Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player’s long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven’t exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
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The Astros were Baseball America�s Organization of the Year in 2001, when they posted the top record in the National League as well as the best combined winning percentage in the minor leagues. The only negatives were the lack of a high Class A team and a failure to get past the first round of the playoffs.
Houston rectified the first problem with the addition of a Carolina League affiliate in 2003, but still has nary a postseason series victory to show for its 43 seasons. Even worse, the Astros let opportunities to end that streak pass by underachieving in each of the last two seasons. Most galling was their 2003 performance, when 88 victories would have won the NL Central. The Astros outhit and outpitched the Cubs, yet finished one game behind them.
While that�s the smallest of gaps, it could widen. While cleaning out his locker at the end of the season, all-star closer Billy Wagner questioned owner Drayton McLane�s willingness to make the financial commitment to build a championship club. Houston entered the offseason seeking what general manager Gerry Hunsicker called payroll flexibility. The Astros won�t spend more than the $72.5 million they committed to player salaries in 2003, and may spend less.
Their first move�not surprisingly considering his comments and their bullpen depth�was to send Wagner to the Phillies for Brandon Duckworth and minor league righthanders Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio. The Astros also were looking to rid themselves of Richard Hidalgo�s $12 million salary for 2004. Even team icon Jeff Bagwell has become a financial albatross. Coming off his worst back-to-back seasons in a decade, Bagwell will make $45 million over the next three seasons, then gets an $18 million salary or $7 million buyout in 2007.
Houston didn�t just give Wagner away, as Duckworth will step right into the rotation and Buchholz immediately became the best prospect in the system. But the system isn�t as strong as it appeared two years ago, when BA rated it the third-best in baseball. The majority of the Astros� Top 10 Prospects from then have either gotten hurt (lefthander Carlos Hernandez, righties Anthony Pluta and Rodrigo Rosario) or leveled off (catcher John Buck, infielders Chris Burke and Tommy Whiteman, righty Chad Qualls). Only Brad Lidge and Morgan Ensberg have met expectations in the majors, though Jason Lane could do the same if Houston finds an outfield spot for him.
In order to compete with the Cubs, who have the dual advantages of more money and a better stock of prospects, as well as the rest of the NL Central, the Astros will need the farm system to be as productive as it was in the 1990s. During that decade, they signed Venezuelans Bobby Abreu, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Hidalgo, Melvin Mora and Johan Santana. Houston also spent first-round picks on Lance Berkman, Lidge, Phil Nevin and Wagner, and found Ensberg, Lane, Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding after the fifth round.
Top Prospect: Taylor Buchholz, RHP
Age: 22 Ht.: 6-4 Wt.: 220 Bats: R Throws: R
Drafted: HS�Springfield, Pa., 2000 (6th round)
Signed by: Ken Hultzapple (Phillies)
Background: The Phillies first approached the Astros about a trade in September, searching for a reasonably priced alternative to David Bell and inquiring about Geoff Blum. After Philadelphia held its offseason organizational meetings, it shifted its top priority to closer and came looking for Billy Wagner, Houston�s career leader in saves. The Astros were rebuffed when they asked to build a trade around one of two pitching prospects, Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd. The Phillies initially turned them down on Buchholz as well but relented when they realized it would be a deal-breaker. His commitment to North Carolina caused him to slide in the 2000 draft. His hometown Phillies may have been the only team that could have signed him, and they gave him fourth-round money ($365,000) as a sixth-round pick. Buchholz went 3-13 in his first calendar year after signing before everything started to click. He was the FSL pitcher of the year in 2002 and the youngest player selected for the Double-A Eastern League all-star game in 2003.
Strengths: Buchholz� signature pitch is a hard curveball he picked up in low Class A in 2001. One scout compared its quality and his feel for it to Josh Beckett�s and Kerry Wood�s, while Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said Buchholz� curve could be one of the five best in the National League within a few years. He throws the bender at 76-79 mph, and can change speeds off it to further befuddle hitters. Buchholz also has a quality fastball that sits in the low 90s, touches 95 mph and has heavy life. He�ll flash an average changeup at times. He has a strong, durable frame that has held up well through 78 starts over the last three seasons. He shows good poise on the mound and never let a lack of run support fluster him at Double-A Reading.
Weaknesses: Buchholz succeeds so easily with his fastball and curve that he hasn�t thrown his changeup much. He needs to use it more often to improve its quality and command. He pitched with bone chips in his elbow in 2003, but the problem resolved itself without surgery. Buchholz doesn�t always trust his natural stuff and will try to overthrow. Then his front shoulder flies open in his delivery and he leaves pitches up in the strike zone. He needs to do a better job of holding baserunners.
The Future: The Wagner trade made sense on several levels for Houston. He was unhappy with the direction of the club, he made more money than the Astros wanted to pay when they had a lower-cost alternative in Octavio Dotel, and they got three potential starting pitchers. Buchholz will open 2004 in Triple-A New Orleans. Given how Houston went through 12 starters in 2003, he could get promoted quickly. Buchholz projects as a No. 2 or 3 starter.
