Houston Astros Top 10 Prospects Chat With John Manuel

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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, 2011.

Moderator: John Manuel will chat about the Astros' farm system beginning at 12 p.m. ET.

John Manuel: Nothing gets me ready for a chat like the Diane Rehm show and tuna sandwiches . . . so let's chat Astros!

    Ben (Leland Grove): Who would be your biggest sleepers in Houston's system - one hitter and one pitcher?

John Manuel: Ben, this whole system is sleepers after the top few guys, because there are so few sure things, ya know? I would say R.J. Alaniz as a pitcher works, he's a NDFA from '09 who has the best curveball in the system and solid-average velocity, touching above-average, to go with it. I'm not sure they have a hitter that qualifies. The 11-30 is super-heavy with pitchers. I suppose Jose Altuve is the correct answer here, though I would prefer to tamp down some of the hype about the internet's favorite 5-foot-5 Astros prospect. But he's one of the very few hitters in the 11-30.

    Harry (Houston, TX): How close did Ben Heath come to making the list?

John Manuel: I didn't consider him too seriously for the top 10, but he's in the 18-25 range. There are some real questions about (a) how his offensive approach will work at higher levels and (b) if he'll receive enough to be a catcher long-term. That said, he's the best catching prospect in the system. Roberto Pena, who just missed the top 30, is the best defensive C, but Heath's a better overall prospect, as Pena's bat has a long way to go.

    JAYPERS (IL): Your thoughts on Ross Seaton's season in High-A? What does he need to improve upon?

John Manuel: Everything! The good parts: Seaton stayed healthy, took every turn and regained his prep velocity. We have a good number of reports of him sitting 90-91 with his sinker and hitting 94 with his four-seamer. But his pitchability is pretty poor right now, and that won't fly in Lancaster because everything else does. His delivery falls apart out of the stretch, according to one scout I talked to, but his numbers were actually better with runners on base. I think the big reason for that is that he was just so bad from the windup. Seaton ranks higher than he probably should considering the numbers, and that's a sign of the system still lacking depth. He's in the top 20.

    Kyle (Dallas, TX): Did 2010 draftees Mike Kvasnicka and Vincent Velasquez make your 11-20 range? What's the rundown on both?

John Manuel: Yes. For the rundown, buy the book. The quick version: Velasquez would have been in the top 10 but he had postseason Tommy John surgery, and that means 2010 will be the only year from 2009-2011 that he'll pitch. I like the TJ track record but I'm fine being conservative with someone with Velasquez's limited pitching history. Kvasnicka ranks behind him because I'm just not sure where he's going to play. The Astros will try him at 3B in 2011, but the reviews I got on that were mixed, and he's going to have to prove his power is more than just gap power. I do like him, I think the consensus might have Wates below him, but I like Wates' athleticism, bat and speed a bit better at this time. That's probably one where I didn't go with the consensus.

    JAYPERS (IL): Was the dropoff in velocity the main reason for Folty's struggles in Greeneville, or was his slurve more to blame? How much has he improved since then, according to scouts you've spoken to?

John Manuel: I don't think he struggled that much there honestly; he was inconsistent with everything, but that's what high school pitchers do, and some clubs use the Appy as advanced Rookie ball, like Atlanta and Minnesota, so his performance there was fine for me. His breaking ball, as the scouting report indicates, improved in instructional league and that's his biggest area of need in terms of stuff going forward. Obviously his other concern is just grinding it out through a full season; he can ask Tanner Bushue about how easy or hard that is to do.

    Phil (Houston): Hi John, Thanks for taking our Astros question. You guys at Baseball America do a wonderful job. I had one quick question: Where would Jon Villar rank on the Phillies prospect list in the Top 10? Thanks, Phil

John Manuel: Phil, I didn't do Phillies this year, I passed it off to Philly area native Matt Forman, and he knocked it out of the park. Working with Matt's list, I'd probably put Villar at 5, but he's a tough guy to rank. His tools are pretty huge, and so are his strikeout totals. I'm of two minds with him, and originally had him at No. 2 on the list. The Astros are quite convicted about DeShields' bat, to borrow a Mike Radcliff word, so I went with him at 2. But Villar's tools, just raw tools, are better than any other SS in the minors not named Manny Machado.

    JAYPERS (IL): If you had to compare Lyles to any established major leaguer at this stage of his career, who would it be and why? Thanks John.

John Manuel: I didn't get a comp, Jaypers, and I'm not coming up with one off the top of my head, a tall RHP with an avg FB and above-average secondary stuff. Stuff-wise, he seems pretty close to Jeremy Hellickson, but he's taller and actually doesn't throw as hard. But stuff-wise, that might be a good comp.

