Top Ten Prospects: Houston Astros
Complete Index of Top 10s
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, 2005.
Background: The Astros have finished below .500 in just one of their last 13 seasons, so they usually have drafted toward the bottom of the first round. The lone exception came in 2001, when they owned the 10th pick, their highest since they took Phil Nevin No. 1 overall in 1992. Houston used that choice on Burke, who was coming off an All-America junior year at Tennessee. The Southeastern Conference player of the year, he led NCAA Division I in runs (105), hits (118) and total bases (221) and was the only player to rank in the top 10 in hitting (.435), homers (20) and steals (49). As a middle infielder who was a catalyst atop the lineup, Burke drew immediate comparisons to Craig Biggio after the Astros took him. He had a rocky first full season in 2002, when he was assigned to Double-A Round Rock because Houston lacked a high Class A affiliate, but has regrouped since. He returned there to win Texas League all-star honors in 2003 and earned similar acclaim in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2004. He made his major league debut last year and also got to play in the Futures Game in Houston. Though the Astros initially believed Burke could play shortstop, last season marked the first time he played solely at second base. The lesser defensive responsibilities allowed him to relax, and he improved in all phases of the game.
Strengths: Burke is Biggioís logical successor as Houstonís leadoff hitter, though heíll probably bat No. 2 behind him this year. He does a fine job of getting on base, both via hitting for average and drawing walks, and heís a basestealing threat once he gets there. He handles the bat very well, making consistent contact and showing surprising gap power for his size and position. One scout describes him as Mark Loretta with better speed. Burke made better use of his wheels in 2004, improving his leads, jumps and ability to read pitches. Defensively, he has good range to both sides. He made significant strides turning the double play last season. Managers rated Burke the best defender at his position in the PCL, where he led second basemen in every positive fielding category. His work ethic and professionalism also earn high marks.
Weaknesses: Burke has too much power for his own good at times. Heíll occasionally have to be reminded that heís better off letting extra-base hits come naturally. His arm is his weakest tool, though at second base itís not the liability it was at shortstop. He has smoothed out most of the rough edges, but his second-base play needs a little more cleaning up.
The Future: If the Athletics had been willing to pick up Jeff Kentís salary for the final six weeks of 2004, he would have been traded and Burke would have started for the Astros last August. Now that Kent has signed with the Dodgers, Burke is ready to take over. Likening him to a possible Hall of Famer is unfair, but Burke does resemble a young Biggio.
Background: When the Astros traded Billy Wagner last winter, Astacio ranked as the third-most important player they got from the Phillies, behind Taylor Buchholz and Brandon Duckworth. A year later, he looks like the best part of the deal. His stuff jumped dramatically as he led the Texas League in innings and strikeouts.
Strengths: Astacio now has the best fastball in the system. Its velocity has increased from 85-90 in 2002 to 88-93 in 2003 to 90-95 mph in 2004, and it has more sink now as well. His curveball is harder and has more bite, and he picked up a splitter that works well as a change of pace. He has three plus pitches at times and commands all of them.
Weaknesses: Because his curveball is a hard downer, Astacio ultimately may be better served by a true changeup than relying on his splitter. He sometimes loses his focus on the mound.
The Future: Astacio rode his momentum through the offseason, when he was named rookie of the year in the Dominican Winter League. Heíll probably begin 2005 back in Round Rock, now Houstonís Triple-A affiliate, but could help Houston as a starter or reliever later in the season.
Background: In a quest to find a quality defensive center fielder, Houston took Taveras in the 2003 major league Rule 5 drafted, then sent Jeriome Robertson to Cleveland for his rights and slugger Luke Scott. Taveras led the Texas League in hitting and steals, while managers rated him the circuitís best baserunner, top defensive outfielder and most exciting player.
Strengths: Taverasí speed makes him a prolific and high-percentage basestealer, and gives him the range to catch nearly anything hit in the gaps. His quickness also enhances his hitting ability, as he makes good contact and can beat out all but the most routine grounders. He has above-average arm strength and even better accuracy with his throws.
Weaknesses: To maximize his leadoff ability, Taveras has to develop more patience at the plate. Heíll never hit for power, but he needs to add strength to at least deter pitchers from pounding him inside.
The Future: If it all comes together for Taveras, he could be a superior version of Juan Pierre. After he spends a year in Triple-A, the Astros would love to make him their center fielder in 2006.
Background: An unheralded fifth-round pick in June, Einertson tied a 44-year-old home run record in the Rookie-level Appalachian League. He went deep twice in the playoffs as Greeneville won the title, won the MVP award, and led the league in extra-base hits, RBIs, total bases and slugging.
Strengths: One scout said the last Astros prospect to have the ball jump off his bat like Einertson was Jeff Bagwell. He can turn around good fastballs and already has started to use the whole field. Heís aggressive in the outfield, where his range, jumps and arm are all decent to solid.
Weaknesses: Einertson struck out in nearly one-third of his at-bats, so it remains to be seen if heíll be as explosive against higher quality pitching. While he played mostly center field in his pro debut, he doesnít cover enough ground to play there in the majors. Houston tried him at second base in instructional league, but he had problems with his footwork and the switch didnít take.
The Future: Einertson projects best as a right fielder. Heís headed to low Class A Lexington, where the franchise home run mark of 25 is within his reach.
Background: Patton was the ace of a Tomball High that ranked No. 1 in the nation last spring before losing in the Texas 5-A playoffs. Pro clubs thought he was headed to the University of Texas but the Astros signed him for $550,000, by far the highest bonus in the ninth round.