2. Jason Lane, of
Age: 27. B-T: R-L. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 215.
Drafted: Southern California, 1999 (6th round).
Signed by: Doug Deutsch.
Background: Undrafted until his senior year of college, Lane started getting taken seriously as a prospect after winning two league MVP awards and three RBI titles in his first three pro seasons. But when the Astros moved Craig Biggio to center field, it left Lane without a spot to crack the big league lineup.
Strengths: Lane is the lone impact hitter in the system. He has consistently hit for power and average as a pro, and he has homered eight times in 96 big league at-bats. He�s not a burner and fits best on an outfield corner, but he�s a better center fielder than any of Houston�s regulars. The Astros wanted him to become less pull-conscious and more disciplined in 2003, and he accomplished both missions.
Weaknesses: Lane has worked hard to eliminate glaring flaws from his game. The only negative in 2003 was a sports hernia that led to two lengthy stints on the disabled list and postseason surgery.
The Future: He has nothing left to prove in the minors and will break camp with the Astros. But unless the Astros can move Richard Hidalgo�s $12 million salary, Lane will serve as a fourth outfielder.
3. John Buck, c
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 220.
Drafted: HS�Taylorsville, Utah, 1998 (7th round).
Signed by: Doug Deutsch.
Background: Buck emerged as one of the game�s top catching prospects in 2001. While he still maintains that status, he faded down the stretch in 2002 and started to slump again in June 2003 before breaking his right hand in a baserunning accident.
Strengths: With power to all fields and the ability to crush mistakes, Buck has 20-25 home run potential. Managers rated him the best defensive catcher in the Pacific Coast League because of his arm strength and soft hands. He exudes leadership and relishes taking charge of a pitching staff.
Weaknesses: Buck probably won�t hit for much of an average, though he can improve if he improves his recognition of breaking pitches and the strike zone. He has a long release that limited him to erasing just 26 percent of basestealers. He doesn�t run well and has bulked up too much in the last two years, though he got into better shape while out with the broken hand.
The Future: Buck may have been pushed too quickly and definitely needs more time in Triple-A. The Astros would like to re-sign Brad Ausmus as a stopgap and then have him tutor Buck when he�s ready.
4. Chris Burke, 2b/ss
Age: 24. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 190.
Drafted: Tennessee, 2001 (1st round).
Signed by: Danny Watkins.
Background: Forced to Double-A before he was ready because the Astros didn�t have a high Class A affiliate in 2002, Burke floundered. His struggles convinced him that what worked in college wasn�t going to cut it in the pros, and he made a successful return to Round Rock in 2003, earning Texas League all-star honors. He started for Team USA at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Panama.
Strengths: Burke is ideally suited for the No. 2 spot in a lineup. He gets on base, handles the bat well, has gap power and the speed and instincts to steal bases. He has the quickness and athleticism to be a good second baseman.
Weaknesses: Burke sometimes has too much power for his own good and must realize hitting homers isn�t his game. He needs to take more grounders at second base, so he can improve his ability to read and charge balls. He has played a fair amount of shortstop as a pro but lacks the arm for the position.
The Future: Unless Burke flops in Triple-A, he�ll be Houston�s starting second baseman in 2005. Buying Jeff Kent out for $700,000 will be more palatable to the Astros than paying him a $9 million salary.
5. Fernando Nieve, rhp
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 195.
Signed: Venezuela, 1999.
Signed by: Andres Reiner/Euclides Vargas.
Background: Though Nieve had pitched just three innings above Rookie ball, the Astros fretted about possibly losing him in the 2002 Rule 5 draft. They�re glad they didn�t after watching him mature as a pitcher and a person and lead Houston farmhands with 14 victories. He has continued to build on that success by dominating in the Venezuelan League.
Strengths: He doesn�t have the highest radar-gun readings, but Nieve�s fastball is the best in the system because it combines velocity (91-95 mph) with heavy sink and boring action that rides in on righthanders. His curveball improved dramatically in 2003, as did his approach. He�s now a pitcher rather than a thrower who believes he can survive on fastballs alone.
Weaknesses: Nieve still is learning to throw a changeup and doesn�t throw it often. He�ll need that pitch and possibly a four-seamer to combat lefthanders at higher levels. He has trouble pitching lefties inside because his two-seamer tends to run back over the plate.
The Future: Nieve�s progress was the farm system�s most pleasant development in 2003. Ticketed for high Class A Salem, he�s at least two years away from Minute Maid Park.
6. Hector Gimenez, c
Age: 21. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 200.
Drafted: Venezuela, 1999.
Signed by: Andres Reiner/Euclides Vargas.
Background: While the Astros system has slipped, not many organizations have a pair of potential starting catchers like John Buck and Gimenez. Managers have ranked Gimenez the best defensive catcher in the low Class A South Atlantic and high Class A Carolina leagues in his two domestic seasons. One CL manager said he tried to run on Salem just because he liked watching Gimenez� arm in action.
Strengths: Gimenez has a plus arm and ranked second in the CL by throwing out 39 percent of basestealers. He throws better and has more agility than Buck. He�s similar offensively, producing more for power than for average. As a bonus, he�s a switch-hitter.
