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Top Ten Prospects: Houston Astros
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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, 2006.
Tim Purpura’s first year as Astros general manager got off to an ominous start. His predecessor, Gerry Hunsicker, declined Jeff Kent’s $9 million option for 2005 shortly before his abrupt resignation, and Purpura was unable to re-sign Kent.
Then Purpura was held hostage by free agent Carlos Beltran, who waited until a January deadline before turning down a club-record $105 million contract offer. At that point, no other comparable options remained, and Houston already had concerns about Lance Berkman’s right knee and Jeff Bagwell’s right shoulder. The Astros’ offense never truly recovered, finishing 11th in the National League in scoring and dead last in road games.
Houston started the year 15-30, giving it the game’s third-worst record on May 24. But just like they had in 2004, the Astros made a stunning comeback, going 74-43 the rest of the way—the best record in baseball—to earn their second straight wild-card berth. They reached the World Series for the first time in the franchise’s 44 seasons, losing a hotly contested sweep at the hands of the White Sox.
The club’s farm system has slipped in recent years because of unproductive drafts and increased competition for talent in Venezuela, an arena Houston once dominated. Yet the Astros’ first-ever World Series club had a predominantly homegrown flavor. They signed and developed their four best hitters (Berkman, Craig Biggio, Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane), as well as 20-game winner Roy Oswalt and closer Brad Lidge.
Though Baseball America rated the talent in the system 22nd among the 30 organizations entering 2005, six rookies made the World Series roster. The top three players on this list a year ago—second baseman/outfielder Chris Burke, righthander Ezequiel Astacio and outfielder Willy Taveras—all became regulars in the second half. Chad Qualls proved to be a valuable set-up man, and lefty Wandy Rodriguez and outfielder Luke Scott also made contributions.
Whether many of them will become more than role players remains to be seen, however. The system also doesn’t have much to offer in the near future beyond righthanders Jason Hirsh and Fernando Nieve. It may be two or three years before a homegrown position player can challenge for a spot in the lineup.
Concerned about the talent drain, Hunsicker reassigned former scouting director David Lakey after the 2004 draft and promoted coordinator of pro scouting Paul Ricciarini to replace him. Ricciarini used his 2005 first-round pick on Brian Bogusevic, addressing the lack of talented lefthanders in the system, then focused on high-ceiling athletes. Outfielders Eli Iorg (supplemental first round) and Josh Flores (fourth) join Bogusevic on this Top 10 list.
It will take more than one draft to rebuild their system, though the Astros have bought some goodwill with their fans during the last two years. To sustain that momentum, they’ll have to use trades and free agents in the short term.
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