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Houston Astros Top 10 Prospects
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Moderator: Executive Editor Jim Callis will begin taking questions on the Astros system at 2 p.m. ET

 Q:  Brian from Amarillo asks:
Who was number 11?
 A: 

Jim Callis: I constantly change my list and haven't put pen to paper (well, fingers to keyboard) on the 11-30 yet, but right now it's probably SS Tommy Whiteman. Other candidates are RHPs Mitch Talbot, Jared Gothreaux and Ezequiel Astacio (part of the Billy Wagner trade).

 Q:  Mark L. Peel from NorthSideBaseball.com asks:
You ranked rather a few right-handers in Houston's Top 10; what have the Astros got in the way of left-handed pitching these days?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Mark with a non-Cubs question! The Astros don't have many lefties of note outside of relievers Mike Gallo and Jesse Carlson. Mark McLemore and Josh Muecke are worth watching but at best will make the bottom of the Top 30.

 Q:  Brian from Amarillo asks:
Were you as suprised as I was to see DJ Houlton left off the 40-man roster? Do you think he'll be taken in the Rule V draft?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Not surprised, in that he's not a guy with impressive stuff. But he competes and throws strikes. I think the Astros will keep him, he doesn't fit the typical profile of a Rule 5er. Teams usually look for higher ceilings.

 Q:  Jeff from Los Altos, CA asks:
John Buck had a setback last season after being talked about as one of the top catching prospects in the game. Will John rebound and become a very solid catcher in the bigs, or did we see the real Mr. Buck before he was injured for the year?
 A: 

Jim Callis: I'm not quite as high on Buck as I used to be, but in his defense, New Orleans is as tough a hitter's park as there is in the PCL, and Buck probably should have been in Double-A. I think he'll be a guy who hits .250-.270 with 15-20 homers in the big, with an average CS% and very good leadership skills. A useful regular, if not a star.

 Q:  Jared Klewein from Marietta, GA asks:
What's the status on RHP Anthony Pluta and his arm after Tommy John surgery?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Pluta may have had the best raw arm in the system before he got hurt. He should return in the second half of 2004, no setbacks in his rehab at this point.

 Q:  Jason from Orlando, FL asks:
What happpened with Tommy Whiteman this last season and can we expect a turn-around in 2004 or does the search for our next shorstop of the future continue?
 A: 

Jim Callis: He started fast and faded more each month. He needs to get stronger and work harder, realizing that it's just not going to happen for him without more effort. He can be beaten inside by good fastballs and chases breaking balls. Whiteman has solid tools but really took several steps backward in 2003.

 Q:  Jeff from Belvidere IL, asks:
I am a Huge Cubs Fan and am curious to see how you would currenlty rate the Astros pitching staff in the NL Central. If the Astros are able to sign Andy Petite how would you rate them against the Chicago Cubs. Thanks for the reply and Happy Holidays!!
 A: 

Jim Callis: No one can match the Cubs pitching. Signing Pettitte would help the Astros, but he's more solid than studly. The Cubs should contend for the next few years in the NL Central, because no division rival can match their combination of financial resourcesmajor league nucleusminor league depth.

 Q:  George Estervan from Austin asks:
Charlton Jimerson struggled for much of the year at Salem but then caught fire in August and also did well in instructional league. You ranked him #27 last year. Where did you put him this season?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Jimerson will fall in the 16-20 range. Great story, great guy, impossible not to root for him. Also great tools, and he could be Eric Davis if he puts it all together. But he has a long way to go with the bat. Kudos to Chewdini.

 Q:  Jared Klewein from Marietta, GA asks:
Who would win the award for, "Best Astros Prospect, Age 19 and Under"?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Jimmy Barthmaier, though he turns 20 in January. Very athletic pitcher who could take off after giving up football. Could have played QB in the Southeastern Conference had he wanted.

 Q:  Michael from Texas asks:
SS Wade Robinson was a real surprise at Tri-City. Any thoughts as to his future potential?
 A: 

Jim Callis: He had a reputation as a good defensive player, but his offensive performance was a shock. If he can keep hitting like that, or close to it, he'll play in the majors one day. If he does that again in 2004, he could pass Whiteman as the Astros' top SS prospect.

 Q:  Ryan Baker from Cleveland, OH asks:
Jim, Is it just me or does the Astros minor league talent look way down this year? Jason Lane at #2 and Jimy won't even play him, while Buck only drops to #3 despite an awful year. How bad would they be without getting Bucholz?
 A: 

Jim Callis: They are way down. Buchholz was a nice get, but he alone doesn't turn the system around. When we do our organization rankings in the spring, the Astros will rank in the bottom third.