Weaknesses: Still adapting to the United States, Gimenez doesn�t have Buck�s leadership skills. Gimenez needs to improve his English so he can better handle a pitching staff. He sometimes lets bad at-bats affect his defense. As a hitter, he has only a raw grasp of the strike zone. Like most catchers, he has below-average speed.
The Future: Gimenez is two years behind Buck. The Astros will return him to high Class A in 2004 and promote him once he gets going offensively.
7. Chad Qualls, rhp
Age: 25. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 220.
Drafted: Nevada, 2000 (2nd round).
Signed by: Gene Wellman.
Background: Like Burke, Qualls was promoted to Double-A before his time in 2002. While he led the Texas League with 142 strikeouts, he went 6-13, 4.36. His Round Rock encore started no better, as he went 3-8, 5.42 in the first three months. Then he finished with a 5-3, 1.93 flourish, establishing himself as the Astros� most advanced starting pitching prospect until they traded for Buchholz.
Strengths: Qualls� resurgence started when he realized that he�s not a power pitcher. His out pitch is a slider, and he wins when he gets his 87-94 mph fastball to sink. He improved his changeup and starting throwing a splitter. He�s durable and mentally tough.
Weaknesses: Qualls has difficulty maintaining his mechanics. When he drops down too low, he loses his heavy sink and hitters sit on flat fastballs. His inconsistent delivery also hampers his control. He still has work to do with his changeup, the pitch that ultimately will determine whether he�s a big league starter or reliever.
The Future: Houston�s plan is for Qualls to begin 2004 as a Triple-A starter. But he could be an attractive relief option for the Astros by midseason.
8. Jason Hirsh, rhp
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-8. Wt.: 250.
Drafted: California Lutheran, 2003 (2nd round).
Signed by: Mel Nelson.
Background: Hirsh threw just 86-88 mph in high school, attracting no interest from NCAA Division I programs. Thanks to weight work and mechanical adjustments at Division III Cal Lutheran, he boosted his fastball up to 96 mph and his slider up to 86 last spring, when he recorded 17- and 18-strikeout games. The Astros took him with their top pick after forfeiting their first-rounder to sign free agent Jeff Kent.
Strengths: By the time he reaches the majors, Hirsh could have two 70 pitches on the 20-80 scouting scale. His fastball sits at 92-93 mph and shows nice arm-side run at times. He has intimidating presence on the mound and is athletic for his size. He was more polished than the Astros expected.
Weaknesses: Hirsh needs more consistency with all of his pitches. At times his fastball is straight, and his slider is far less reliable. His changeup has its moments but his inexperience throwing offspeed stuff shows.
The Future: Hirsh could be a formidable starter or reliever. Some have projected him as a set-up man, but that might be underestimating him. He�ll pitch in the low Class A Lexington rotation in 2004.
9. Matt Albers, rhp
Age: 21. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 205.
Drafted: San Jacinto (Texas) JC, D/F 2001 (23rd round).
Signed by: Rusty Pendergrass.
Background: Albers is a local product, drafted out of a suburban Houston high school and signed after a year in junior college. He made tremendous strides from his first pro summer to his second, topping the New York-Penn League in strikeouts and turning in quality starts in each of his last six outings.
Strengths: Despite a short, stocky frame, Albers generates 91-95 mph fastballs with little effort. He also has a quick, sharp breaking ball and is picking up a changeup. His fearless makeup might be as good as his stuff. He did a better job controlling his mechanics and his pitches in 2003. His feel for his craft also improved.
Weaknesses: Houston has had success with short pitchers, but Albers not only was short but also had a soft, pudgy body when he signed. The Astros challenged him to improve his conditioning and he responded, though he�ll have to continually watch himself. His secondary pitches require more work.
The Future: Albers will team up with Jason Hirsh again in low Class A. Hirsh has a higher ceiling, but Albers is more polished and consistent at this point.
10. Jimmy Barthmaier, rhp
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 200.
Drafted: HS�Roswell, Ga., 2003 (13th round).
Signed by: Ellis Dungan.
Background: Barthmaier could have gone in 2003�s supplemental first round, but several Southeastern Conference football programs recruited him as a quarterback, clouding his signability. When the Braves passed on him, other teams followed suit, but Barthmaier had told Astros area scout Ellis Dungan that he was open to turning pro. He signed for $750,000 as a 13th-rounder�$125,000 more than Houston gave Hirsh as a second-rounder.
Strengths: Barthmaier is loaded with physical tools. He has size, athleticism and arm strength. He throws a heavy fastball at 91-94 mph and should add velocity. His slider is a second power pitch, registering as high as 85 mph. He soaks up instruction quickly.
Weaknesses: Because he divided his time between two sports, Barthmaier is raw. He used to throw his slider with a football motion, and he barely has used a changeup. He throws across his body and varies his arm slots, so he�ll have to clean up his mechanics.
The Future: Barthmaier will need plenty of time to develop. He�ll begin the 2004 season in extended spring training and report to short-season Tri-City. He probably won�t see full-season ball until 2005.