Houston Astros: Top 10 Prospects With Scouting Reports

Houston Astros

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, 2007.

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Houston Astros

After recovering from a 61-62 start in 2004 and a 15-30 beginning in 2005 to win the National League wild card in both years and reach the World Series in the latter season, the Astros couldn't execute a similar comeback in 2006. They nearly pulled off their biggest miracle to date, however.

Houston dug itself a 49-56 hole in the first four months and trailed the Cardinals by 8 1/2 games in the NL Central with 12 to play. The Astros then swept four games from St. Louis and went on a 10-2 run that left them just a game short of the eventual World Series champions. They now have now posted six consecutive winning seasons, capturing one division title and two wild cards during that span while missing the playoffs by a single win on two other occasions. The increased cost of that success has been staggering.

When Minute Maid Park opened in 2000, the Astros ranked 16th in baseball with a payroll of $66.4 million. At that point, they were known for trading players such as Carl Everett and Mike Hampton when they got expensive. They built a deep farm system with thrifty draft picks, emphasizing draft-and-follows and college senior signs, and by dominating the Venezuela talent market.

It's a different story now. Houston was Baseball America's Organization of the Year in 2001, when we ranked their minor league talent the third-best in the game. The Astros system hasn't rated higher than 20th since—it currently checks in at No. 22—so owner Drayton McLane has opened his wallet to sustain the winning.

Local product Andy Pettitte received a three-year, $31.5 million contract to come home after the 2003 season, and his buddy Roger Clemens has collected more than $40 million during the same span. Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Richard Hidalgo, Jeff Kent and Roy Oswalt have received eight-figure salaries as well.

Houston's payroll soared to $107.7 million in 2006, trailing only the game's financial giants: the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets. The Astros continued to spend this offseason, giving Carlos Lee a six-year, $100 million deal in an attempt to bolster an offense that ranked 11th in the NL last year.

Because Houston hasn't drafted as well and has faced stiffer competition in Venezuela in recent years, the system hasn't been able to feed the big league club as it once did. While the top four home run hitters (Berkman, Morgan Ensberg, Craig Biggio, Jason Lane), leading winner (Oswalt) and closer (Brad Lidge) in 2006 were all homegrown products, precious little new blood has arrived on the scene.

Not only have the Astros paid dearly for veteran help, but they've also sacrificed young talent. They traded righthander Mitch Talbot and shortstop Ben Zobrist to the Devil Rays for Aubrey Huff last July. Righty Jason Hirsh was the club's top pitching prospect until Houston packaged him with 24-year-old center fielder Willy Taveras and 25-year-old righty Taylor Buchholz to get Jason Jennings from the Rockies in December. Hirsh has similar upside to Jennings, who will require a hefty extension if the Astros want to keep him off the free-agent market after the 2007 season.


1.  Hunter Pence, of   Born: April 13, 1983B-T: R-RHt: 6-4Wt: 210
 Drafted: Texas-Arlington, 2004 (2nd round)Signed by: Rusty Pendergrass
Hunter PenceBackground: Pence was the Southland Conference player of the year and batting champ (.395) in 2004, but he wasn't a premium draft prospect because he looked gangly and awkward and used an unorthodox set-up at the plate. Higher on him than most clubs, the Astros made him their top pick, taking him in the second round (64th overall) and signing him for $575,000. He has gotten better as he has moved up the ladder, slowed only by a strained left quadriceps in the second half of 2005. Managers rated him the most exciting player in the Double-A Texas League last year, and Pence batted .387 with a team-high nine RBIs in the playoffs, leading Corpus Christi to a championship. Pence batted .339 in the Arizona Fall League before the Astros suspended him following a drunken-driving charge in late October.

