Houston Astros: Top 10 Prospects With Scouting Reports

Houston Astros: Scouting Reports

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, 2009.

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The Rangers went from 28th entering 2007 to fourth in 2008 to first in 2009, getting a boost from the prospects they received by trading Mark Teixeira, not to mention Eric Gagne and Kenny Lofton. The Athletics spent three years near the bottom of the rankings before zooming from No. 27 in 2008 to No. 3 in 2009, thanks largely to the talent they received in deals for Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Dan Haren and Nick Swisher.

At the July 31 trading deadline, the Astros had a .500 record and ranked sixth in the National League wild-card race. Despite having the oldest roster in baseball and a run differential that suggested the team was due for regression, Houston stood pat rather than seizing an opportunity to trade big leaguers and rebuild a farm system that ranked dead last entering 2009.

The Astros tanked afterward, finishing 74-88 to drop to 17 games under .500 since they played in the 2005 World Series. Despite the eighth-highest Opening Day payroll ($103 million), Houston ranked 27th in baseball in scoring and 23rd in runs allowed.

Focusing on the big league club and neglecting their farm system, the Astros haven't acquired a significant prospect via trade in years. Instead, their strategy has been to sign veteran free agents (costing them draft picks as compensation) and to deal prospects for veterans. That philosophy proved painful last season when Ben Zobrist emerged as one of the game's better players, three years after Houston sent him to the Rays in a deal for Aubrey Huff. Zobrist wasn't highly regarded at the time but has proven a costly loss.

After years of poor drafts that culminated with fifth-rounder Collin DeLome being their highest signed pick in 2007, the Astros restructured their scouting department. Bobby Heck's first draft as scouting director in 2008 has yielded two promising prospects, catcher Jason Castro and righthander Jordan Lyles. Neither was a consensus choice at their draft slots, but Houston has seen rewards from going against the industry grain.

Castro has the potential to be the franchise's most successful first-round choice since Brad Lidge in 1998. Houston's only other first-rounder to reach the big leagues since then was Chris Burke, the 10th overall pick in 2001, and he never developed as hoped.

Houston's 2009 first-rounder, shortstop Jiovanni Mier, also has exceeded expectations thus far. After Castro, Mier and Lyles, the talent and depth in the system drops off precipitously. Houston's domestic affiliates posted the worst combined winning percentage (.420) in baseball last season, and no U.S. affiliate has produced so much as a winning record since 2007. The farm system isn't likely to provide much help in 2010 with the big league club needing to fill holes throughout its lineup and rotation.

Where do the Astros go from here? Heck was a regional crosschecker for the Brewers when they built through the draft and jumped from No. 30 to No. 1 in BA's talent rankings from 2001 to 2004. Houston will have a prime opportunity to add to its system with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft, its highest selection since taking Phil Nevin No. 1 overall in 1992.

Dealing their big leaguers for youngsters could accelerate an Astros turnaround as well. But under owner Drayton McLane, the team has shied away from committing to rebuilding.

1.  Jason Castro, c   Born: June 18, 1987B-T: L-RHt: 6-3Wt: 210
 Drafted: Stanford (1st round), 2008Signed by: Joe Graham/Bobby Heck
Jason CastroBackground: Castro was the first building block in the Astros' effort to rebuild their farm system after hiring Bobby Heck as scouting director. Mostly a reserve at first base and DH his first two years at Stanford, Castro finished second in the Cape Cod League batting race (.341) in 2007, often playing the outfield in deference to teammate Buster Posey but also displaying his athleticism. He then led Stanford to the College World Series in 2008 as the Cardinal's starting catcher, leading the Pacific-10 Conference with 105 hits. Houston drafted him 10th overall that June and signed him for $2.07 million, the second-largest bonus in franchise history. While some clubs thought Castro was a bit of a reach at No. 10, the Astros took him with the expectation that he'd move quickly through the system and solidify a premium position. So far, so good for Castro, who has established himself as one of the top catching prospects in the game while batting .300/.380/.446 in his first full pro season. After opening 2009 at high Class A Lancaster, he advanced to Double-A Corpus Christi in June, then left the Hooks in August to help Team USA win a gold medal at the World Cup. He also participated in the Futures Game in July, when he homered on a breaking ball from Blue Jays lefty Luis Perez.

