No Easy Road Out Of Astros' Depths




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I'm not sure if winning in the minor leagues matters. It seems like enough baseball people over the years have said development is more important than winning in the minors, and I'm inclined to believe them.

I also believe having minor league systems full of teams that are winning is better than having teams that are losing. So it's significant that the Astros have ranked 30th in farm system winning percentage in three of the last four seasons.

Houston officials expect that to change in 2012, and I'm inclined to believe them. Ranking Astros prospects for the second straight time this year, I actually believed I had 30 prospects worth ranking. That was not the case in the 2011 book; the system is deeper with another draft and the talent brought in by the Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn trades.

Along with the hiring of Cardinals scouting director Jeff Luhnow to be Houston's new general manager, smaller details are finally coming together. The organization has had a mass exodus of minor league coordinators the last two seasons, but it appears to be finding a measure of continuity beyond assistant general manager Bobby Heck, the club's scouting director since 2008.

Organization veteran Fred Nelson is entering a second year as farm director, as is field coordinator Paul Runge. Stubby Clapp is entering his third year as infield coordinator, and Jaime Garcia is stepping aside as pitching coordinator after one season, yielding to Jon Matlack, who filled that role for 15 seasons with the Tigers.

It's difficult to tell how well Heck, Nelson and Co. are doing their jobs at this time. So many Astros players were pushed on accelerated timetables to fill holes in the organization, many of them were set up to fail rather than succeed. Jonathan Villar reached Double-A at age 20; Jose Altuve reached the majors after essentially a half-season of excellence. He was one of four Astros to jump from 2010 instructional league to Houston in 2011.

One Bad Draft Begat Another

When he came aboard in 2008, Heck stepped into a farm system as far gone as any in recent memory. Houston has had one good draft in the 21st Century. One, in 2004, when they got six big leaguers, led by Pence (second round) and Ben Zobrist (sixth).

Regrettably, Zobrist and Mitch Talbot were traded in 2006 for Aubrey Huff. Zobrist is the best player the Astros have picked this century, while Talbot is the only significant big leaguer the Astros signed in 2002.

Of course Houston drafted and signed seven big leaguers in 2001, a significant total. The best of the group are righties Kirk Saarloos, whose career already is over, and Matt Albers as well as Brooks Conrad, who never appeared in a game for Houston and was lost as a minor league free agent. At least that draft produced players who were good minor leaguers, but it made little impact on the major league club.

The '04 and '01 drafts have little competition in Houston's lost decade. In 2000, Houston got Chad Qualls and Eric Bruntlett, and some decent organizational players such as Todd Self, but no true regular. In 2003 they got five big leaguers of the fringe variety. Josh Anderson, with 179 games played, was the best of the lot. The drafts of '05 (Brian Bogusevic, Tommy Manzella) and '06 (Chris Johnson, Bud Norris) brought two big leaguers apiece, and Norris appears capable of sticking around awhile as a significant contributor. The others, again, are below-average players.

Then there's 2007, when Houston signed no players in the first four rounds. It forfeited two picks as free agent compensation, then failed to sign their third-, fourth- and eighth-round picks. It was a disaster from the outset.

That's the system Heck took over in 2008. As one longtime scout told me, every bad draft for an organization takes two good drafts for a system to recover. Essentially, the Astros had bad drafts every year from 2000 to '07, with the exceptions of '01 and '04. And because the team was competing well at the big league level for much of the decade, winning the 2005 National League pennant, the team kept sacrificing prospects for immediate needs—see the Huff trade, or losing draft picks in '07 for Carlos Lee and (gulp) 39-year-old Woody Williams.

That's the hole Heck and the Astros were climbing out of, and that's why the team's rebuilding process didn't really begin in earnest until 2011, when Pence and Bourn were traded away for prospects—five of whom ranked among Houston's top seven in last issue's Top 10 Prospects.

On top of that, Houston's Venezuelan program—the one that signed Johan Santana and Bob Abreu, among others—dried up in the mid-2000s when scout Andres Reiner left the organization. That coincided with the franchise's lone pennant—and when a three-year run of truly horrid drafts started.

"We're improving," one club official said, "but we still are probably a draft or two away."

He's certainly right. It might be 2013—the year Houston moves to the American League West—before the Astros get their farm system to a point where they have true prospects at every level, or have a surplus of prospects at a position. Maybe by that time they'll actually have a full-season club with a winning record, which has happened exactly twice since 2007.

It's unlikely that the major league team will be the team winning any time soon. The hole the organization dug itself was just too deep.