Strengths: Pence doesn't do anything pretty but he does most things well. His approach at the plate is anything but textbook, as he chokes up on the bat and has a hitch in his swing. There were concerns that advanced pitchers might be able to pound him inside, but he put that notion to rest in Double-A. Pence has quick hands, terrific bat speed and plenty of strength, so he has no problem catching up to any fastball. He tinkered with his load last year, lifting his back elbow and turning his right wrist slightly so he could impart more backspin on balls. That improved his ability to drive pitches, which he does to all fields. Pence isn't the most fluid runner, but he has above-average speed and an aggressive nature on the basepaths. He stole 17 bases in 21 tries in 2006 after going just 12-for-22 over his first three pro seasons. When he entered pro ball, he had a below-average arm that figured to limit him to left field. But he since has improved his throwing mechanics, accuracy and arm strength. While his arm action still looks funky, he had 13 assists last year while spending most of his time in right field. He also saw extended action in center down the stretch. He brings a high-energy mindset to the ballpark every day.

Weaknesses: While Pence has solid plate discipline, he also has a bad habit of chasing sliders off the plate. He uses an open stance and sets up away from the plate, so he sometimes has trouble covering the outside corner. Houston believes he can get the job done in center field, though scouts from outside the organization knock him for taking less than optimal routes to balls. The Astros praise his makeup and believe his embarrassment over the DUI charge last fall will mean it was just a one-time mistake.

The Future: Houston would like to give Pence a couple of months at Triple-A Round Rock, but those plans may change after incumbent center fielder Willy Taveras went to the Rockies in December's Jason Jennings trade. Chris Burke is the favorite to replace Taveras, but Pence has a better arm and arguably better instincts in center. The long-term plan is for Burke to succeed Craig Biggio at second base, creating an outfield opening, but Pence could force the issue in 2007.
2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Corpus Christi (AA) .283 .357 .533 523 97 148 31 8 28 95 60 109 17
2.  Troy Patton, lhp   Born: Sept. 3, 1985B-T: B-LHt: 6-1Wt: 185
 Drafted: HS—Magnolia, Texas, 2004 (9th round)Signed by: Rusty Pendergrass
Troy PattonBackground: After the commissioner's office talked owner Drayton McLane out of signing 2003 third-round pick Drew Stubbs for $900,000, MLB didn't bat an eye when the Astros Patton (also set to attend the University of Texas) the same amount as a ninth-rounder a year later. He recovered from a 1-6 start at high Class A Salem last year to reach Corpus Christi, where he contributed to a Texas League championship.

Strengths: Patton is a lefthander with stuff, savvy and moxie. He runs his fastball from 89-94 mph, generates exceptional life at times and easily gets inside on righthanders with it. His changeup improved significantly last year and has nice fade. His hard curveball was his top pitch in high school but now ranks as his third pitch. He's athletic and repeats his compact delivery well.

Weaknesses: Patton likes to drop down when he throws his curve, making it difficult to stay on top of the pitch and alerting hitters that it's coming. He had minor shoulder fatigue in each of the last two seasons, resulting in diminished mechanics and command that led to his early slump in 2006. For someone who can command the outside corner, he pounds the inner half a little too much.

The Future: Once he adds a little strength and consistency, Patton will be ready for the big leagues and possibly could grow into a No. 2 starter. He'll probably open 2007 in Triple-A.
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Salem (Hi A) 7 7 2.93 19 19 1 0 101 92 4 37 102 .240
Corpus Christi (AA) 2 5 4.37 8 8 0 0 45 48 6 13 37 .271
3.  Matt Albers, rhp   Born: Jan. 20, 1983B-T: L-RHt: 6-0Wt: 215
 Drafted: San Jacinto (Texas) JC, D/F 2001 (23rd round)Signed by: Rusty Pendergrass
Matt AlbersBackground: A local product who played at a suburban Houston high school and nearby San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, Albers has had one of the system's best arms since signing as a draft-and-follow in 2002. But he took his career for granted before last season. He showed more dedication in 2006, when he was the Texas League pitcher of the year, led the circuit in ERA and made his big league debut.