Strengths: Castro has a sound approach at the plate, showing good feel for the strike zone with a knack for staying inside the ball. He makes consistent contact and gets on base by working the count and putting the ball in play to all fields. While he's not a power hitter, he has a solid swing and is able to generate loft. He doesn't show a discernible platoon split, hitting well against both lefties and righties. Castro is solid behind the plate in every regard. He has a solid-average arm and makes accurate throws, recording 2.0-second pop times thanks to his athleticism, quick release and footwork. He threw out 45 percent of basestealers last season. He has soft hands and receives the ball well.

Weaknesses: Castro isn't likely to become a big power threat, projecting to have fringe-average to average power and hit 10-15 homers a season. He runs better than most catchers, but he still has below-average speed. He appeared worn down in the Arizona Fall League after his first full pro season. Astros officials noted that he lost about 15 pounds since the beginning of the year, so he'll need to learn to stay stronger throughout the course of a season while catching in the Texas heat.

The Future: While Castro doesn't have one overwhelming tool, he's solid in nearly every phase of the game. He profiles as an average to a tick above-average starting catcher in the big leagues, along the lines of an A.J. Pierzynski, who is a similarly built, lefthanded hitting catcher. Castro's future home run power the biggest variable in his projection. He figures to start 2010 at Triple-A Round Rock but has a chance to reach Houston at some point during the season. He should establish himself as the Astros' catcher by 2011, shoring up a position where the club has seen recent first-round picks (Max Sapp) and No. 1 prospects (J.R. Towles) fizzle.
2009 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Lancaster (Hi A) .309 .399 .517 207 27 64 20 1 7 44 30 41 1
Corpus Christi (AA) .293 .362 .385 239 38 70 11 1 3 29 25 35 2
2.  Jiovanni Mier, ss   Born: Aug. 26, 1990B-T: R-RHt: 6-2Wt: 175
 Drafted: HS—Bonita, Calif. 2009 (1st round)Signed by: Doug Deutsch
Jiovanni MierBackground: Mier was the first prep shortstop drafted in 2009, going 21st overall and signing for $1,358,000. He signed quickly and impressed pro scouts with a strong showing in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, where he ranked as the top position prospect.

Strengths: Mier has an advanced feel for the game at the plate and in the field. He has a good eye, works deep counts and shows good pitch recognition. He has a smooth, loose, line-drive stroke with quick hands and solid bat speed. He projects to stay at shortstop with a plus arm, great actions, good hands and above-average range to both sides. He's an average runner, and he'll show faster times from home to first because he gets out of the box quickly.

Weaknesses: Mier has below-average power, though some think he could eventually hit as many as 15 homers a season because he shows some ability to lift the ball. Shortening his stride has helped his timing at the plate, though on occasion he'll still lunge and get out on his front leg. He needs to improve his basestealing and tone down his aggressiveness on the basepaths. Like many young shortstops, he has a tendency to rush his actions in the field.

The Future: Though Mier has yet to play full-season ball, he has a higher ceiling than Jason Castro and could be a perennial all-star who provides value in both run creation and prevention. He should start 2010 at low Class A Lexington.
2009 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Greenville (R) .276 .380 .484 192 32 53 7 6 7 32 30 45 10
3.  Jordan Lyles, rhp   Born: Oct. 19, 1990B-T: R-RHt: 6-4Wt: 185
 Drafted: HS—Hartsville, S.C., 2009 (1st round supplemental)Signed by: J.D. Alleva/Clarence Johns
Jordan LylesBackground: Few teams saw Lyles, South Carolina's top prep talent in 2008, as an early-round pick. He excelled in a predraft workout for the Astros, who drafted him 38th overall and signed him for $930,000. He justified Houston's faith by finishing second in the South Atlantic League with 167 strikeouts last season.