 Q:  Jeff from Los Altos, CA asks:
When will Jason Lane finally be a starting outfielder, and what kind of production do you see him putting up when he does?
 A: 

Jim Callis: He was ready at the end of 2002. He's stuck in 2004 unless the Astros find a taker for Richard Hidalgo. Lane plays CF better than any of Houston's starters, and he has hit in his limited big league playing time. I think he'd easily hit .275 with 20 or more homers if he played regularly this year.

 Q:  adam smith from tempe, az asks:
Who do you consider to be the long-term solution at catcher for the Astros? Gimenez, Buck or someone that I'm not considering? I saw that they re-signed Ausmus to a 1 year deal to give these two another year to develop. Who should we expect in 2005 and beyond? Love your chats! Thanks.
 A: 

Jim Callis: I think it's Buck. He needs a full year in Triple-A, or at least most of the year. The Astros' plan is for Ausmus to mentor Buck whenever Buck is ready to take over.

 Q:  Mike Marinaro from Tampa, FL asks:
Hi Jim. Are the Astros high on Mitch Talbot? What kind of stuff and ceiling does he have? He pitched well last season at Martinsville. The Astros have had good success with young pitchers in the past 4-5 years.
 A: 

Jim Callis: Very high, and he could have made the Top 10. He has an 89-95 mph fastball, a good curveball and changeup for his age. He was just 19 in 2003 and is very advanced for his age.

 Q:  Mike from Orrville, OH asks:
When reading Matt Albers' scouting report, I noticed something very eerie. Albers is a draft and follow, drafted in the 23rd round. He is 6 foot, which is considered short for a pitcher. Albers has a sharp breaking ball and a good changeup. He is coming out of short-season ball. He is also ranked as the 9th best Astros prospect. Isn't this the same spot Roy Oswalt was in back in 1999 (maybe it was 1998 when Roy was coming out of short season ball) with roughly the same scouting report? Is Albers ceiling as high as Oswalt? They seem similar.
 A: 

Jim Callis: Interesting parallel, but I don't think his ceiling is quite as high as Oswalt's. His breaking ball isn't in the same class, for one. But the Astros do like Albers.

 Q:  Cory from Toronto, Ontario asks:
Is Chris Burke the Astros future SS-2B, or a utility guy? Thanks.
 A: 

Jim Callis: He's their second baseman of the future. Burke probably won't be a star, but he can be a solid average all-around second baseman.

 Q:  Mike from Orrville, OH asks:
What are the thoughts on Derrick Grigsby, last year's first round pick? Is he falling out of favor with the organization already, there is no mention of him at all?
 A: 

Jim Callis: His stuff was way down in 2003. Grigsby has had some tough family situations to deal with, and that may be one reason. The Astros aren't giving up on him, but he really needs to bounce back this year. For most of this year, he showed just an average fastball and a slurvy curveball.

 Q:  Thom from Ann Arbor asks:
What ever happened to Rob Stiehl? Would buchholz have beem in the phillies top 5? Is Carlos Hernandez going to be healthy this year, and does he still fit into the astros pitching plans?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Stiehl blew out his shoulder shortly after signing, had a setback after rotator-cuff surgery and is trying to make a long, slow climb back. Buchholz was No. 3 on the Phillies list, behind Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd, before the trade. The Astros would love to see Hernandez come back, but shoulder injuries are more worrisome than elbow injuries. He was doing well in Venezuelan winter ball the last time I checked.

 Q:  Jared Klewein from Marietta, GA asks:
I've heard nothing on RHP Rory Shortell, and I'm guessing that's due to injuries. Does he still hold any promise?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Shortell threw 92-93 and had some promising breaking stuff when the Astros took him in the third round in 2002. He signed late and slightly tore his ACL in his right knee this year, so he has pitched just one inning as a pro.

 Q:  Justin A from Houston asks:
Will not signing Drew Stubbs come back to haunt the Astros considering they have few decent outfield prospects?
 A: 

Jim Callis: They really could have used an all-around athlete like Stubbs, who was compared to Dale Murphy by some scouts. He's now at the University of Texas. We'll know in a few years whether that was a huge gaffe, but not signing a third-rounder is rarely a good thing.

 Q:  David from Greenville asks:
Who will fill the outfield for the astros in 2004 if Hidalgo is traded and assuming Biggio and Berkman are still there
 A: 

Jim Callis: They'd have to come to their senses and turn to Jason Lane, wouldn't they?

 Q:  Gball from East Lansing asks:
Where do you see Duckworth fitting into the rotation?? Can he ever be more than a 4 or 5??
 A: 

Jim Callis: Probably not, but he can be a good No. 4 or 5, rather than just a guy who gets shelled.

