Houston Astros Top 10 Prospects
Index of Top 10 Prospects for all 30 Major League Teams
By Jim Callis
1. Carlos Hernandez, lhp
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 145. Signed: Venezuela, 1997. Signed by: Andres Reiner.
Background: For all their success mining Venezuela for talent, the Astros didnt get a major league win from those efforts until last Aug. 18. The first Houston pitcher to jump from Double-A to the majors in a decade, Hernandez blanked the Pirates on two hits over seven innings. He followed up with six scoreless innings against the Phillies, and extended his shutout streak to 17 innings in his next start before giving up a two-run homer to the Reds Adam Dunn. But in that game Hernandez dove headfirst back into second base, slightly tearing his rotator cuff and ending his season. He had shown brilliance in flashes before, with an 18-strikeout game in 1999 and a no-hitter in 2000, but hadnt been consistent. Hernandez set the tone for 2001 before the season even began, as he was the most impressive prospect in Houstons big league camp and threw five perfect innings against the Astros in the exhibition finale.
Strengths: Hernandez best pitch has always been a curveball that made him unhittable when he could throw it for strikes. It has a true 12-to-6 break, but he was inconsistent with it and sometimes relied on it too much. At the beginning of the year at Double-A Round Rock, he started using his fastball and changeup more often, which cost him command of his curve. By midseason he had all three pitches working. Hernandez has learned to trust all three pitches. His curve is still his bread and butter, though his fastball is also a quality pitch at 90-95 mph with late life.
Weaknesses: Hernandez will be encouraged to remove the headfirst slide from his repertoire. He didnt need shoulder surgery because rest should heal the tear, but he wasnt going to pitch again until January. Once healthy, he just needs to hone his control, both in terms of throwing strikes and locating his pitches within the zone.
The Future: Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller and Shane Reynolds are guaranteed jobs in the Houston rotation, and the Astros are leaning toward keeping Dave Mlicki in the fourth slot. Hernandez and Tim Redding would battle to be the No. 5 starter, and Hernandez may have an advantage because hes a lefty.
2. John Buck, c
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 210. Drafted: HSTaylorsville, Utah, 1998 (7th round). Signed by: Doug Deutsch.
Background: Though he hasnt gotten the attention to go with it, Buck may be the best all-around catching prospect in the minors. His continuing development allowed the Astros to include slugging backstop Garrett Gentry in the Pedro Astacio trade with the Rockies.
Strengths: In 2001, Buck more than doubled his previous career high of 10 homers as he began to extend his arms more often and turn on fastballs. He also improved at recognizing breaking balls and making adjustments. Behind the plate, he has a strong arm and takes charge of a pitching staff. Hes a student of the game, and the Astros love his makeup.
Weaknesses: Bucks release is a bit lengthy, though he gets rid of throws quickly and nailed 37 percent of basestealers in 2001. Hes still getting better as a receiver and needs more exposure to quality pitchers. He has improved significantly since coming out of a Utah high school. His walk rate dipped as he started hitting for more power.
The Future: After spending two years in low Class A because Houston didnt have a high Class A club, Buck is ready for Double-A. He should be the Astros starter on Opening Day 2004.
3. Chris Burke, ss
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 180. Drafted: Tennessee, 2001 (1st round). Signed by: Danny Watkins.
Background: Burke broke several of Todd Heltons records at Tennessee, and hes one of six players in Southeastern Conference history to hit .400 in his career. The 2001 SEC player of the year, he signed for $2.125 million, breaking the club bonus record by $875,000.
Strengths: Houston scouting director David Lakey compared Burke to Craig Biggio on draft day. Burke has plenty of leadoff skills, gap power and stolen-base speed and aptitude. The Astros now downplay Biggio comparisons because they believe Burke can play shortstop, which some scouts had questioned. His arm is strong and accurate, and his instincts, hands and feet are all fine.
Weaknesses: Burke has no glaring flaws. He could walk a little more if hes going to bat at the top of the order, but he really had no difficulty jumping right into pro ball at low Class A Michigan.