Strengths: Lyles' fastball sits at 89-91 mph, touches 93-94 and has late life in the zone. He has a lot of confidence in his changeup, which has fade and heavy sink at its best and could be a plus offering down the road. He adds and subtracts from his curveball, throwing it in the mid-70s for an early-count strike and burying it at 77-80 mph when he gets ahead. He has a clean arm action and repeats his athletic, easy delivery. He hides the ball well behind his back shoulder, adding deception. He has advanced control for his age and keeps hitters off balance by working both sides of the plate.

Weaknesses: The development of Lyles' breaking balls will determine his ceiling. He didn't have a good one in high school, and his curve is still inconsistent, getting hammered when he leaves it up in the zone. He also added a slider late in the season.

The Future: The Astros might move Lyles past Lancaster's launching pad and send him to Double-A. He has the repertoire and control to fit in the middle of a big league rotation, and each of his pitches has enough projection for him to become a potential frontline starter.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lexington (Lo A) 7 11 3.24 26 26 0 0 145 134 5 38 167 .247
4.  Sammy Gervacio, rhp   Born: Jan. 10, 1985B-T: R-RHt: 6-0Wt: 175
 Signed: Dominican Republic, 2002Signed by: Julio Linares
Sammy GervacioBackground: Used exclusively as a reliever since signing in 2002, Gervacio has struck out more than a batter per inning at each of his stops in pro ball. He was effective after joining the Astros last August, recording six holds and allowing runs in just four of his 29 outings.

Strengths: Gervacio's best pitch is his slider, a plus pitch in the mid-80s. He trusts his slider and uses it more than his fastball, an 89-93 mph offering that touches 95. Hitters have a difficult time picking up the ball out of his crossfire delivery from a low three-quarters arm slot, making him tough on righthanders. He does a good job of inducing groundballs and has allowed just 30 homers in 448 pro innings.

Weaknesses: His changeup can be a solid pitch at times, but Gervacio uses it sparingly, leaving him more vulnerable against lefthanders. He throws across his body, but durability isn't as much of a concern with him working out of the bullpen.

The Future: Gervacio was prepping for the 2010 season with a stint in the Dominican Winter League. Barring a disastrous spring, Gervacio has claimed a middle-relief role in Houston's bullpen. If free-agent Jose Valverde doesn't re-sign with the Astros, Gervacio could get an opportunity to close games, though he'll have to prove he can get lefties out with the game on the line.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Round Rock (AAA) 2 2 4.82 39 0 0 0 52 43 5 21 58 .223
Houston 1 1 2.14 29 0 0 0 21 16 1 8 25 .219
5.  Chia-Jen Lo, rhp   Born: April 7, 1986B-T: R-RHt: 5-11Wt: 181
 Signed: Taiwan, 2008Signed by: Glen Barker
Chia-Jen LoBackground: The Astros are trying to raise their profile in Asia, and Lo was the first major acquisition of Pacific Rim scouting director Glen Barker. Signed out of Taiwan for $250,000 in November 2008, Lo pitched for his nation in the Beijing Olympics and was on its World Baseball Classic roster but didn't see any game action. He survived Lancaster and reached Double-A in his first pro season.

Strengths: The Astros initially talked about using Lo as a starter but wound up deploying him as a reliever in part because his fastball sits at 93-96 mph when he works out of the bullpen. Both his short curveball and his changeup can be average pitches. Throwing from a high three-quarters slot, he creates deception that causes hitters to see the ball late.

Weaknesses: Lo has extreme confidence in his fastball, to the point where he sometimes doesn't use his secondary pitches enough. His control needs improvement after he walked 4.6 batters per nine innings in his pro debut. Shoulder tendinitis caused him to miss the last two weeks of May, but he was healthy afterward.

