Houston Astros: Top 10 Prospects

1. Hunter Pence, of
2. Troy Patton, lhp
3. Matt Albers, rhp
4. Jimmy Barthmaier, rhp
5. Juan Gutierrez, rhp
6. J.R. Towles, c
7. Paul Estrada, rhp
8. Felipe Paulino, rhp
9. Max Sapp, c
10. Chad Reineke, rhp
Best Hitter for Average Hunter Pence
Best Power Hitter Hunter Pence
Best Strike-Zone Discipline Mike Rodriguez
Fastest Baserunner Josh Flores
Best Athlete Charlton Jimerson
Best Fastball Felipe Paulino
Best Curveball Paul Estrada
Best Slider Chad Reinke
Best Changeup Chance Douglass
Best Control Chris Sampson
Best Defensive Catcher J.R. Towles
Best Defensive Infielder Tommy Manzella
Best Infield Arm Tommy Manzella
Best Defensive Outfielder Charlton Jimerson
Best Outfield Arm Charlton Jimerson
Catcher J.R. Towles
First Base Lance Berkman
Second Base Chris Burke
Third Base Morgan Ensberg
Shortstop Adam Everett
Left Field Carlos Lee
Center Field Hunter Pence
Right Field Luke Scott
No. 1 Starter Roy Oswalt
No. 2 Starter Troy Patton
No. 3 Starter Jason Jennings
No. 4 Starter Fernando Nieve
No. 5 Starter Matt Albers
Closer Brad Lidge
Year Player, Position 2006
1997 Richard Hildalgo, of Yankees
1998 Richard Hildalgo, of Yankees
1999 Lance Berkman, of Astros
2000 Wilfredo Rodriguez, lhp San Angelo (United)
2001 Roy Oswalt, rhp Astros
2002 Carlos Hernandez, lhp Astros
2003 John Buck, c Royals
2004 Taylor Buchholz, rhp Astros
2005 Chris Burke, 2b Astros
2006 Jason Hirsh, rhp Astros
Year Player, Position 2006
1997 Lance Berkman, of Astros
1998 Brad Lidge, rhp Astros
1999 Mike Rosamond, of Braves
2000 Robert Stiehl, rhp Astros
2001 Chris Burke, ss Astros
2002 Derick Grigsby, rhp Out of baseball
2003 Jason Hirsh, rhp (2nd round) Astros
2004 Hunter Pence, of (2nd round) Astros
2005 Brian Bogusevic, lhp Astros
2006 Max Sapp, c Astros
Chris Buke, 2001 $2,125,000
Max Sapp, 2006 $1,400,000
Brian Bogusevic, 2005 $1,375,000
Robert Stiehl, 2000 $1,250,000
Derick Grigsby, 2002 $1,125,000
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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.