The Future: Burke has a good chance of going to Double-A for his first full season. He may play second base, but only to give Tommy Whiteman some time at shortstop. The only way Burke wont be Houstons shortstop of the future is if defensive whiz Adam Everett jump-starts his bat and pushes Burke to second.
4. Jason Lane, of
Age: 25. B-T: R-L. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 216. Drafted: Southern California, 1999 (6th round). Signed by: Doug Deutsch.
Background: Lane is nothing if not productive. He hit a grand slam and picked up the victory in the 1998 College World Series championship game. As a pro, he has won three RBI titles in three seasons, and has earned back-to-back MVP awards in the Class A Midwest League and Texas League. He topped the minors in RBIs and total bases (320) in 2001.
Strengths: Lanes tools are better than the Astros thought they were when they drafted him as a senior. Possessing the best power in the system, he drives balls to all fields. Good fastballs dont give him a problem. He has worked diligently to improve his running, throwing and outfield skills.
Weaknesses: Lane needs to adjust to breaking balls a little better, as he compensates now by looking for them more often than he should. He has some trouble going back on balls in the outfield but should become at least an average corner outfielder.
The Future: The Astros see parallels between Lane and Lance Berkman. They both broke in as first basemen, and theyre similar hitters, athletes and personalities. Triple-A New Orleans is Lanes likely destination, but hes next in line if Daryle Ward cant handle left field.
5. Brad Lidge, rhp
Age: 25. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 200. Drafted: Notre Dame, 1998 (1st round). Signed by: David Lakey/Jerry Marik.
Background: At the start of 2001, Lidge was as dominant as any pitcher on a Round Rock staff that included Carlos Hernandez and Tim Redding. But as too often has been the case, he had to be shut down. What was thought to be shoulder tendinitis turned out to be fraying that required arthroscopic surgery in July.
Strengths: Lidge has the best power stuff of any Astros pitcher, including the major league staff. He regularly turns bats into kindling. He has a 94-95 mph fastball that rides and sinks and can touch 98, and a slider thats so unhittable it wouldnt matter if he told batters it was coming. Though his pitches are so lively, he can throw them for strikes.
Weaknesses: Lidge has three surgeries and four victories as a pro. In 2000, he had operations to repair a broken forearm and to clean out his elbow. He hasnt had enough time to refine a changeup.
The Future: The Astros may have to move Lidge to the bullpen in an effort to preserve him. His story is similar to that of Robb Nen, who has a similar arsenal and was hurt for six straight years in the minors. Houston farm director Tim Purpura copied Nens bio out of the Giants media guide and gave it to Lidge for inspiration.
6. Anthony Pluta, rhp
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 190. Drafted: HSLas Vegas, 2000 (3rd round). Signed by: Tim Tolman.
Background: Pluta didnt start pitching full-time until he was a high school sophomore, and even as a senior he was more successful as a hitter. He was so impressive in instructional league after signing late in 2000, the Astros decided to challenge him by letting him make his pro debut in full-season ball at age 18. Pluta wasnt fazed.
Strengths: Though Plutas fastball can push triple digits on the radar gun, hes not obsessed with throwing hard. He throws an easy 92-94 mph with plenty of life. He has a hard curveball with a sharp downward break, and its a big league average pitch when he really snaps it off. Early returns on his changeup have been positive. Hes a tough competitor and a quick learner.
Weaknesses: Pluta has some effort in his delivery and doesnt always stay under control. Once he smooths out and repeats his mechanics more consistently, hell throw more strikes. He led the low Class A South Atlantic League in walks this season.
The Future: The Astros dont have a high Class A team, and they arent going to send Pluta to Double-A as a teenager. Hell either return to Lexington or make a lateral move to Michigan in 2002.
7. Morgan Ensberg, 3b
Age: 26. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 210. Drafted: Southern California, 1998 (9th round). Signed by: Doug Deutsch.
Background: A teammate of Jason Lane on Southern Californias 1998 championship club, Ensberg ranks fourth on the Trojans career home run list behind Mark McGwire, Geoff Jenkins and Eric Munson. Ensberg struggled in his first two years as a pro, broke out at Round Rock in 2000 and continued at New Orleans in 2001.
