Houston Astros: Top 10 Prospects With Scouting Reports

Houston Astros: Scouting Reports

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, 2008.

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Houston Astros

In two years, the Astros went from World Series participant to a total rebuilding job. Their 73-89 finish marked just their second losing season since 1992, but it wasn't an anomaly. Though owner Drayton McLane expects his team to contend again in 2008, Houston's rise won't be as swift as its fall.

The Astros built a consistent winner through their farm system. Few teams worked the now-defunct draft-and-follow system or the Venezuelan market as well, and they also had a knack for finding quality, low-cost college seniors. But the talent has dried up this decade, and Houston has had to invest heavily on free agents to keep winning. That approach has proved costly, not only in terms of big league salaries but also in its affect on the club's drafts.

In three of the last five drafts, the Astros have forfeited their first-round pick as free-agent compensation. McLane has become more reluctant to offer arbitration to his own free agents, so only once during that period has Houston received bonus choices of its own. He also has been increasing unwilling to buck MLB's slot recommendations. All three of these factors resulted in a disastrous draft in 2007.

By signing Carlos Lee and Woody Williams as Type A free agents, the Astros surrendered their first two draft choices. Offering arbitration to three of their own Type A free agents—Aubrey Huff, Andy Pettitte and Russ Springer—was a low-risk proposition that could have yielded three first-round picks and three supplemental first-rounders, but Houston declined to do so. The Astros couldn't try to compensate by drafting players with high price tags because McLane refused to exceed MLB's guidelines.

Houston thought it had signing parameters in place with its first two choices, third baseman Derek Dietrich (third round) and righthander Brett Eibner (fourth), as well as righty Chad Bettis (eighth). But they all asked for more than slot money and wound up opting for college over pro ball. The Astros spent just $1.584 million on the draft, $3.6 million below the average of the other 29 teams.

They also haven't been aggressive internationally, especially since former director of Venezuelan scouting and development Andres Reiner left the organization in February 2006. Reiner, a pioneer in establishing a Venezuelan pipeline, helped sign players such as Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen and Johan Santana, as well as the club's current top pitching prospect, Felipe Paulino. The Astros haven't brought in any comparable foreign talents in recent years.

Disappointed with his club's performance on the field and in the front office, McLane has cleaned house. He fired general manager Tim Purpura and manager Phil Garner in August. Former Phillies GM Ed Wade assumed control of the front office in September and appointed interim manager Cecil Cooper on a permanent basis. Wade also restructured the scouting department, reassigning senior director of player personnel Paul Ricciarini and coordinator of amateur scouting Tad Slowik.

Wade's new scouting director is Bobby Heck, formerly the Eastern crosschecker for the Brewers. Heck contributed to a run of productive drafts in Milwaukee, but it's doubtful the Astros farm system or major league club will rebound without a shift in philosophy.

1.  J.R. Towles, c   Born: Feb. 11, 1984B-T: R-RHt: 6-2Wt: 190
 Drafted: North Central Texas JC, 2004 (20th round)Signed by: Pat Murphy
J.R. TowlesBackground: The Athletics were the first team on Towles, drafting him in the 32nd round out of Crosby (Texas) High in 2002 and in the 23rd round out of Collin County (Texas) Community College a year later. Towles ranked fourth among national juco hitters with a .484 batting average as a freshman, then transferred to North Central Texas Junior College after Collin County disbanded its program. Former Astros scout Pat Murphy had a productive trip to North Central in 2004, landing Towles in the 20th round and righthander Brad James (No. 6 on this list) in the 29th. Towles turned down an Oklahoma State scholarship to sign for $100,000. In his first three pro seasons, he had problems staying healthy and played just 165 games. He needed surgery after catching a foul tip off his right index finger in instructional league in 2004 and had tendinitis in his right knee in 2006. The Astros hoped he could catch 110-120 games at high Class A Salem in 2007, and he reached that playing-time goal—while unexpectedly climbing to the major leagues. He took off after moving up to Double-A Corpus Christi out of necessity when Lou Santangelo drew a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in May. Towles performed well enough to keep the job when Santangelo returned, then moved up to Triple-A Round Rock in August and Houston in September. In his fourth big league start, he set a club record with eight RBIs in an 18-1 rout of the Cardinals. He headed to the Arizona Fall League after the season, but the Astros decided he'd be better off with some rest and pulled him after he appeared in four games.