Strengths: Pattonís curveball was one of the best in the 2004 draft. He sets it up by throwing his 90-94 mph fastball to all four quadrants of the strike zone. He has an advanced feel for his changeup and for throwing strikes, which could allow him to develop quickly. He has an intellectual curiosity about pitching, trying to pick up a cutter on his own during instructional league.
Weaknesses: Pattonís one obvious flaw is his inability to maintain a consistent arm slot. When he drops down, he loses velocity on his pitches and some crispness on his curve. Like most young pitchers, he needs additional work on his changeup.
The Future: In addition to his stuff and pitchability, Patton stands out because the system lacks lefthanded pitching prospects. Heíll start his first full season in low Class A and shouldnít need a full season at each level.
Background: Drafted out of a suburban Houston high school and signed out of local San Jacinto JC, Albers has had more strikeouts than innings in each of his three pro seasons. He was suspended for an alcohol-related incident at the low Class A South Atlantic League all-star game last June and spent a month in rehab. He didnít miss a beat when he returned.
Strengths: Albers achieves late, heavy sink with a fastball that sits at 92-93 mph and tops out at 96. He can overmatch hitters simply by pitching inside. He also throws a curveball, slider and changeup, all of which have their moments. Heís durable and throws with little effort after improving his delivery.
Weaknesses: Albersí greatest need is for more consistency on the mound and off the field. His secondary pitches and command come and go, and he must take his career more seriously. His body isnít as soft as it was when he signed, but itís still a concern.
The Future: Slated for high Class A Salem, Albers could force his way to Houstonís new Double-A Corpus Christi affiliate by the end of 2005. He has a high ceiling but also a long distance to go to reach it.
Background: Buchholz topped this list a year ago after arriving in the Billy Wagner trade with the Phillies. He started poorly with the Astros, going 0-5, 7.92 in his first six outings at Triple-A New Orleans. He was pitching better when a shoulder strain shut him down in early July. He didnít need surgery, but made just three more relief appearances in mid-August.
Strengths: Buchholz has one of the best curveballs in the minors, a hard, sharp bender that he can change speeds with. He has plus velocity on his fastball at 91-95 mph. He has improved his changeup, which should become a solid average pitch, and come up with a two-seam fastball with more sink.
Weaknesses: After his shoulder problems and bone chips in his elbow in 2003, Buchholz needs to get stronger and more durable. He usually throws a four-seam fastball and works too high in the strike zone. He tries to be too perfect and out-thinks himself, and there are some worries that he may give in to adversity too easily.
The Future: Buchholz should be fully healthy for spring training. He needs some extended success in Triple-A before heíll get his first big league callup.
Background: Though Nieve has pitched just 17 innings above Class A in six pro seasons, his upside has led the Astros to carry him on their 40-man roster for the last three years. He dominated the Venezuelan League last winter, but didnít enjoy the same success there this offseason.
Strengths: Nieve pitches off his electric 91-97 mph fastball. He gets heavy sink on his two-seamer, likes to challenge hitters up with a four-seamer and mixes in some cutters. He throws both a curveball and a slider, and they can be strikeout pitches at times. He has a strong body and resilient arm.
Weaknesses: Nieve lacks consistent feel for a changeup because he prefers to throw hard. For that same reason, he can fall in love with his straight four-seamer, and doesnít always locate it where he wants. He can get caught in between his two breaking balls, resulting in a slurve.
The Future: If his secondary pitches donít improve, Nieve could become a power reliever in the mold of Guillermo Mota. He competed well in Double-A at the end of 2004 and will pitch in the rotation there this season.
Background: Anderson led NCAA Division I in 2003 with 57 steals and finished third in hitting at .447 behind first-round picks Rickie Weeks and Mitch Maier. He has swiped 105 bases in 213 games and topped the minors with 79 last year.
Strengths: Anderson has plus-plus speed and knows how to use it. He has succeeded on 83 percent of his pro steal attempts, and he also covers a lot of ground in center field. Heís similar to Willy Taveras, with Anderson owning significantly more gap power. He has solid average arm strength.
Weaknesses: Andersonís full-tilt style borders on recklessness. Heís too aggressive in the outfield, often breaking wrong on balls and hoping his speed will help him recover. He tore up low Class A, but was far less effective when his plate discipline evaporated following a promotion to high Class A.
The Future: Taveras is the frontrunner to be Houstonís center fielder of the future, but Anderson can close the gap if he learns to play within himself and show more patience at the plate. Heíll probably open 2005 in Double-A.
Background: After Pence won the Southland Conference batting title (.395) and player-of-the-year award last spring, the Astros made him their top draft pick. Most teams didnít expect him to go as early as the second round, but he showed diverse tools during a strong pro debut.
Strengths: He doesnít have a classic swing and chokes up on the bat more than most players his size, but it works for Pence. He has quick hands, a feel for hitting and as much raw power as anyone in the system. He also controls the strike zone. Penceís gangly body is deceptive, because heís a good athlete with solid speed. He plays hard while keeping himself under control.
Weaknesses: Though Pence acquitted himself well playing center field at short-season Tri-City, his reads and arm are slightly below average. Heís going to have to move left field at higher levels, but the good news is that he should have enough bat for the position.
The Future: Pence will begin his first full season with one of Houstonís full-season Class A clubs, and he should be able to handle the jump to Salem if he skips a level. He quickly has become an organization favorite and could move more quickly than initially expected.