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Top Ten Prospects: Houston Astros
Complete Index of Top 10s

By Jim Callis
December 2, 2005


Chat Wrap: Jim Callis took your Astros questions
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, 2006.

Tim Purpura’s first year as Astros general manager got off to an ominous start. His predecessor, Gerry Hunsicker, declined Jeff Kent’s $9 million option for 2005 shortly before his abrupt resignation, and Purpura was unable to re-sign Kent.

Then Purpura was held hostage by free agent Carlos Beltran, who waited until a January deadline before turning down a club-record $105 million contract offer. At that point, no other comparable options remained, and Houston already had concerns about Lance Berkman’s right knee and Jeff Bagwell’s right shoulder. The Astros’ offense never truly recovered, finishing 11th in the National League in scoring and dead last in road games.

Houston started the year 15-30, giving it the game’s third-worst record on May 24. But just like they had in 2004, the Astros made a stunning comeback, going 74-43 the rest of the way—the best record in baseball—to earn their second straight wild-card berth. They reached the World Series for the first time in the franchise’s 44 seasons, losing a hotly contested sweep at the hands of the White Sox.

The club’s farm system has slipped in recent years because of unproductive drafts and increased competition for talent in Venezuela, an arena Houston once dominated. Yet the Astros’ first-ever World Series club had a predominantly homegrown flavor. They signed and developed their four best hitters (Berkman, Craig Biggio, Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane), as well as 20-game winner Roy Oswalt and closer Brad Lidge.

Though Baseball America rated the talent in the system 22nd among the 30 organizations entering 2005, six rookies made the World Series roster. The top three players on this list a year ago—second baseman/outfielder Chris Burke, righthander Ezequiel Astacio and outfielder Willy Taveras—all became regulars in the second half. Chad Qualls proved to be a valuable set-up man, and lefty Wandy Rodriguez and outfielder Luke Scott also made contributions.

Whether many of them will become more than role players remains to be seen, however. The system also doesn’t have much to offer in the near future beyond righthanders Jason Hirsh and Fernando Nieve. It may be two or three years before a homegrown position player can challenge for a spot in the lineup.

Concerned about the talent drain, Hunsicker reassigned former scouting director David Lakey after the 2004 draft and promoted coordinator of pro scouting Paul Ricciarini to replace him. Ricciarini used his 2005 first-round pick on Brian Bogusevic, addressing the lack of talented lefthanders in the system, then focused on high-ceiling athletes. Outfielders Eli Iorg (supplemental first round) and Josh Flores (fourth) join Bogusevic on this Top 10 list.

It will take more than one draft to rebuild their system, though the Astros have bought some goodwill with their fans during the last two years. To sustain that momentum, they’ll have to use trades and free agents in the short term.


1. JASON HIRSH, rhp      Age: 24 Ht: 6-8 Wt: 245 B-T: R-R
Drafted: California Lutheran, 2003 (2nd round)   Signed by: Mel Nelson

Background: Despite his size, Hirsh drew little interest out of high school because he threw just 86-88 mph. He went undrafted, and no NCAA Division I programs wanted him, so he wound up at Division III Cal Lutheran. Hirsh blossomed with the Kingsmen, setting school records for career wins (26) and single-game strikeouts (18), but the number that got him noticed was his improved velocity. By his junior season in 2003, his fastball repeatedly touched 97 mph and his slider was peaking in the mid-80s. The Astros lacked a first-round pick that June after signing Jeff Kent as a free agent, and they made Hirsh their top pick as a second-rounder, signing him for $625,000. He blew away short-season New York-Penn League hitters in his debut but struggled at high Class A Salem in his first full season in 2004. Assigned the task of improving his secondary pitches, Hirsh struggled to do so and lost the edge on his fastball. Undeterred, Houston promoted him to Double-A Corpus Christi in 2005 and he responded by becoming Texas League pitcher of the year. A good year got even better for Hirsh when the Astros drafted and signed his brother Matt, another Cal Lutheran righty, in the 30th round. Matt went 1-2, 5.61 as a swingman at Rookie-level Greeneville.