Strengths: Towles has a chance to have average or better skills across the board. He has good pitch recognition, handles the bat well and controls the strike zone, so he should hit for average. He's adding strength and starting to pull the ball more often, so he could develop into a 15-20 home run threat. He's more agile and runs better than most catchers, with average speed and double-digit steal totals in each of his three full seasons. Behind the plate, Towles moves and receives well and calls a good game. He has a strong arm and his athleticism gives him a quick release. Because he's athletic and has a similar build, he gets compared to Jason Kendall, but he has more pop and better defensive ability than Kendall ever did.

Weaknesses: Because he has played the equivalent of just two full minor league seasons, Towles still needs polish. His primary goal is to get stronger, so he can tap into more of his power potential and be more durable. He can get pull-happy at times and should drive more balls to the opposite field when the opportunity presents itself. Despite his quickness, he must be more judicious about stealing bases after getting caught 14 times in 28 tries in 2007. He can improve the accuracy of his throws after throwing out 28 percent of basestealers last season.

The Future: Houston re-signed Brad Ausmus yet again, but only as a mentor and backup to Towles. The Astros have sent only one catcher to the All-Star Game in franchise history (Craig Biggio, 1991) and believe Towles can become their second.
2007 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Salem (Hi A) .200 .339 .278 90 14 18 3 2 0 11 12 15 3
Corpus Christi (AA) .324 .425 .551 216 47 70 12 2 11 49 23 35 9
Round Rock (AAA) .279 .354 .279 43 5 12 0 0 0 2 4 7 2
Houston .375 .432 .575 40 9 15 5 0 1 12 3 1 0
2.  Felipe Paulino, rhp   Born: Oct. 5, 1983B-T: R-RHt: 6-3Wt: 245
 Signed: Dominican Republic, 2001Signed by: Andres Reiner/Omar Lopez
Felipe PaulinoBackground: Originally signed as a shortstop, Paulino quickly moved to the mound and could be the next in the Astros' long tradition of flamethrowers. Houston has seen Paulino's fastball hit 100 mph, while other clubs have had him up to 102.

Strengths: Strengths: Paulino has consistently gotten better in making the transition from thrower to pitcher. He's improved at maintaining his athletic delivery and locating his fastball. He likes to bust hitters inside, then make them look silly with a hammer 80-85 mph curveball.

Weaknesses: Paulino works up in the strike zone with his four-seam fastball, and major league hitters turned it around for five homers in 19 innings. His improved curveball and changeup are still not consistently reliable. He'll fly open in his delivery at times, costing him command. He's an adventure as a fielder, having led his minor leagues in errors by a pitcher the last two seasons.

The Future: The Astros still haven't determined Paulino's long-term role. He'll compete for a rotation spot in spring training, but he eventually could emerge as their closer if Chad Qualls doesn't seize the job.
2007 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Corpus Christi (AA) 6 9 3.62 22 21 0 0 112 103 6 49 110 .238
Houston 2 1 7.11 5 3 0 0 19 22 5 7 11 .289
3.  Troy Patton, lhp   Born: Sept. 3, 1985B-T: B-LHt: 6-1Wt: 185
 Drafted: HS—Magnolia, Texas, 2004 (9th round)Signed by: Rusty Pendergrass
Troy PattonBackground: The Astros spent $900,000 in 2004 to lure Patton away from a Texas scholarship. He has earned a midyear promotion in each of his three full seasons and made his big league debut at age 21 in August. He was shut down in September as a precaution with a sore shoulder.

Strengths: Patton enhances his solid stuff with the best command in the system. He can touch 94 mph with his four-seam fastball and gets good sink on a two-seamer that sits in the high 80s. He has ditched his high school slow curveball for a slider he runs in on righthanded hitters. He isn't afraid to use his changeup, which has nice fade.

Weaknesses: Patton has had minor shoulder issues for three straight seasons. He'll drop down to give batters another look, though that often causes his pitches to flatten out and hang in the strike zone. He likes to challenge hitters inside, which is good, but he has little margin for error.

The Future: Patton should be 100 percent by spring training, when he'll be trying to crack the Houston rotation. His upside is as a No. 3 starter at best, but he's one of the safest bets in the system to reach his ceiling.
2007 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Corpus Christi (AA) 6 6 2.99 16 16 0 0 102 96 10 33 69 .247
Round Rock (AAA) 4 2 4.59 8 8 0 0 49 44 5 11 25 .247
Houston 0 2 3.55 3 2 0 0 13 10 3 4 8 .213
4.  Juan Gutierrez, rhp   Born: July 14, 1983B-T: R-RHt: 6-3Wt: 200
 Signed: Venezuela, 2000Signed by: Andres Reiner/Pablo Torrealba/Rafael Lara
Juan GutierrezBackground: Gutierrez spent four years in Rookie ball, which meant that he had to be protected on Houston's 40-man roster before he even reached a full-season league. But the Astros haven't regretted that decision or their patience, and he made his big league debut in August.