Strengths: Like Lane, Ensberg has made himself into a prospect. He played in both Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, refusing to rest after a huge Double-A season. He continues to get more polished at the plate each year, and his power couldnt be muted even after he broke the hamate bone in his left wrist. He has a strong, accurate arm and the chance to be an average third baseman.
Weaknesses: Ensbergs range is just OK, and his reactions leave something to be desired. His throwing mechanics arent the prettiest, though he generally gets the job done. Hes also not much of a runner.
The Future: Though Vinny Castilla enjoyed a renaissance in Houston, Ensbergs presence made him expendable. Ensberg is the favorite to win the Astros third-base job in spring training. He has more offensive upside than Chris Truby, whos a better defender.
8. Rodrigo Rosario, rhp
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 166. Signed: Dominican Republic, 1996. Signed by: Julio Linares/Rick Aponte.
Background: Because he hadnt distinguished himself beyond owning a good fastball, Rosario began 2001 in the bullpen at Lexington. Moved into the rotation when Ryan Jamison strained his biceps, Rosario responded by not allowing an earned run in his first three outings and went 12-3, 1.97 as a starter.
Strengths: Rosario still has his nasty 91-94 mph fastball with late life. The difference is now he has learned he needs more than one pitch. His slurve has become an out pitch that buckles the knees of righthanders, and he shows good arm action on his changeup. Hes all arms and legs in his delivery, making it difficult to pick up his pitches, and he has fine command.
Weaknesses: He likes to vary his arm angle to further confuse batters, though Rosario needs to recognize that doing so flattens out his breaking ball. His slurve and changeup can get better and should do so as he gains experience.
The Future: High Class A would be the logical progression for Rosario, but the Astros dont have that option. If he doesnt make Double-A out of spring training, he could by the end of the season.
9. Chad Qualls, rhp
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 205. Drafted: Nevada, 2000 (2nd round). Signed by: Gene Wellman.
Background: The third player drafted as a college senior to make the Top 10, Qualls signed late in 2000 and didnt debut until this season. He probably would have been promoted at midseason if the Astros had a high Class A team or werent loaded at Double-A, but he settled for tying for the Midwest League lead in victories.
Strengths: Qualls gets loads of ground balls with his low-90s sinker and a slider MWL managers considered the best in their league. Pitching from a three-quarters arm angle, hes brutal on righthanders. He challenges hitters while walking the fine line between throwing strikes and making mistakes.
Weaknesses: Qualls needs to throw his changeup more, something hell realize when he reaches the upper minors. His mechanics could be smoother, though they dont hamper his control. He sometimes drops down to a low-three-quarters slot, which flattens out his slider.
The Future: Qualls will go to Double-A in 2002 and could advance very quickly. Houston has a deep stock of starters, which could mean that he settles into Enron Field in middle relief. He has the stuff, mentality and resilience to succeed in that role.
10. Tommy Whiteman, ss
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 175. Drafted: Oklahoma, 2000 (6th round). Signed by: David Henderson.
Background: Whiteman was as pleasant a surprise as anyone in the system this season. He hit .250 with one homer at short-season Auburn in his pro debut, then led the South Atlantic League in slugging and Class A shortstops in batting in 2001.
Strengths: He isnt Alex Rodriguez, but Whiteman shows all five tools at shortstop. He hits the ball where its pitched, has gap power and average speed. He should fill out and get stronger. Built like a young Cal Ripken Jr., Whiteman resembles him defensively. Tall and rangy, hes fluid at shortstop, gets to the balls he should and has enough arm strength.
Weaknesses: Whiteman tends to flip the ball sidearm, which makes some routine plays closer than they should be. Hell have to improve his plate discipline at the upper levels of the minors.
The Future: Both Chris Burke and Whiteman stand a good chance of playing in Double-A next year, which means theyll have to work out a timeshare at shortstop. Its possible they could share that position, with Whiteman also getting time at second or third base. Long term, he could be the second-base half of a double-play combination with Burke.
Rest of the Best:
11. Charlton Jimerson, of
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