Strengths: Hirsh’s metamorphosis from 2004 to 2005 was astounding. A year after looking like he might not be more than a set-up man, he became a potential frontline starter. He has an intimidating frame at 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, and he’s athletic for his size. That allows him to repeat his delivery and his arm slot, which helped him gain the feel of a hard 80-86 mph slider that’s much more consistent than it was in the past. Managers rated it the best breaking ball in the Texas League. Hirsh also has improved the sink on his fastball, opting for a two-seamer that sits at 91-93 mph. He can still reach the mid-90s when needed, but he’s more concerned with the location and movement on his fastball. His changeup made strides as well, and is an average pitch. He’s not afraid to pitch inside and throws strikes to both sides of the plate. As one scout with an American League club said, “To make that much progress in one year tells you about his makeup and aptitude.”

Weaknesses: Having gone from owning no reliable pitch to now possessing three of them, Hirsh just needs to do some fine-tuning. He can still improve his command, which is average now but should become a plus with more experience. Likewise, his changeup can get better and is the least trustworthy of his three offerings.

The Future: If Hirsh pitches as well at Triple-A Round Rock as he did in Double-A, he’ll get called up to Houston in short order. Should Roger Clemens decide to retire, Hirsh could get an opportunity to make the big league rotation in spring training. It’s also possible that he could break into the majors as a middle reliever should the Astros develop a need in their bullpen. Hirsh’s fastball-slider combination could allow him to excel in that role, but his long-term future is as a No. 2 or 3 starter.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Corpus Christi (AA) 13 8 2.87 29 29 1 0 172 137 12 42 165 .218


2. TROY PATTON, lhp        Age: 20 B-T: B-L Ht: 6-1 Wt.: 185
Drafted: HS—Magnolia, Texas, 2004 (9th round)   Signed by: Rusty Pendergrass

Background: Considered a tough sign after committing to the University of Texas, Patton turned pro for $550,000—easily the highest bonus in 2004’s ninth round. In his first full season, he set a low Class A Lexington record with 32 straight scoreless innings, pitched in the Futures Game and reached high Class A.


Strengths:
Patton can get strikes with his power curveball both by throwing it over the plate or by getting hitters to chase it out of the strike zone. He also can locate his 90-94 mph fastball all over the zone, and it has average life. He has very good control and a nasty competitive streak.

  

Weaknesses:
Patton needs to get stronger and battled some mild shoulder tendinitis in 2005. He must improve the command of his changeup, which lags partly because he doesn’t use it enough. His arm slot tends to wander, and he flattens out his curve when he gets under it.

  

The Future:
There’s debate within the Astros’ front office as to whether Jason Hirsh or Patton is the system’s top prospect. Patton isn’t as polished or as physical, but he’s lefthanded and 31/2 years younger. He could open 2006 in Double-A at age 20.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lexington (Lo A) 5 2 1.94 15 15 0 0 79 59 3 20 94 .211
Salem (Hi A) 1 4 2.63 10 9 0 0 41 34 2 8 38 .227


3. FERNANDO NIEVE, rhp       Age: 23 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-0 Wt.: 200
Signed: Venezuela, 1999 Signed by: Andres Reiner

Background: After signing in 1999, Nieve didn’t make it past low Class A until his sixth pro season. A Texas League all-star in 2005, he spent the second half in Triple-A and might have earned a September callup if his appendix hadn’t ruptured.


Strengths:
Nieve has two plus pitches, a 93-95 mph fastball with good riding life that managers rated the best in the Texas League, and a hard slider that’s not as consistent. Despite being just 6 feet tall, he pitches on a good downward plane. He repeats his delivery well, enhancing his ability to throw strikes.

  

Weaknesses:
Nieve’s arm action is long, allowing lefthanders to get a good look at his pitches. They batted .273 against him in 2005, and he’s working on a splitter to combat them. A changeup would help, but he doesn’t have faith in the pitch. He can lose his focus and pitch backwards, and at times he’ll use a curveball to the detriment of his slider.

  

The Future:
Nieve is close to helping the Astros. Some scouts envision him becoming a No. 3 starter, while others see him as a late-innings reliever in the mold of Ugueth Urbina.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Corpus Christi (AA) 4 3 2.65 14 14 0 0 85 62 7 29 96 .205
Round Rock (AAA) 4 4 4.83 13 13 2 0 82 92 10 33 75 .281


4. JIMMY BARTHMAIER, rhp        Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-4 Wt.: 210
Drafted: HS—Roswell, Ga., 2003 (13th round)  Signed by: Ellis Dungan

Background: A high school quarterback, Barthmaier drew interest from several college football programs but didn’t commit to one because he didn’t want to scare off baseball teams. He slid in the 2003 draft anyway before signing for $750,000, a record for a 13th-rounder.