Strengths: Albers' 91-94 mph two-seam fastball runs in on righthanders and away from lefties, and it chews up bats. He also can hit 97 mph with a four-seamer when needed. He uses a hard breaking ball with slider velocity and curveball break, and it's a solid-average pitch. He does a good job of repeating his windmill delivery, so his command should continue to improve.

Weaknesses: Albers' changeup is making progress but he needs to trust it more. He sometimes rushes his mechanics and gets under his pitches, losing life and leaving them up in the zone. He had problems with alcohol earlier in his career but has put that behind him.

The Future: Ticketed for Triple-A at the start of the season, Albers primarily will work on his changeup and his consistency in 2007. He has a ceiling as a good No. 3 starter and could help solidify the back of Houston's rotation later in the year.
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Corpus Christi (AA) 10 2 2.17 19 19 0 0 116 96 4 47 95 .223
Houston 0 2 6.00 4 2 0 0 15 17 1 7 11 .298
Round Rock (AAA) 2 1 3.96 4 4 0 0 25 24 2 10 26 .253
4.  Jimmy Barthmaier, rhp   Born: Jan. 6, 1984B-T: R-RHt: 6-4Wt: 210
 Drafted: HS—Roswell, Ga., 2003 (13th round)Signed by: Ellis Dungan
Jimmy BarthmaierBackground: A highly recruited quarterback in high school, Barthmaier signed for a 13th-round record $750,000 in 2003. He went just 4-7, 5.24 in the first three months last year, the first time he ever struggled in pro ball, before righting the ship and finishing on a 7-1, 1.82 tear. He had less polish and more ceiling than any starter in a talented Salem rotation, leading the high Class A Carolina League in both strikeouts and walks.

Strengths: Barthmaier has life on his fastballs, pitching at 91-93 mph with his two-seamer and reaching 96 with his four-seamer. His heat sets up a curveball that managers rated the best in the Carolina League. Under the guidance of Salem pitching coach Stan Boroski, Barthmaier made progress with his changeup and his control in the second half of 2006. Strong and athletic, he has missed just one start in four years of pro ball—and that was because of an ankle injury.

Weaknesses: He battles inconsistency with all his pitches and his command. Barthmaier overthrows his fastball and loses movement, he hangs some curveballs and he still fights the feel for his changeup. His arm action is long and there's effort to his delivery, which makes it harder to throw strikes. Showing more maturity and improving his preparation would be a big help.

The Future: Barthmaier could make a dynamic closer, and moving to the bullpen would allow him to focus on his fastball and curve while not worrying about pacing himself. For now, he'll remain a starter and advance to Double-A.
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Salem (Hi A) 11 8 3.62 27 27 0 0 147 137 6 67 134 .252
5.  Juan Gutierrez, rhp   Born: July 14, 1983B-T: R-RHt: 6-3Wt: 200
 Signed: Venezuela, 2000Signed by: Andres Reiner/Pablo Torrealba/Rafael Lara
Juan GutierrezBackground: Because Gutierrez repeated both the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer and Appalachian leagues, the Astros had to protect him on their 40-man roster before he got to full-season ball. They haven't regretted the decision. He missed six weeks last year with a tender elbow, but returned and did not allow a run in his last four regular-season starts. He won both his playoff outings and was Corpus Christi's Game One starter.

Strengths: Gutierrez has lit up radar guns from years and attacks hitters with a 92-95 sinker. Though he was reluctant to use his secondary pitches until he needed them against more advanced hitters, this curveball and changeup are solid. One scout liked his changeup more than his fastball, which is saying something.

Weaknesses: If Gutierrez had his way, he'd still try to blow the ball by most hitters, so he needs to be encouraged to keep mixing pitches and changing speeds. His command is improving but still requires further work. He hasn't had arm problems in the past, but Houston will watch him closely after his elbow issues cropped up.

