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Houston Astros:
1999 Top 10

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Houston Astros Top 10 Prospects
Index of Top 10 Prospects for all 30 Major League Teams

By David Rawnsley

1. Wilfredo Rodriguez, LHP
Age: 21  B-T: L-L  Ht: 6-5  Wt: 210
Signed: Venezuela, 1995  Signed by: Andres Reiner

Top Prospects of the 90s

1990 Eric Anthony, of
1991 Andujar Cedeno, ss
1992 Brian Williams, rhp
1993 Todd Jones, rhp
1994 Phil Nevin, 3b
1995 Brian Hunter, of
1996 Billy Wagner, lhp
1997 Richard Hidalgo, of
1998 Richard Hidalgo, of
1999 Lance Berkman, of

Background: Rodriguez is a prototype for what the Astros and innovative Venezuelan scout Andres Reiner have done to revolutionize scouting in that country. When he was 15, Rodriguez entered the Astros’ academy as a gangly, uncoordinated 6-foot-2, 170-pounder whose fastball could barely break 80 mph. By emphasizing mechanics, year-round work and intense physical conditioning, he has grown three inches and 40 pounds. He has racked up a 34-14 record in three years in the United States. Rodriguez’ development path has been similar to that of Mariners star rookie Freddy Garcia, another product of Reiner’s program.

Strengths: Most discussions about lefthanded pitchers begin with movement or breaking balls or changeups, but Rodriguez is about pure power. He has long arms and wide shoulders and generates incredible upper-body leverage from an almost three-quarter arm stroke. Rodriguez’ fastball is consistently in the mid-90s with explosive life and will touch 97-98 a couple of times a game. His curveball has the same type of power and hard, late action to it. For a young power pitcher, Rodriguez has an advanced ability to throw strikes consistently. Because of the power and movement of his pitches, he has confidence in throwing them in the middle of the plate with the knowledge that hitters still will be overmatched. Off the field, Rodriguez has a low-key personality that’s perfect for a starting pitcher.

Weaknesses: As Rodriguez has matured physically, he has retained some stiffness in his lower body. He often throws hard over his front side, which sometimes results in his spinning toward third base and leaving his pitches up and outside to righthanded hitters. He needs to improve his ability to hold baserunners. While Rodriguez’ changeup is adequate for now, it will need to improve to be an effective pitch against big league hitters.

The Future: Taking his age, the prospects in front of him and the established staff in Houston into account, Rodriguez probably will continue to move a step at a time. Free-agent and salary pressures will hit hard on the Astros rotation after the 2001 season, at which point Rodriguez should be ready.

1999 Club         W  L   ERA   G  GS  CG  SV   IP   H  BB  SO
Kissimmee (A)    15  7  2.88  25  24   0   0  153 108  62 148

2. Lance Berkman, OF
Age: 24  B-T: B-L  Ht: 6-1  Wt: 205
Drafted: Rice, 1997 (1st round)  Signed by: Ralph Bratton

Background: This was somewhat of a lost year for the 1998 Triple-A World Series MVP. Berkman missed a month because of minor knee surgery, and he never got in sync after the Astros’ injury crunch in the outfield necessitated his callup.

Strengths: Berkman has excellent plate discipline and power to all fields. His bat speed and swing mechanics are better from the left side, but he has more raw power hitting righthanded. Berkman’s arm has loosened up to the point where it is average and he has sure hands on balls he gets to.

Weaknesses: Because of a lack of repetitions, Berkman’s swing became somewhat stiff at times this year, especially from the right side. Berkman’s lack of range in the outfield won’t be as much of a problem on natural grass.

The Future: What comes out of the Astros’ muddled outfield situation is anyone’s guess. Berkman has slipped behind fellow slugger Daryle Ward, so he’ll probably open the season in Triple-A unless Houston makes a few deals.

1999 Club           AVG   AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB
New Orleans (AAA)  .323  226  42  73  20   0   8   49  39  47   7
Houston            .237   93  10  22   2   0   4   15  12  21   5

3. Wade Miller, RHP
Age: 23  B-T: R-R  Ht: 6-2  Wt: 185
Drafted: Alvernia (Pa.) College, 1996 (20th round)  Signed by: Mike Maggart

Background: Miller rebounded from an injury-plagued 1998 by not missing a start in ’99. He even made an emergency start against the Diamondbacks. Because Miller wasn’t pitching in college when he was drafted, he essentially went from a recreational league pitcher to the big leagues in just over three years.

Strengths: He has the ideal starter’s package of four solid average to above-average pitches that he can throw for strikes. His fastball is 92-96 mph with good late life, and he will mix two- and four-seam fastballs effectively. Miller’s curveball is his best secondary pitch.