Strengths:
Strong and athletic, Barthmaier projects as an innings-eater. He has a chance to have three plus pitches, and his fastball and curveball already are that good. He throws his fastball at 91-93 mph and peaks at 95, and his power curve is the best in the system. His changeup also is making progress.

  

Weaknesses:
Barthmaier doesn’t have the same feel as Jason Hirsh or Troy Patton, and he’s still learning to locate his fastball where he wants. His mechanics have gotten better since he signed, but they still could use some more smoothing. There are some minor questions about his maturity.

  

The Future:
Barthmaier is on the verge of putting it all together, and once he does he’ll move quickly to Houston. Ticketed for high Class A to begin 2006, he could reach Double-A by midseason.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lexington (Lo A) 11 6 2.27 25 25 0 0 135 108 3 55 142 .220
Salem (Hi A) 1 0 1.50 1 0 0 0 6 4 1 1 6 .167


5. ELI IORG, of        Age: 23 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt.: 200
Drafted: Tennessee, 2005 (1st round supplemental)   Signed by: Mike Rosamond

Background: Iorg was the first outfielder drafted in the first round by the Astros since 1999, when they took Mike Rosamond—the son of the area scout who signed Iorg for $950,000. Iorg has baseball relatives as well, as his father Garth and uncle Dane played in the majors; older brother Isaac played in the Braves system; and younger brother Cale could go early in the 2007 draft.


Strengths:
Iorg has a quick, sound swing and a strong frame that should allow him to hit for both power and average. He has slightly above-average speed and good instincts, giving him 20-20 potential in the majors. He has solid range and a plus arm in right field. His intensity is another asset.

  

Weaknesses:
Iorg, who spent 2003 on a Mormon mission to Argentina, was too old for Rookie ball at 22, but went to Greeneville so he could recover from a stress fracture in his right foot while close to his Tennessee home. He could use more patience at the plate and better accuracy on his throws.

  

The Future:
Houston might send Iorg to low Class A to start 2006. He needs a sterner test and should reach high Class A before too long.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Greenville (R) .333 .391 .565 138 36 46 7 2 7 34 9 27 12 3


6. HUNTER PENCE, of        Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-5 Wt.: 210
Drafted: Texas-Arlington, 2004 (2nd round)  Signed by: Rusty Pendergrass

Background: The Astros made Pence their top pick in 2004. He has done nothing but hit as a pro, tying for the system lead in homers in 2005 while finishing second in hitting (.327) and RBIs despite a strained left quadriceps.


Strengths:
Pence doesn’t look pretty at the plate, choking up on the bat and employing a hitch in his swing, but he has quick hands than enable him to get into good hitting position. He punishes fastballs and has power to all fields. Managers rated him the best hitter and the best power hitter in the South Atlantic League. His speed and athleticism are solid.

  

Weaknesses:
Some scouts wonder if more advanced pitchers will take advantage of Pence’s hitch by pounding him inside. Though he has played primarily center field in the minors, he’s destined for left. He doesn’t get good jumps and reads on fly balls, and his arm is below average.

  

The Future:
Like many of the system’s best college position players, Pence has been old for his leagues and needs to be challenged. He’ll move up to Double-A in 2006.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Lexington (Lo A) .338 .413 .652 302 59 102 14 3 25 60 38 53 8 3
Salem (Hi A) .305 .374 .490 151 24 46 8 1 6 30 18 37 1 2


7. FELIPE PAULINO DEL GUIDICE, rhp       Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-2 Wt.: 180
Signed: Venezuela, 2001   Signed by: Andres Reiner/Omar Lopez

Background: Like Fernando Nieve, Paulino del Guidice signed out of Venezuela, has a power arm and has been brought along slowly. He has intrigued scouts ever since his first pitch in the United States—a 96 mph fastball at Rookie-level Martinsville in 2003.


Strengths:
The Astros have seen Paulino del Guidice throw as hard as 100 mph, other organizations have clocked him at 102 and he usually pitches from 90-98. Batters not only have to contend with his velocity, but also heavy boring and riding action on his fastball. He changed the grip on his curveball in 2005 and came up with a plus 80-85 mph breaker.

  

Weaknesses:
Paulino del Guidice is still raw as a pitcher. He’s still discovering how to control his curveball, and his overall command can improve. He’s reluctant to throw his changeup, stunting the development of the third pitch he needs to remain a starter.