The Future: All three of his pitches show at least flashes of being out pitches, giving Gutierrez the highest ceiling among the system's pitchers. Destined for Triple-A at the start of 2007, he has the profile to help Houston as a starter or reliever in the second half.
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Corpus Christi (AA) 8 4 3.04 20 20 0 0 104 94 10 34 106 .237
6.  J.R. Towles, c   Born: Feb. 11, 1984B-T: R-RHt: 6-2Wt: 195
 Drafted: North Central Texas JC, 2004 (20th round)Signed by: Pat Murphy
J.R. TowlesBackground: Towles' five-tool ability at catcher excites the Astros, but they wish they could see more of it. After finger surgery in 2004, they brought him back slowly the following year, and he was bothered by tendinitis in his right knee during the second half of 2006. He has played in just 165 games in 2 1/2 pro seasons.

Strengths: Towles handles the bat well and has good pitch recognition. He has added 20 pounds of muscle and developed pull power since turning pro. More athletic than most catchers, he runs well and can steal a base when the opportunity presents itself. Managers rated him the best defensive catcher in the low Class A South Atlantic League last year, when he showed consistent 1.95-second pop times and solid receiving skills. He also calls a good game.

Weaknesses: None of his injuries has been serious or chronic, but Towles has lost valuable development time. He'll turn 23 before he advances past low Class A. He struggles against quality breaking balls, but his tools are fine and he just needs experience to polish his overall game.

The Future: Add it all up, and Towles could be Jason Kendall with more power and better receiving skills. Houston would love to see him stay healthy enough to catch 110-120 games this year in high Class A.
2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Lexington (Lo A) .317 .382 .525 284 39 90 19 2 12 55 21 46 13
7.  Paul Estrada, rhp   Born: Sept. 10, 1982B-T: R-RHt: 6-1Wt: 220
 Signed: Venezuela, 1999Signed by: Andres Reiner
Paul EstradaBackground: Like Juan Gutierrez, Estrada spent four years in Rookie ball, and he didn't get to low Class A until his sixth pro season. The Astros decided to skip him a level to Double-A in 2006, and Estrada responded by nearly leading the Texas League in strikeouts while working out of the bullpen. He led minor league relievers by averaging 13.6 whiffs per nine innings.

Strengths: Estrada has one of the minors' best curveballs, as his looks like a power knuckler before breaking straight down. He also can get strikeouts with his 83-86 mph splitter, and he achieves a lot of sink and armside run with his 92-94 mph fastball. With so much to worry about, hitters take a lot of ugly swings against him.

Weaknesses: A lot of Estrada's strikeouts come on curveballs out of the zone and splitters in the dirt, and that approach might not work as well against more discerning hitters in the majors. He falls in love with his secondary pitches, and Houston has to keep leaning on him to throw his fastball. His stuff isn't as sharp when he pitches on consecutive days.

The Future: Texas League observers were convinced Estrada could have helped the Astros as a set-up man at the end of last season. They'll be more conservative and start him in Triple-A this year, though he should be one of their first in-season callups.
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Corpus Christi (AA) 8 5 3.05 56 0 0 15 89 61 10 37 134 .191
8.  Felipe Paulino, rhp   Born: Oct. 5, 1983B-T: R-RHt: 6-2Wt: 180
 Signed: Venezuela, 2001Signed by: Andres Reiner/Omar Lopez
Felipe PaulinoBackground: Paulino announced his arrival in the United States with his first pitch—a 96 mph fastball at Rookie-level Martinsville in 2003. He has the best pure arm strength among the Astros' starting pitching prospects. They've clocked him as high as 100 mph, while other clubs have seen him hit 102.

Strengths: Paulino usually works at 93-96 mph with his heavy fastball and drives it down in the strike zone with a straight-over-the-top delivery. He changed his curveball grip two years ago and now has a hard 80-85 mph downer that's a plus-plus pitch when it's really on.