Strengths: Gutierrez has one of the better fastballs in the system, both in terms of its low-90s velocity and its sink. He'll flash a plus changeup at times, allowing him to keep hitters off balance. He has a sturdy frame and has missed time just once in seven years as a pro, when he had a tender elbow in 2006.

Weaknesses: His command regressed last season, as did his secondary pitches. Gutierrez doesn't finish his curveball consistently and it's probably going to be an average pitch at best. He's unflappable on the mound, but he's also too happy-go-lucky at times.

The Future: Gutierrez could wind up as a reliever. He pitched better in that role during his big league stint, and he may not have enough command or pitches to stick in the rotation. Houston isn't ready to make that move yet, however, and will give him a long look in spring training.
2007 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Round Rock (AAA) 5 10 4.15 26 25 0 0 156 154 17 63 108 .261
Houston 1 1 5.91 7 3 0 0 21 25 3 6 16 .298
5.  Michael Bourn, of   Born: Dec. 27, 1982B-T: L-RHt: 5-11Wt: 180
 Drafted: Houston, 2003 (4th round)Signed by: Dave Owen (Phillies)
Michael BournBackground: Houston acquired Bourn and Mike Costanzo along with Geoff Geary in a November trade that sent Brad Lidge to Philadelphia. Bourn spent all of 2007 in the majors but got just 15 starts and 119 at-bats while serving mainly as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.

Strengths: Upon his arrival, Bourn immediately became the fastest runner and best defensive outfielder among Houston prospects. One club official joked that Bourn's speed rated a 90 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and he was caught just one in 19 steal attempts last season. He knows how to make best use of his quickness, spraying line drives from gap to gap and showing an eye for drawing walks. He has a strong arm for a center fielder.

Weaknesses: Bourn never will hit for much power and needs to make more consistent contact to be a truly effective leadoff man. He hit just .154 against lefthanders in 2007, though battling southpaws hadn't been a problem in the past.

The Future: The best-case scenario is Bourn develops into the younger version of Juan Pierre. It will be an upset if he's not batting leadoff and playing center field for Houston in 2008, shifting Hunter Pence to right.
2007 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Philadelphia .277 .348 .378 119 29 33 3 3 1 6 13 21 18
6.  Mike Costanzo, 3b   Born: Sept. 9, 1983B-T: L-RHt: 6-3Wt: 215
 Drafted: Coastal Carolina, 2005 (2nd round)Signed by: Roy Tanner (Phillies)
Mike CostanzoBackground: Before the Brad Lidge trade, the Astros had no third-base prospects or lefthanded power in the upper levels of the system, and they hope Costanzo will fill both voids. He ranked second in the Double-A Eastern League in homers.

Strengths: Costanzo has enormous raw power, especially to the pull side. He typically has struggled against lefthanders, but he made huge strides late in 2007. If pitchers won't challenge him, Costanzo is more than willing to take a walk. A two-way player at Coastal Carolina, he has a plus arm at third base. He's an average runner once he gets underway.

Weaknesses: Some scouts believe that Costanzo will have to move to first base, while others wonder whether he has too many holes in his swing to be an everyday player. He has 379 strikeouts in 345 pro games, and it unlikely he'll hit for much of an average. Though he arrived in camp last spring in the best shape of his life, his lateral movement and first-step quickness remain fringy at best.

The Future: The Astros will send Costanzo to Triple-A, and if he can show improvement at the hot corner, he could be in Houston by midseason. If he has to move to first base, his future is much cloudier.
2007 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Reading (AA) .270 .368 .490 508 92 137 29 1 27 86 75 157 2
7.  Bud Norris, rhp   Born: March 2, 1985B-T: R-RHt: 6-0Wt: 195
 Drafted: Cal Poly, 2006 (6th round)Signed by: Dennis Twombley
Bud NorrisBackground: Thanks in part to a strong performance in Hawaii Winter Baseball, Norris rates as the best prospect from the Astros' 2006 draft despite lasting until the sixth round. He ranked among league strikeout leaders in Hawaii Winter Baseball as the season neared its end.

Strengths: Norris worked in the mid-90s and topped out at 97 mph as a reliever, and he sat in the low 90s as a starter. His fastball also has late life, making it that much more difficult to hit. He has the best curveball in the system, a power downer that he throws in the low 80s.

Weaknesses: Norris still lacks polish. His control of his curveball comes and goes, while his changeup is still very much a work in progress. He's still honing his feel for pitching, and when he rushes his delivery he loses rhythm and command. He's not very big, so there are questions about his long-term durability as a starter.