  

The Future:
Paulino del Guidice will pitch in the Salem rotation in 2006. It’s easier to project him as a reliever once he reaches the majors, and he has the stuff to become a closer.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lexington (Lo A) 1 1 1.85 7 5 0 0 24 21 2 6 30 .233
Tri-City (SS) 2 2 3.82 13 2 0 1 31 21 2 11 34 .189


8. JUAN GUTIERREZ, rhp      Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt.: 200
Signed: Venezuela, 2000  Signed by: Andres Reiner/Pablo Torrealba/Rafael Lara

Background: Gutierrez repeated both the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer and Appalachian leagues, so the Astros had to protect him on the 40-man roster before he reached full-season ball. He accomplished that mission in 2005, even making it to high Class A in August.


Strengths:
Yet another Venezuelan power pitcher in the system, Gutierrez has a 90-96 mph fastball and a big-breaking, 77-78 mph curveball that he uses as his out pitch. He’ll even flash a plus changeup at times. His curveball was more consistent in 2005, and he showed much better control and feel than he had in Rookie ball. Strong and durable, he should be able to accumulate innings.

  

Weaknesses:
Gutierrez still needs to grasp the art of changing speeds. His changeup has its moments, but it’s a distant third pitch. His mechanics break down at times, costing him control and command. He needs to improve his conditioning and tone down his on-field antics.

  

The Future:
If Gutierrez continues to improve like he did in 2005, he could soar through the rest of the minors. The Astros will start him off back in high Class A in 2006.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lexington (Lo A) 9 5 3.21 22 21 1 0 121 106 10 43 100 .239
Salem (Hi A) 1 1 3.00 3 2 0 0 12 10 1 8 9 .233


9. BRIAN BOGUSEVIC , lhp       Age: 22 B-T: L-L Ht: 6-3 Wt.: 211
Drafted: Tulane, 2005 (1st round)   Signed by: Mike Rosamond

Background: Bogusevic led Tulane to the 2005 College World Series by going 13-3, 3.25 on the mound and batting .328 as a right fielder. Most teams preferred him on the mound, and the Astros concurred after taking him 24th overall and signing him for $1.375 million. Worn out by his two-way efforts and a hamstring injury in college, he was kept on a 45-pitch limit in his pro debut.


Strengths:
Even while tired, Bogusevic still hit 95 mph out of the bullpen at short-season Tri-City and generally works at 89-93 mph with his fastball. His slider can be nasty, his changeup is average and he throws strikes with all three of his pitches. His days as an outfielder are over, but he has plus hitting ability, raw power and speed.

  

Weaknesses:
Bogusevic needs to get stronger after fading in 2005 as well as 2004, when he hit .183 in the Cape Cod League. He needs to turn his slider into a more consistently plus pitch to work in the middle of a big league rotation.

  

The Future:
The Astros have few quality lefties in their system, so Bogusevic will get the opportunity to move quickly. He should be able to handle a jump to high Class A.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Tri-City (SS) 0 2 7.59 13 0 0 3 21 30 2 9 17 .316


10. JOSH FLORES, of       Age: 20 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-0 Wt.: 195
Drafted: Triton (Ill.) JC, 2005 (4th round)   Signed by: Kevin Stein

Background: Some clubs soured on Flores after he turned down six-figure offers from the Braves as a 24th-rounder out of high school and again as a draft-and-follow last spring. He won the national juco batting title with a .519 average, and area scout Kevin Stein and regional supervisor Gerry Craft lobbied hard to draft him. After signing for $217,500, Flores earned Greeneville MVP and Appalachian League all-star honors.


Strengths:
The fastest player in the system, Flores goes from the right side of the plate to first base in 3.9 seconds. More than just a speedster, he’s an all-around athlete with hitting ability and surprising power. He has good range and a playable arm in center field.

  

Weaknesses:
Though he led the Appy League in hits, Flores still needs to tighten his strike zone and do a better job recognizing breaking balls. A shortstop until he turned pro, he’s still learning outfield nuances such as taking good routes and getting in position to throw.

  

The Future:
Flores will play in low Class A in 2006. He’s a few years away, but he offers more upside than Astros incumbent Willy Taveras.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Greenville (R) .335 .384 .520 248 49 83 12 5 8 25 16 57 20 6
Lexington (Lo A) .278 .316 .389 18 1 5 2 0 0 1 1 4 4 0


Photo Credits:
Barthmaier, Bogusevic: Rich Abel
Flores: Mike Janes
Hirsh: Bill Mitchell
Patton: Mary Lay
Pence: Sports on Film
Iorg: Rodger Wood

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