Astros Put Lyles In Rare Company With Double-A Assignment
When Jordan Lyles was supposed to be playing tee-ball with his peers, he was already playing the real thing at his older brother's level.
When an October birthday placed him among the youngest players in his class as a senior in high school, he was running over, around and through players a year older than him both on the diamond and the gridiron.
So being a 19-year-old in Double-A should be nothing new to the Astros' top pitching prospect.
It is, however, something relatively rare in baseball as a whole. Lyles, along with Rangers prospect and fellow Texas Leaguer Martin Perez, will try to gain a place at a kids' table which sat just five in the decade of the 2000s.
Five pitchers spent their entire age 19 seasons (measured as of July 1 and according to Baseball-Reference.com) at Double-A or above since 2000. Carlos Zambrano, Oscar Villarreal, Jerome Williams and Edwin Jackson all began their 19-year-old seasons in Double-A, while Felix Hernandez, the latest of the five to do it, started in Triple-A.
Lyles isn't fazed by his relative youth.
"We're all professional athletes, and we're all out there competing on the same level," Lyles said.
That second part will be a change. Last year, Lyles was on a different level.
The Astros' supplemental first-round pick in 2008 made his full season debut for low Class A Lexington last year and blew the South Atlantic League away at age 18.
The righthander struck out 167 in 144 2/3 innings while walking just 38 and allowing but five home runs. He compiled a 3.24 ERA and shot up the Astros' organizational ranking thanks to the overpowering stuff.
It was a blossoming that almost never took place. Lyles was a two-sport star at Hartsville High in South Carolina and was weighing a football scholarship offer from South Carolina when he thought he would be a second- or third-round draft pick in baseball.
But the Astros came calling with the 38th pick, which they had acquired as compensation for the loss of Trever Miller to free agency, and Lyles' prospect of being a wide receiver in the Southeastern Conference vanished.
"It was pretty easy when I got called," Lyles said of his decision to sign. "They wanted me and I felt like I could make an impact."
So he signed right away for a bonus of $930,000 and made a short-season debut that lasted 15 starts for rookie-level Greeneville and short-season Tri-City with average run and hit numbers, but 68 strikeouts in 55 innings foretold what was in store.
The key now is keeping it going at what the Astros are not alone in considering the proving ground stage of the minors with Double-A Corpus Christi. The Astros felt no need to ship him West to the pitching nether world of high Class A Lancaster and instead will expose him to the still-hitter-friendly Texas League.
It wasn't a foregone proposition that he'd be Corpus Christi-bound, according to Astros assistant general manager and farm director Ricky Bennett.
"He threw well enough in camp to make us feel like he could handle that environment," Bennett said.
Lyles knows, though, that what he did in the South Atlantic League could result in a pretty good case of whiplash, in a figurative sense, at this level.
"Last year I got away with some things, leaving the ball up," Lyles said. "But as I move up, I won't be able to get away with the same stuff."
He said that among his goals for 2010 is "throwing better strikes and more quality strikes in the bottom half of the strike zone.
"Last year, I went in and out pretty well, this year I want to be able to go up and down."
Lyles will go up and down with a low-90s fastball that reaches 94 mph. He also features a solid curveball and a changeup. He throws in a slider sparingly and may work with a cutter this year.
At times last season, he lost some of his precision, but he drew praise within the organization for his ability to think quickly on the mound.
"He'll be struggling with his fastball, and after a pitch or two you'll see him make an adjustment," Bennett said.
The adjustments will have to grow more numerous as he progresses toward Houston, both organizationally and literally given the Astros' geographic setup of their minor league system.
Of the five pitchers to be this advanced this young in the last decade, all were in the major leagues by April of their 21-year-old season.
While the Astros are in no hurry to get Lyles beyond Double-A right now, there's no reason why he couldn't challenge that timetable.
"He's young in terms of age," Bennett said. "But he has poise and good makeup and an ability to adapt.
"We feel he has a chance to be special."