 Q:  Cubman234 from Palatine, Il asks:
Will the Astros or the Yankees sign Andy Pettite?
 A: 

Jim Callis: I'll guess the Yankees, for two reasons. One, how often do they not get a free agent they really want? Two, the union is going to want Pettitte, one of the few marquee free agents, to take the highest offer, and New York will blow Houston out of the water.

 Q:  Robert from Houston asks:
Jim, what do you put this relative decline in the Astros system down to, a few years ago they were producing quality young players at will alomost, it seems Jason Lane and John Buck have been sitting on top of that prospect list for an age now w no one sorpassing them and it doesnt seem like they are markedly improving either - Is this a symptom of them not drafting well or the Latin talent pool drying up ? Thanks
 A: 

Jim Callis: Plain and simple, the Astros haven't signed and developed players as well recently as they did in the 1990s. As I mentioned in my Astros overview in the issue, during that decade they signed Bobby Abreu, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Richard Hidalgo, Melvin Mora and Johan Santana out of Latin America. Houston also spent first-round picks on Lance Berkman, Brad Lidge, Phil Nevin and Billy Wagner, and found Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane, Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding after the fifth round. Of course, that's also a high standard to maintain.

 Q:  Justin A from Houston asks:
Any lower level prospects that we've never heard of that intrigue you?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Felipe Paulino is 20 and very, very raw, but he has hit 99 mph. He has a sound delivery and could be something if he develops effective secondary pitches.

 Q:  chief from woodland hills, ca asks:
do the astros plan on starting or closing jason hirsch and when do you think he will reach the majors?
 A: 

Jim Callis: They project Hirsh as a starter. He's at least 2 12 years away at this point, and that's being optimistic. His fastball and slider could be 70 pitches on the 20-80 scouting scale, so he could be a closer if he can't refine a changeup.

 Q:  Jared Klewein from Marietta, GA asks:
What's the word on AAA infielder Jason Alfaro? The guy had pretty respectable numbers in a hitters park, yet no recognition. I'm guessing, "Utility Man"?
 A: 

Jim Callis: The Astros were happy to re-sign Alfaro as a six-year free agent. His arm is by far his best tool, and he's just OK at the plate. He does project as a utilityman.

 Q:  Josh from Irvine, CA asks:
Can Qualls be a top of the order starter?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Chad Qualls is more of a No. 3 starter at best, but he started to put it all together in the second half of this year. He stopped overthrowing and relied on the movement on his 87-94 mph sinker and his slider. My guess is that he becomes a good setup man in the majors.

 Q:  Brian from Amarillo asks:
What do you think about Beau Hearod, drafted out of Alabama? He got off to a slow start, but seems to have real potential.
 A: 

Jim Callis: Power is his ticket. He's OK, and I do have a fondness for the SEC (he's from Alabama), but he's going to have to hit a lot better than .228.317.401, like he did in his pro debut.

 Q:  Rob from Middletown, N.J. asks:
What are your thoughts on Joey Deleon.
 A: 

Jim Callis: DeLeon's pure stuff isn't as good as it was when the Astros took him in the 18th round in 2001, but he's a much better pitcher now. He has an 88-92 mph fastball and a slurvy breaking ball.

 Q:  Ken from Georgia asks:
Does Jimmy Barthmaier have the arm to be a #1 or #2 pitcher? I have seen him pitch and he has a heck of an arm
 A: 

Jim Callis: Yes, he has that kind of ceiling. He already throws 91-94 mph, hits 85 with his slider and has an athletic, projectable body. But to temper expecations a bit, he's light years from the majors right now and very few guys reach that ceiling.

 Q:  Josh from Illinois asks:
Do you think the Astros' system fall is just dumb luck, or do you think it's more mismanagement (for instance, letting players like Mike Nannini and Garret Gentry get away)?
 A: 

Jim Callis: I touched on my thoughts behind their decline, and I do think the Astros have a good front office that lacks the financial resources of many other teams. Do they really miss Mike Nannini and Garret Gentry? They're both available in the upcoming major league Rule 5 draft.

 Q:  Gball from East Lansing asks:
What's the rationale of protecting Colin Porter on the 40-man roster??
 A: 

Jim Callis: Good question. His breakout in Triple-A, his third year at that level, looked fluky to me. At best, he's their fifth outfielder next year. They might have lost him, because he plays a nice center field, but I don't see him hitting in the majors. I've got to get to some phone calls, so we'll do a few quick minutes of . . . the lightning round!

 Q:  Michael from Salt Lake City, UT asks:
Why did my Astros get rid of Rodrigo Rosario? He was suppose to have some potential.
 A: 

Jim Callis: His shoulder was injured far worse than the Astros initially thought and he may not pitch at all in 2004.

