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By Jim Callis
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, 2004.
The Astros were Baseball America’s Organization of the Year in 2001, when they posted the top record in the National League as well as the best combined winning percentage in the minor leagues. The only negatives were the lack of a high Class A team and a failure to get past the first round of the playoffs.
Houston rectified the first problem with the addition of a Carolina League affiliate in 2003, but still has nary a postseason series victory to show for its 43 seasons. Even worse, the Astros let opportunities to end that streak pass by underachieving in each of the last two seasons. Most galling was their 2003 performance, when 88 victories would have won the NL Central. The Astros outhit and outpitched the Cubs, yet finished one game behind them.
While that’s the smallest of gaps, it could widen. While cleaning out his locker at the end of the season, all-star closer Billy Wagner questioned owner Drayton McLane’s willingness to make the financial commitment to build a championship club. Houston entered the offseason seeking what general manager Gerry Hunsicker called payroll flexibility. The Astros won’t spend more than the $72.5 million they committed to player salaries in 2003, and may spend less.
Their first move—not surprisingly considering his comments and their bullpen depth—was to send Wagner to the Phillies for Brandon Duckworth and minor league righthanders Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio. The Astros also were looking to rid themselves of Richard Hidalgo’s $12 million salary for 2004. Even team icon Jeff Bagwell has become a financial albatross. Coming off his worst back-to-back seasons in a decade, Bagwell will make $45 million over the next three seasons, then gets an $18 million salary or $7 million buyout in 2007.
Houston didn’t just give Wagner away, as Duckworth will step right into the rotation and Buchholz immediately became the best prospect in the system. But the system isn’t as strong as it appeared two years ago, when BA rated it the third-best in baseball. The majority of the Astros’ Top 10 Prospects from then have either gotten hurt (lefthander Carlos Hernandez, righties Anthony Pluta and Rodrigo Rosario) or leveled off (catcher John Buck, infielders Chris Burke and Tommy Whiteman, righty Chad Qualls). Only Brad Lidge and Morgan Ensberg have met expectations in the majors, though Jason Lane could do the same if Houston finds an outfield spot for him.
In order to compete with the Cubs, who have the dual advantages of more money and a better stock of prospects, as well as the rest of the NL Central, the Astros will need the farm system to be as productive as it was in the 1990s. During that decade, they signed Venezuelans Bobby Abreu, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Hidalgo, Melvin Mora and Johan Santana. Houston also spent first-round picks on Lance Berkman, Lidge, Phil Nevin and Wagner, and found Ensberg, Lane, Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding after the fifth round.
Top Prospect: Taylor Buchholz, RHP
Age: 22 Ht.: 6-4 Wt.: 220 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: The Phillies first approached the Astros about a trade in September, searching for a reasonably priced alternative to David Bell and inquiring about Geoff Blum. After Philadelphia held its offseason organizational meetings, it shifted its top priority to closer and came looking for Billy Wagner, Houston’s career leader in saves. The Astros were rebuffed when they asked to build a trade around one of two pitching prospects, Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd. The Phillies initially turned them down on Buchholz as well but relented when they realized it would be a deal-breaker. His commitment to North Carolina caused him to slide in the 2000 draft. His hometown Phillies may have been the only team that could have signed him, and they gave him fourth-round money ($365,000) as a sixth-round pick. Buchholz went 3-13 in his first calendar year after signing before everything started to click. He was the FSL pitcher of the year in 2002 and the youngest player selected for the Double-A Eastern League all-star game in 2003.
Strengths: Buchholz’ signature pitch is a hard curveball he picked up in low Class A in 2001. One scout compared its quality and his feel for it to Josh Beckett’s and Kerry Wood’s, while Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said Buchholz’ curve could be one of the five best in the National League within a few years. He throws the bender at 76-79 mph, and can change speeds off it to further befuddle hitters. Buchholz also has a quality fastball that sits in the low 90s, touches 95 mph and has heavy life. He’ll flash an average changeup at times. He has a strong, durable frame that has held up well through 78 starts over the last three seasons. He shows good poise on the mound and never let a lack of run support fluster him at Double-A Reading.
Weaknesses: Buchholz succeeds so easily with his fastball and curve that he hasn’t thrown his changeup much. He needs to use it more often to improve its quality and command. He pitched with bone chips in his elbow in 2003, but the problem resolved itself without surgery. Buchholz doesn’t always trust his natural stuff and will try to overthrow. Then his front shoulder flies open in his delivery and he leaves pitches up in the strike zone. He needs to do a better job of holding baserunners.
The Future: The Wagner trade made sense on several levels for Houston. He was unhappy with the direction of the club, he made more money than the Astros wanted to pay when they had a lower-cost alternative in Octavio Dotel, and they got three potential starting pitchers. Buchholz will open 2004 in Triple-A New Orleans. Given how Houston went through 12 starters in 2003, he could get promoted quickly. Buchholz projects as a No. 2 or 3 starter.