The Astros’ farm system was rated the weakest in baseball two years in a row coming into the season, and with good reason thanks to a string of uninspiring drafts. Last season, their low Class A affiliate, the Lexington Legends, finished with a 45-93 record, the worst record of any full-season minor league team and a mark indicative of the plight of Houston’s farm system.
However, things might be looking up, if the early part of 2009 is any indication.
The Legends are 18-14 and tied for first in the SAL’s Southern Division. Their turnaround certainly hasn’t been because of their hitting as the Legends rank last in the 16-team SAL in team average (.222) and 11th in runs (125). As you might expect, the Legends have been led by their pitching staff. They lead the SAL in team ERA (2.71) and have issued the third fewest walks (74) despite having a rotation composed entirely of high school draftees getting their first taste of full-season ball.
Three of Lexington’s starters boast ERAs under 2.50 (four if you include the injured Brad Dydalewicz). The headliner of the group is 19-year-old righthander Ross Seaton, Houston’s supplemental third round pick out of Second Baptist (Houston) High a year ago. Seaton is getting his first extended taste of pro ball after he made only three appearances in the Rookie-level Appachian League last year.
Seaton was dominant in his first five starts and has opened the campaign 4-2, 1.51 through 35 2/3 innings. He allowed only three earned runs over those first five starts before he was hit around in his last start against Rome, when he gave up three runs on eight hits over six innings.
"He’s done a nice job so far. I think he’s a little bit more mature at his age than some of the other kids," Lexington manager Tom Lawless said. "He’s got major league pitches, there’s no doubt about that. It’s just a matter of getting experience pitching, getting his 30 starts. He’s going to get bigger and he’s going to get stronger. He understands what he wants to do. He’s pretty close to being a professional right now.
"He’s been brought up the right way. He’s a great kid. He’s a very smart young man. He usually goes up there with a plan, which is one of the things you work on in the minor leagues with all the kids."
Seaton, who already stands 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, has been working both sides of the plate with his fastball that sits mostly 88-93 mph and has touched 94. He’s mixed in his slider and changeup when he needs to.
"He knows when to throw (his offspeed pitches) to the hitters," Lawless said. "He’s got that knack of knowing when do it. Some guys throw it just to throw it. Some guys throw it just to work on it. Some guys are here just to work on a breaking ball. Some guys are here just to work on a changeup. He’s just got the knack he can throw all three for strikes at any time. That’s what major league pitchers do."
Seaton has held opponents to a .213 average and while he hasn’t piled up strikeouts (19), he’s only issued seven walks. Lawless praised his preparation habits and his feel for being ready to pitch every five days.
The youngest member of the Legends rotation is righthander Jordan Lyles, who won’t turn 19 until October. The Astros took Lyles in the supplemental first round (38th overall) last year and signed him away from a South Carolina scholarship, where he might’ve played wide receiver for the football team as well as baseball.
Lyles hasn’t put up the same numbers Seaton has, going 1-3, 4.11 through six starts. However, his ERA is somewhat inflated by a rough start April 21 against Hickory when he gave up four earned runs on nine hits in 4 1/3 innings. He’s allowed three or fewer runs in each of his other five starts.
Lyles had his best start in his last outing May 7 against Rome, allowing only one run on seven hits over seven innings, yet he lost 1-0 when the Legends offense was shut down by Braves lefty Brett DeVall.
The team has worked with Lyles on being more aggressive and having a stronger mound presence while staying positive about his upside.
"He’s pretty much just like Ross (Seaton)," Lawless said. "He might be a little bit behind Ross with the maturity level, but he’s got a major league arm. He’s got a tremendous fastball and a good breaking ball.
"This is all new to him, too, a full year getting 25-30 starts. It’s just a process. I think he’ll be fine as the year goes on."
Lyles and Seaton are joined in the rotation by a pair of 2007 high school draftees, righthanders Robert Bono (4-1, 1.91) and Kyle Greenwalt (2-3, 2.38), also getting their first look at full-season ball. Neither of them have relied on strikeouts, but both are fast workers who’ve been able to keep the ball on the ground and be aggressive with hitters.
"Both those guys bring a lot of energy to the game," Lawless said. "They work fast. They throw strikes. The defense is going to play good behind them wherever they pitch because they work fast, get the ball and throw strikes. They have movement on their fastballs. They’re not afraid to challenge hitters. I think that’s a big thing today.
"They are agressive and they believe in themselves, and when you do that you’ve got a real good chance to play this game a long time."
The last member of the group is lefty Brad Dydalewicz, a 19-year-old eighth round pick from last year. Dydalewicz hasn’t pitched since April 23, but Lawless expects him back sometime next week. Dydalewicz is out with a slight oblique strain, according to farm director Bobby Heck.
When Dydalewicz did take the mound, the lefty was spectacular, not allowing a single earned run over 17 innings. He generates tremendous movement on his pitches, a low-90s fastball, a curveball and a changeup. His delivery needs some refining, but Lawless was impressed by how few good swings hitters had against him.
Rondon To The Pen
As the Indians’ bullpen struggles, the team is eyeing 21-year-old righty Hector Rondon as a possible piece of the puzzle. Rondon threw two innings in relief last night against Bowie and took the loss after allowing three runs (two earned).
”Moving Hector was an organizational decision,” Akron manager Mike Sarbaugh told the Akron Beacon Journal. ”Our job here is to develop guys for the big leagues. So you have to take the Akron team out of it and look at what’s best for the organization. And what’s best for the organization is for Hector to go into the bullpen.”