is similar to the other outfielders on this list, as the tools are there, but significant issues remain in his development.
Timetable: DeLome is already 22, so like most Houston prospects, he’s behind the standard development curve. A strong showing in spring training could earn him a jump to High-A.
The Sleeper: Picked up by the Astros when the Padres tried to push him through waivers, outfielder Yordany Ramirez has always been a toolsy stud with limited production, but he put up a surprising .315/.353/.433 line in 30 games for Triple-A Portland that had some believing he’s turned a corner.
The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies Under 25 (As Of Opening Day 2008)
1. Hunter Pence, OF
2. J.R. Towles, C
3. Felipe Paulino, RHP
4. Bud Norris, RHP
5. Brad James, RHP
6. Josh Flores, OF
7. Chad Reineke, RHP
8. Mitch Einertson, OF
9. Eli Iorg, OF
10. Jordan Parraz, OF
The fact that Pence is the only other player to qualify for this list, and that he does so by a mere few days, speaks volumes about just how sad the state of affairs is in Houston. The team’s recent drafts have been downright laughable, and its once-fruitful Venezuelan pipeline has dried up, as other organizations had passed the Astros in Latin America in terms of committing resources. This is the worst organization in baseball, made even more dreadful by some early moves in the Ed Wade administration that merely upgrade the big-league squad from dreadful to bad. The future is very grim in Space City.
Next: Things finally pick up a bit with the Los Angeles Dodgers.