Weaknesses: Still raw after five years as a pro, Paulino doesn't command much beyond his fastball. His shoulder flies open and he falls toward first base in his delivery, making it difficult to stay on top of his curveball and to locate his work-in-progress changeup. He started working on a slider last August. He's a shaky fielder who led high Class A Carolina League pitchers with seven errors in just 21 chances last year.

The Future: Though Houston will continue to groom Paulino as a starter in Double-A this season, it's easy to envision him becoming a late-inning reliever. In that role, he could rely more on his fastball and not have to worry about his changeup.
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Salem (Hi A) 9 7 4.35 27 26 0 0 126 119 13 59 91 .250
9.  Max Sapp, c   Born: Feb. 21, 1988B-T: L-RHt: 6-2Wt: 220
 Drafted: HS—Orlando, 2006 (1st round)Signed by: John Bunnell
Max SappBackground: The Astros planned on taking a college pitcher with the No. 23 choice in the 2006 draft, but when all the arms they liked went off the board, they took Sapp. Signed for $1.4 million, he went to short-season Tri-City because 2005 second-rounder Ralph Henriquez needed to repeat Rookie ball. Sapp held his own as the youngest regular in the New-York Penn League before battling elbow tendinitis late in the summer.

Strengths: Sapp went in the first round because of his bat. He has a strong frame and plus power. Reducing a high leg kick that he used as a trigger improved his timing and gives him a better chance to hit for average. He has a good approach for a young player, including a willingness to draw walks. His arm strength is his best defensive tool, and he led NY-P catchers by throwing out 42 percent of basestealers.

Weaknesses: Some clubs worried that Sapp wouldn't be able to remain behind the plate, but he sold the Astros by promising to commit to it. Thick and barrel-chested, he has lost weight and started doing Pilates to improve his agility. His receiving still needs work, especially on pitches out of the zone. He's a below-average runner.

The Future: Sapp has enough bat to get the job done at first base, but Houston is confident he'll stay at catcher. He'll move up to low Class A Lexington this year at age 19.
2006 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Tri-City (SS) .229 .317 .301 166 20 38 9 0 1 20 22 37 0
10.  Chad Reineke, rhp   Born: April 9, 1982B-T: R-RHt: 6-6Wt: 210
 Signed: Miami (Ohio), 2004 (13th round)Signed by: Nick Ventuno
Chad ReinekeBackground: The Astros have a knack for finding college seniors, with Eric Bruntlett, Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane and Chad Qualls all contributing to their 2006 club. Next in line is Reineke, who went in the 13th round after going 13-9, 4.63 in four years at Miami (Ohio). He has alternated between starting and relieving in pro ball, pitching better in the latter role once he reached Double-A last year.

Strengths: Reineke uses his 6-foot-6 frame to deliver his pitches on a steep plane, and yet his 93-95 mph fastball seems to climb on hitters. His hard slider has late sweep and is a strikeout pitch at its best. His delivery was much improved in 2006, with less effort and better balance. He's comfortable pitching out of the bullpen with the game on the line.

Weaknesses: Reineke is more effective in relief because he doesn't have to worry about his changeup. It shows good dive at times, but it's inconsistent and he's reluctant to throw it. His fastball has velocity but only sporadic life, so he'll need to keep it down against big leaguers.

The Future: If Houston wants to continue trying Reineke as a starter, he'll return to Double-A. If he's going to stay in the bullpen, he could move up to Triple-A. Either way, he could make his major league debut late in 2007.
2006 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Salem (Hi A) 6 5 2.98 17 17 1 0 100 82 5 29 87 .220
Corpus Christi (AA) 1 3 3.05 15 4 0 0 44 33 3 26 45 .209

Photo Credits: Pence: Andrew Wooley
Patton, Albers, Barthmaier, Gutierrez, Paulino: Steve Moore
Towles: Rich Abel
Estrada, Sapp: Bill Mitchell
Reineke: Carl Kline