Weaknesses: Miller sometimes has inconsistent mechanics, and most of his mistakes to the middle of the strike zone come with his slider.

The Future: Miller has a chance of making the team in long relief either out of spring training or when the first injury comes up, much like Scott Elarton did in 1998. Miller definitely will be a starter down the road.

1999 Club          W  L   ERA   G  GS  CG  SV   IP   H  BB  SO
New Orleans (AAA) 11  9  4.38  26  26   2   0  162 156  64 135
Houston            0  1  9.58   5   1   0   0   10  17   5   8

4. Mitch Meluskey, C
Age: 26  B-T: B-R  Ht: 6-0  Wt: 185
Drafted: HS--Yakima, Wash., 1992 (12th round)  Signed by: Steve Avila (Indians)

Background: Meluskey had laid claim to a large portion of the Astros’ catching duties until he had to have surgery to tighten his right shoulder. The same surgery was performed on his left shoulder in 1997, and both injuries happened while he was batting. Meluskey already has recovered enough to catch regularly and hit .306 in the Arizona Fall League.

Strengths: Meluskey is a switch-hitter with plate discipline, good bat speed and gap power from both sides of the plate. He has plenty of physical ability to handle a big league catcher’s job.

Weaknesses: Extremely intense about his offensive performance, he has often taken an at-bat with him back behind the plate. Staying healthy also is obviously a major concern.

The Future: The Astros likely will go with three catchers in Paul Bako, Tony Eusebio and Meluskey in 2000, with Meluskey slated to get the most playing time of the three. How he works with the accomplished staff will determine just how much that is.

1999 Club           AVG   AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB
Houston            .212   33   4   7   1   0   1    3   5   6   1

5. Tony McKnight, RHP
Age: 22  B-T: R-R  Ht: 6-5  Wt: 205
Drafted: HS--Texarkana, Ark., 1995 (1st round)  Signed by: Chuck Edmondson

Background: The first two years after McKnight signed, he effectively disappeared as persistent elbow and shoulder tenderness from overuse in high school kept him sidelined. No surgery was ever performed and McKnight matured into a Double-A all-star in 1999.

Strengths: McKnight still has the stuff he showed when he signed, and now he has matured as a pitcher. He throws his fastball in the 92-94 mph range and aggressively spots it on the inside corner. McKnight’s curveball is a plus pitch and he began to use his changeup effectively in 1999.

Weaknesses: McKnight’s tendinitis reoccurred at times in ’99, especially late in the season, costing him a couple of starts. He will go into stretches when he falls in love with his curveball, often when his shoulder is flaring up and he lacks confidence in his fastball.

The Future: The Astros say McKnight was a sponge for knowledge during his first big league camp last spring. He should gain more this spring before heading to Triple-A.

1999 Club         W  L   ERA   G  GS  CG  SV   IP   H  BB  SO
Jackson (AA)      9  9  2.75  24  24   0   0  160 134  44 118

6. Julio Lugo, SS
Age: 24  B-T: R-R  Ht: 6-0  Wt: 165
Drafted: Connors State (Okla.) JC, 1994 (43rd round)  Signed by: Chuck Edmondson

Background: Lugo was selected as the Texas League’s most exciting player in Baseball America’s midseason survey of managers. His younger brother Ruddy was the Brewers’ third-round pick in the 1999 draft as a righthander.

Strengths: For a middle infielder, Lugo has a dynamic combination of offensive skills. He has a quick, whip-like bat and surprising extra-base power for such a wiry frame. His baserunning instincts are outstanding and his speed above-average. Astros officials believe he is ready to hit major league pitching now.

Weaknesses: At shortstop, Lugo’s actions and feel for the position are short of ideal. He can be mechanical and slow with his hands, and he doesn’t always coordinate his footwork with his upper body.

The Future: Except for a brief period before Dickie Thon’s career was ended by a beanball, it can be argued that the Astros have never had more than an adequate shortstop. The path is open for Lugo to lay claim to the job in 2000 or 2001.

1999 Club           AVG   AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB
Jackson (AA)       .319  445  77 142  24   5  10   42  44  53  25

7. Aaron McNeal, 1B
Age: 21  B-T: R-R  Ht: 6-3  Wt: 230
Drafted: Chabot (Calif.) JC, 1995 (27th round)  Signed by: Gene Wellman

Background: Houston signed McNeal as a draft-and-follow shortly before the 1996 draft. Because he had skipped a year in grade school, McNeal was a 17-year-old junior college freshman at the time. He had a huge ’99, leading the Midwest League in hits, home runs and RBIs.