The Future: Houston thinks Lo could be ready to help its bullpen at some point in 2010, though he'll probably begin the season in Triple-A. If he refines and trusts a second pitch, he could be the Astros' closer of the future.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lancaster (Hi A) 1 0 1.78 12 0 0 1 25 10 1 13 36 .120
Corpus Christi (AA) 0 2 2.31 30 0 0 2 39 30 1 20 39 .213
6.  Ross Seaton, rhp   Born: Sept. 18, 1989B-T: L-RHt: 6-4Wt: 213
 Drafted: HS—Houston, 2008 (3rd round supplemental)Signed by: Rusty Pendergrass/Mike Burns
Ross SeatonBackground: Seaton's velocity and draft stock skyrocketed during his senior high school season in 2008. Teams backed off him because he was a valedictorian strongly committed to Tulane, but the Astros signed the local product for $700,000 as a supplemental third-round pick. He had a solid 2009 season as a teenager in low Class A, but his stuff wasn't as good as it was in high school.

Strengths: At Lexington, Seaton stood out more with his size and control than his stuff. His fastball was down about 3 mph from high school, sitting at 87-91 mph and touching 93. Houston hopes he'll recover velocity after getting acclimated to the long pro season. He also throws an 81-83 mph slider that flashes average tilt, though it's not a true out pitch.

Weaknesses: Seaton's delivery lacks fluidity and can become mechanical, creating issues with his rhythm and timing. He doesn't fully incorporate his lower half, which he worked on in instructional league. He didn't throw a curveball in high school, but the Astros made him use one in the first half of last season and it was slurvy. His changeup also needs work.

The Future: Seaton wasn't as good as advertised in his first full pro season, which isn't unusual for a high schooler pitching every fifth day for the first time. Houston believes smoothing out his mechanics will help him in 2010, when he'll open the season in high Class A.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lexington (Lo A) 8 10 3.29 24 24 1 0 137 137 11 39 88 .261
7.  Tanner Bushue, rhp   Born: June 20, 1991B-T: R-RHt: 6-4Wt: 180
 Drafted: HS—Farina, Ill., 2009 (2nd round)Signed by: Troy Hoerner
Tanner BushueBackground: After missing most of his high school junior season with a sprained right knee, Bushue blossomed into Illinois' top prep prospect in 2009. A strong predraft workout sold the Astros, who took him in the second round and signed him for $530,000.

Strengths: Bushue shows a good feel for pitching and the ability to work both sides of the plate. His fastball currently sits at 88-90 mph, but he's so athletic—he was a high school basketball standout—and generates velocity with such little effort that it's easy to project his heater as a future plus pitch. He already touches 94 mph on occasion, and his athleticism also should allow him to repeat his delivery and throw strikes. He also shows the ability to spin a breaking ball, with the makings of a power curveball.

Weaknesses: Bushue needs to stay healthy so he can soak up more experience. He hasn't had any arm problems, but he had the knee injury in 2008 and had his pro debut ended by stress fractures in his lower back in July. That also limited him in instructional league. He shows aptitude for a changeup, but it's still a work in progress. He also throws a slider, though it's not as promising as his curve.

The Future: The Astros expect Bushue to be healthy and able to handle a full season of starts in low Class A in 2010. He's just beginning to scratch the surface of his ability and has the potential to develop the best stuff among Houston's starting pitching prospects.
2009 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
GCL Astros (R) 1 0 2.42 5 5 0 0 22 18 2 5 19 .220
8.  Jay Austin, of   Born: Aug. 10, 1990B-T: L-LHt: 5-11Wt: 170
 Drafted: HS—Atlanta, 2008 (2nd round)Signed by: Lincoln Martin/Clarence Johns
Jay AustinBackground: Some Astros officials though Austin might begin 2009 in extended spring training after he struggled mightily in his pro debut. Instead, he broke camp with Lexington and was the youngest everyday player in the South Atlantic League. After he batted .245/.296/.308 in the first half, he hit .291/.346/.418 after the all-star break.