 Q:  James from Guthrie asks:
I love these chats! I keep reading about Fernando Nieve how high is his ceiling? Thanks.
 A: 

Jim Callis: Very high, has a 91-95 mph fastball, very improved curveball, tearing it up in winter ball.

 Q:  Francis from Puerto Rico asks:
What's the word on reliever Jessee Carlson? Do you see him in the Astros bullpen any time soon?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Terrific sharp slider, could move quickly as a lefty reliever who can also get righties out.

 Q:  Scott from Houston asks:
How long do the astros continue to let Biggio play as much as he desires? It is more than possible that Lane out hits Biggio last year, and even more so this year. Add in the fact that Biggio is a mediocre or worse cf, and the question becomes "when will Lane take over"? That is, unless the astros go outside the organization, something that doesn't sound likely.
 A: 

Jim Callis: Drayton McLane screwed up on several levels when he gave Biggio, who isn't close to the player he once was, a two-year extension through 2005. They'd be better off without him and with Lane in center field right now.

 Q:  julius from houston asks:
Do you see anybody taking Richard Hidalgo off our hands?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Nope, his $12 million for 2004 and his $15 million salary or $2 million buyout for 2005 is more than teams want to pay. Maybe they could deal him for Chan Ho Park, but that might be about it.

 Q:  Michael from Texas asks:
Scott Robinson hitting only .253 at Tri-City was something of a surprise, no? Anything to be worried about that you know of?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Still one of the best pure hitters in the system, just a case of a young guy adjusting to wood bats, should be fine.

 Q:  Bryan from Middletown, NJ asks:
I doubt that there is anyone on the Astros prospect list that took a bigger fall that Jimmy Barrett this year. He was ranked at #3 last year, and was frankly, dreadful this year. He's still relatively young, but just how big a hit to his prospect status did he take? Is he a lock to repeat high class A again, or do the soothsayers in Houston feel they need to move him up to AA?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Barrett completely lost his stuff, will fit in my 25-30 range, will return to high Class A.

 Q:  Gball from East Lansing asks:
Not really a prospect question, but do you see Tim Purpura as a Major League GM someday??
 A: 

Jim Callis: Very much so, has a very good reputation in the industry and a wealth of experience.

 Q:  Scott from Houston asks:
Why Buck over Gimenez? Gimenez, I thought, showed better defense, and has quite a bit of pop in his bat. A switch-hitter as well, kind of like a poor-mans Posada, but that can actually catch.
 A: 

Jim Callis: Buck has a better chance to hit, but Gimenez has some pop and a better arm. Buck has proven more at this point.

 Q:  bill from new jersey asks:
The Astros lack left-handed hitting and speed. Will CF Josh Anderson and 1B Scott Robinson be potential answers down the road?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Could be. Anderson has nice all-around tools and Robinson has pure hitting ability.

 Q:  Jeff from Shreve, Ohio asks:
What does the future hold for Kirk Saarloos, now that he has been bounced between the minors and the majors, the bullpen and the rotation?
 A: 

Jim Callis: He's a big league middle reliever.

 Q:  Rick Whitbeck from Anchorage AK asks:
Jim--Always great to see you in chat. Who is the Astros' "super-sleeper" for 2004?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Must . . . block out . . . depressing . . . Scoresheet memories. I think Mitch Talbot could really make a name for himself next season. Further down the prospect list, for a guy who may or may not make the Top 30, try lefty Josh Muecke.

 Q:  Michael from Texas asks:
RE: decline in Astro system. From 2000-2002 Houston has lost a first-round selection (Stiehl) and two third-round selections (Pluta and Shortell) to arm blowups and another first-rounder's (Grigsby) stuff has vanished. Methinks this kind of misfortune would mar the outlook of most systems in baseball.
 A: 

Jim Callis: You are correct, sir. (Though Shortell was a knee injury.) And they didn't sign another third-rounder (Stubbs).

 Q:  Dave from Savannah asks:
Based on pure talent alone, would Anthony Pluta rank second in this org. behind Buccholz? Isn't he more talented (gifted) than Buck and Lane? Is it only his injury holding him back, or does he struggle with command?
 A: 

Jim Callis: On ceiling, Pluta would be near the top, but he was capital-A awful in 2002 and blew out his elbow. He has a lot to prove.

 Q:  Jared Klewein from Marietta, GA asks:
Jeff Jorgensen...future leadoff hitter or failed olympic sprinter?
 A: 

Jim Callis: Fastest player in the organization once his broken foot heals, but we have yet to see him play pro ball. I'll reserve judgment.

Moderator: That's it for Jim, who has to go work the phones for the Prospect Handbook and write up the nine-player Richie Sexson trade. Thanks to everyone for the questions.

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