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Astros Top 10 Prospects
By Jim Callis
Shortstop Adam Everett and third baseman Morgan Ensberg broke camp as Astros starters but played their way out of those jobs. Lefthander Carlos Hernandez battled shoulder problems that persisted into the offseason. Jason Lane and Kirk Saarloos showed flashes of talent, and Brandon Puffer and Ricky Stone had their moments in middle relief. But Houston needed more and didnt get it.
The story was the same in the minors. It wasnt a disastrous year, but the Astros didnt match their previous standards. Their six affiliates combined to win at a .535 clip, the fifth-best record in baseball. But after capturing a total of seven championships over the previous four years, Houston farm clubs came up empty in 2002.
Houston also stumbled when it came to the draft. With a strike possible, Astros owner Drayton McLane declared a midsummer embargo on signing picks. The club eventually signed its top three selections but didnt get to see any of them in game action, and fifth-rounder Pat Misch returned to Western Michigan.
Houston has moved to upgrade the quality of its minor league affiliates in recent years, and its arrangement with Double-A Round Rock has been a huge success on and off the field. In order to play in another top facility, Lexingtons Applebees Park, the Astros fielded two low Class A teams for two years, at the expense of having a high Class A club.
That set-up created problems last year. Some of Houstons best prospects struggled because they had to skip a level and go from low Class A to Double-A. The situation has been rectified for 2003. The Astros agreement with low-A Michigan expired, and they established a new agreement with high Class A Salem.
Houstons stock hasnt tumbled like Enrons, which relinquished its ballpark naming rights in 2002. But an organization that ranked among the best in both the majors and minors a year earlier has fallen back toward the middle of the pack.
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 210. Drafted: HSTaylorsville, Utah, 1998 (7th round). Signed by: Doug Deutsch.
Background: Area scout Doug Deutsch has signed six major leaguers, including 2002 revelation Kirk Saarloos and otherwise overlooked college seniors Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane. But his biggest find may prove to be Buck, who drew little attention as a Utah high school senior in 1998. He made quick adjustments to pro ball. Perhaps more than any player, Buck was hurt by Houstons lack of a high Class A club the past two years. He had to jump to Double-A Round Rock without the benefit of high Class A experience last year. The transition was made more difficult when, on the first pitch he caught of the 2002 season, he was hit on the back of his left hand by the hitters bat. Buck was unable to grip a bat properly in the early part of the season and posted his worst offensive numbers since short-season ball in 1999. Nevertheless, he made the Texas Leagues postseason all-star team.
Strengths: Few catching prospects can match Bucks all-around package. He projects as a .275 hitter with 20 homers now that he has learned to turn on fastballs and recognize breaking pitches. His defense grades out better than his offense. Buck has plus arm strength and threw out 36 percent of basestealers last year. His receiving skills are solid, though he can improve on balls outside of the strike zone. Bucks makeup may be his greatest strength. Hes a student of the game who takes charge of a pitching staff. He believes making his pitchers more successful is a huge part of his job.
Weaknesses: Somehow while catching games in the Texas heat, Buck put on 15 pounds, which made him sluggish in August and in the Arizona Fall League, where his swing lengthened and his offense tapered off. Hes starting to become a baseclogger and spent the offseason working on his flexibility and agility. Buck has been more aggressive going after pitches early in the count, but the Astros would like him to recapture the plate discipline he had earlier. His release on his throws can get inconsistent.
The Future: Buck figures to spend 2003 in Triple-A New Orleans, one of the tougher hitters parks in the Pacific Coast League. Brad Ausmus contract expires after the season, and the Astros hope Buck can carry at least part of the big league load in 2004.
Click here for prospects 2-10.