Strengths: Austin is the best athlete in the system. He has well-above-average pure speed, which gives him the potential to be a quality basestealer and center fielder. At the plate, he has a compact stroke and good bat speed.

Weaknesses: Austin's bat is a major question mark, as he has issues with pitch recognition and doesn't adjust against breaking balls. His power is well-below-average, and he lacks the strength and loft in his swing to project that he'll add much more. His speed doesn't play as well in game situations because he doesn't get out of the box quickly or have much feel for stealing bases or getting good jump and routes in the outfield. He has a fringe-average arm.

The Future: Austin will begin 2010 in high Class A, where he'll try to build on his second-half success. He has enticing tools, but he has a lot of refining to do if he's going to be more than an extra outfielder in the major leagues.
2009 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Lexington (Lo A) .267 .320 .360 397 49 106 22 6 1 33 31 78 23
9.  Jon Gaston, of   Born: Oct. 13, 1986B-T: L-RHt: 6-0Wt: 210
 Drafted: Arizona, 2008 (7th round)Signed by: Mark Ross
Jon GastonBackground: One year after hitting .193 with two homers in his first taste of pro ball, Gaston took advantage of the hitter-friendly winds at Lancaster's Clear Channel Stadium. He hit .308/.397/.692 at home en route to leading the minors in runs (119), homers (35), extra-base hits (81) and total bases (310). He continued to show power in the Arizona Fall League after the season.

Strengths: The Astros helped Gaston tap into his power by getting his hands deeper and into a better position to drive the ball. When teams pitch around him, he's willing to take a walk. Though his bat will have to carry him, he has more athleticism than his stocky build might indicate, with fringe-average speed and a solid arm.

Weaknesses: Gaston uses a big load mechanism, angling his bat to get into a launch position and tilting his back side to turn and drive the ball. It's an all-or-nothing approach, which is why he struck out 164 times, and more advanced pitchers in less favorable hitting environments could exploit the holes in his swing. He'll have to work to become an adequate defender on an outfield corner, and if he loses a step he might be destined for first base.

The Future: In Double-A, Gaston will get the chance to prove his 2009 numbers weren't entirely a product of Lancaster. If he does, he'll be on the fast track to Houston.
2009 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Lancaster (Hi A) .278 .367 .598 518 119 144 31 15 35 100 71 164 14
10.  T.J. Steele, of   Born: Sept. 21, 1986B-T: R-RHt: 6-3Wt: 185
 Signed: Arizona, 2008 (4th round)Signed by: Mark Ross
T.J. SteeleBackground: He outperformed former college teammate Jon Gaston at Arizona and in 2009 at Lancaster, but Steele couldn't stay in the JetHawks' lineup. He injured his hamstring in spring training and missed the first two weeks of the season, then appeared in just 50 games because he kept tweaking the muscle.

Strengths: Steele is one of the toolsiest players in the system. He's an excellent defensive center fielder with plus speed and arm strength. He has above-average bat speed and average raw power, and there's also projection remaining in his athletic frame. He shows ability to put backspin on a ball and has cut down on his propensity to swing and miss since college.

Weaknesses: Despite Steele's tools and college pedigree, he remains raw and his offensive game is still a question mark. He lacks pitch recognition and is too impatient at the plate to get on base at a high clip. He has drawn just 15 walks in 90 pro games. He hasn't shown much home run power yet, partly because he doesn't get himself into hitter's counts.

The Future: Steele could become an everyday center fielder if he becomes more selective at the plate. That's his top priority when he advances to Double-A in 2010.
2009 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Lancaster (Hi A) .345 .385 .562 194 41 67 11 8 5 40 9 40 8

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Photo Credits: Larry Goren (Castro)
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