Strengths: Despite immense strength throughout his body, the key to McNeal’s game is his hands. He has a short swing for a power hitter with the hand strength and quickness to flick balls over the fence in right-center. McNeal is also above-average on throws in the dirt and around the bag at first.

Weaknesses: The Astros have McNeal on a program to increase his mobility and speed and loosen his body. One adjustment that McNeal must make offensively is to lay off outside breaking pitches.

The Future: The Astros have made an art form out of developing power-hitting first basemen. The outfield is not really an option with McNeal, so he will be dependent on the talent directly in front of him.

1999 Club           AVG   AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB
Michigan (A)       .310  536  95 166  29   3  38  131  40 121   7

8. Mike Nannini, RHP
Age: 19  B-T: R-R  Ht: 5-11  Wt: 175
Drafted: HS--Henderson, Nev., 1998 (Supplemental 1st round)  Signed by: Deron Rombach

Background: The Astros, normally slow to advance teenage pitchers, started Nannini in the Midwest League in April, where he predictably struggled. Back among players just a couple of years older, he was one of just two righthanders with a sub-3.00 ERA in the short-season New York-Penn League.

Strengths: Nannini loves to come right at hitters. He improved his slider and changeup in his first full season while maintaining the velocity on his 93-96 mph fastball. Nannini’s command, especially of his fastball, is excellent for a young power pitcher.

Weaknesses: After throwing fastballs and changeups most of his life, Nannini occasionally throws too many sliders now that he has the pitch as a weapon. He needs to learn to pitch away from the middle of the plate.

The Future: With his maturity and competitiveness, Nannini appears well-equipped for another shot at a full-season Class A league in 2000.

1999 Club         W  L   ERA   G  GS  CG  SV   IP   H  BB  SO
Michigan (A)      4 10  4.43  15  15   0   0   87 107  31  68
Auburn (A)        5  3  1.90  11  11   2   0   76  55  17  86

9. Carlos Hernandez, LHP
Age: 19  B-T: L-L  Ht: 5-11  Wt: 160
Signed: Venezuela, 1997  Signed by: Andres Reiner

Background: Two years removed from being a 16-year-old with a 78-80 mph fastball, Hernandez was the most dominant pitcher in the Appalachian League. He capped his regular season with a minor league-high 18-strikeout game to clinch a division title.

Strengths: Hernandez has dramatically increased his velocity and now pitches in the 88-89 mph range and will hit 91-92. His best pitch is a nasty, sharp-breaking curveball. As a former finesse pitcher, Hernandez has no problems throwing strikes with all his pitches or maintaining his mechanics and arm slot.

Weaknesses: While Hernandez has already exceeded the projections from when he signed, he is still physically immature.

The Future: Hernandez’ late-season gem came with most of the Astros’ minor league brass in town, a testament to his composure in a situation in which many young minor leaguers wilt. Given his age and need to add strength, the Astros probably will bring Hernandez along slowly.

1999 Club         W  L   ERA   G  GS  CG  SV   IP   H  BB  SO
Martinsville (R)  5  1  1.46  13   9   0   0   55  36  23  82

10. Tim Redding, RHP
Age: 22  B-T: R-R  Ht: 6-0  Wt: 180
Drafted: Monroe (N.Y.) CC, 1997 (20th round)  Signed by: Mike Maggart

Background: Redding was a draft-and-follow who signed shortly before the 1998 draft. He was moved from the rotation into the closer’s spot last June and flourished in the role. His 32 relief appearances left a positive impression.

Strengths: Redding has the best fastball in the Astros system. It regularly explodes through the zone at 95-96 mph and will go as high as 98-99 occasionally. Redding generates his power through a strong, flexible lower body. He has an intense, almost overanxious makeup that is better suited to more frequent bullpen work.

Weaknesses: His slider and curveball are both inconsistent. Redding will have to identify a go-to secondary pitch out of the bullpen, and he’ll need improved command of his fastball.

The Future: Redding simply overmatches hitters when he’s throwing strikes out of the bullpen. Astros fans have come to appreciate that kind of work from Billy Wagner. After the way Redding’s move worked in ’99, expect him to begin full-time closing duties in 2000.

1999 Club         W  L   ERA   G  GS  CG  SV   IP   H  BB  SO
Michigan (A)      8  6  4.97  43  11   0  14  105  84  76 141

Rest of the Best:

11. Eric Ireland, rhp
12. Jeriome Robertson, lhp
13. Brad Lidge, rhp
14. John Buck, c
15. Roy Oswalt, rhp

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