The Future: The Astros will continue to start Norris to give him more innings, but he profiles better as a reliever. He likely will begin 2008 in high Class A Salem, and he could develop into Houston's closer of the future.
2007 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lexington (Lo A) 2 8 4.75 22 22 0 0 97 85 8 41 117 .233
Salem (Hi A) 1 0 1.50 1 1 0 0 6 4 0 1 2 .190
8.  Brad James, rhp   Born: June 19, 1984B-T: R-RHt: 6-2Wt: 200
 Drafted: North Central Texas, 2004 (29th round)Signed by: Pat Murphy
Brad JamesBackground: A teammate of Justin Towles at North Central Texas, James took longer to emerge as a true prospect. Once he found a consistent delivery and release point at low Class A in 2006, his stock surged upward. He tore up high Class A in the first half of 2007, then got hit harder in Double-A and the Arizona Fall League.

Strengths: James relies heavily on a low-90s sinker that generated a 2.1 groundout/flyout ratio last season. His slider serves as a fine complement to his sinker. He has the mental toughness to pitch in any role the Astros throw at him.

Weaknesses: He depends on his sinker too much at times, which caused trouble against more advanced hitters. He has yet to come up with an effective changeup; he doesn't have enough command or arm speed on his current model. He's starting to realize that he has to have the changeup to remain a starter.

The Future: James will head back to Double-A as a starter to being 2008. There's a good chance that he'll eventually wind up in the bullpen, and he has enough stuff and the makeup to become a setup man.
2007 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Salem (Hi A) 9 2 1.98 16 16 0 0 96 72 5 33 55 .207
Corpus Christi (AA) 1 5 5.17 9 9 0 0 47 53 2 20 22 .294
9.  Chad Reineke   Born: April 9, 1982B-T: R-RHt: 6-6Wt: 210
 Drafted: Miami (Ohio), 2004 (13th round)Signed by: Nick Venuto
Chad ReinekeBackground: Reineke had the size and stuff to warrant an early-round selection, but a spotty track record in four years at Miami (Ohio) dropped him to the 13th round of the 2004 draft. He has bounced between starting and relieving in each of his three full seasons. He spent April and May in Round Rock's rotation, moved to the bullpen in June and July and started again in August.

Strengths: Reineke's fastball and slider both grade as average to plus pitches, though they both slipped a bit in 2007. His fastball sat closer to 90 mph more often and his slider wasn't as hard or as sweeping as it had been in the past. He delivers both pitches on a steep angle that's tough on hitters.

Weaknesses: Houston keeps starting Reineke in an attempt to develop his changeup. It will dive at times but still remains inconsistent. So do his mechanics and his command, which is a problem because his fastball is fairly straight. He relies on his slider too heavily.

The Future: Ticketed for another half-season at Round Rock, Reineke could be another Chad Qualls. Qualls had only intermittent success until the Astros made him a full-time reliever in Triple-A, and they'll probably wind up making the same move with Reineke.
2007 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Round Rock (AAA) 5 5 4.68 32 16 0 0 100 99 7 52 95 .261
10.  Eli Iorg, of   Born: March 14, 1983B-T: R-RHt: 6-3Wt: 200
 Drafted: Tennessee, 2005 (1st round supplemental)Signed by: Mike Rosamond Sr.
Eli IorgBackground: Iorg comes from an extended baseball family, as his father Garth and uncle Dane played in the majors, older brother Isaac played in the minors and younger brother Cale signed with the Tigers in August. Eli's 2007 season ended in late May when he tore a ligament in his right elbow diving into first base.

Strengths: Iorg has the tools to be a 20-20 man and play a solid right field. He chased fewer pitches, made more consistent contact and used the opposite field more often in 2007. He has slightly above-average speed and a plus arm. He has good instincts on the bases and in the outfield. He was less stubborn and quicker to make adjustments this season.

Weaknesses: Because he went on a Mormon mission while in college, Iorg is already 24 and losing three months of at-bats was costly. He still doesn't trust his swing enough and tries to drive balls from a dead start. He's still not very adept at working counts.

The Future: Iorg hit well enough in two months in high Class A to open 2008 in Double-A. He'll likely to play DH to ease his return from Tommy John surgery. The Astros are strong on the outfield corners with Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, but Iorg has the upside to force his way into the picture.
2007 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB
Salem (Hi A) .296 .350 .512 162 35 48 12 4 5 24 14 36 14

Complete Index of Top 10 Prospects
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Photo Credits: Brian Bissell (Towles)
Steve Moore (Patton, Iorg)
Rodger Wood (Costanzo)
Rich Abel (Norris)
Bill Mitchell (James)
Andrew Wooley (Reineke)