    John (Temple): What position does Mike Kvasnicka end up playing?

John Manuel: It's 50-50 between 3b and a corner OF spot for me. the Astros are quite committed to him at 3B right now.

    James (Austin): Southpaws Pat Urckfitz and David Berner successfully navigated the Cal League last season. Any chance either gets plugged in to Corpus' starting rotation this season?

John Manuel: I love Urckfitz as a future bullpen guy, talked to him in the AFL and like him as a reliever, which is the role that he'll play next year. Berner is just a guy, a lefty with below-average stuff and pitchability. He did not make the top 30; Urckfitz got written up though.

    Jasen (FLL): When do you expect to see Deshields in an Astro's uniform and at what position? I am very surprised you think he has a chance to bat #3.

John Manuel: Sorry for the slight delay, blame Jim Callis! He's hard to get off the phone . . . anyway, DeShields will start off at 2B and there's no reason he can't try it if his arm is healthy. If he takes to the pro instruction, he should be athletic enough to handle it in a Ray Durham kind of fashion. Remember he's going to be full-time at baseball for the first time in 2011, so he could take some quantum leaps. That said, the consensus of scouts in Georgia was that he was going to wind up in CF.

    Phil (Pflugerville): Where does Rule 5er Aneury Rodriguez slot in the prospect rankings?

John Manuel: I haven't researched every single top 10, but a cursory glance that I did with BA's own Matt Eddy (@eddymk) was that he ranks higher than any Rule 5 prospect in Handbook history. He just missed the top 10. People do get a little over-heated on him, as I may have a bit before the Rule 5. As a starter, his velocity was fringe-average in 2010, 88-90, 88-91, a lot of the time. Two scouts I talked to at the Winter Meetings had seen him higher this winter, 92-93 a lot, but those were in shorter stints. He's a back-of-the-rotation profile, best case scenario is No. 4 starter, and he's in the mix for Houston's No. 5 spot. I liked the pick for Houston's current needs, and think he can beat out FA signee Ryan Rowland-Smith, who might be a better fit in the bullpen anyway.

    Jasen (FLL): The dip in Foltynewicz's fastball velocity looks like a major concern. Was that just a fluke or is something serious to be concerned with?

John Manuel: It's not. His velocity was inconsistent as a pro but he threw well in instructional league. Matt Eddy covers the Appy League like no one's business, and he has reports from managers of Folty throwing 95-96 in one start, 90-94 in another, 88-91 in another and 88-93 in yet another. It's not a concern, it's an adjustment to pro ball and 5-man rotations.

    Willie T (Spring Branch): Any information you can provide on 41st rounder Bryce Lane, who sucked in his pro debut in the Appy but somehow tore it up as an injury fill-in at Lancaster (albeit in a very abbreviated and probably meaningless stint)?

John Manuel: He's just a guy, I made sure to ask about him thanks to that small but successful jump he made late, but he's an org player until he proves otherwise.

    Hankmed (San Antonio): Does the munchkin (aka Jose Altuve) start the year in Corpus or return to Lancaster?

John Manuel: He has a chance to go to Corpus Christi, but more likely, he'll go wherever Jio Mier goes. They worked well together at Lexington, have a good rapport, and frankly Altuve is more useful to the Astros helping Mier than as a prospect. He made the top 30 because he does have his supporters, but we also have reports that he has no plus tool. Other reports say his best tool, his defense, is above-average, and his speed, which is average out of the box (at times below-average) but average-to-plus once he's underway. He's going to have to be David Eckstein; he's going to have to do everything right to make it. He's toward the back of the 30. Also, contrary to some reports, he was not Rule 5 eligible.

    Kyle Reese (The Future): Will Brian Bogusevic see time in the OF for the Astros this year?

John Manuel: I think he will be a bench piece this year; he also is in the mix at 1B behind Wallace and I guess Carlos Lee. He's a big league reserve, and if it all comes together, he's a John Mabry type.

    Victor (El Paso): The Astros are locked in to pitching hell Lancaster for I believe two more seasons. Have you heard anything about plans longer term to try and get back to the Carolina League?

John Manuel: I have not, but at least they aren't in Bakersfield, which is a better market but a much worse ballpark. The better idea might be just having an FSL team in Kissimmee, wouldn't it?

    Gio (Houston): Henry Villar has been much more adept at pitching out of the bullpen but the Astros seem intent of making him a starter. What do they see and will he stick there?

John Manuel: He's a mixed bag, some scouts like him as a starter too, but he was in the majors as a reliever and there's a lot more opportunity for him there. He is a dark horse for that fifth starter's spot. I don't actually remember where he wound up ranking, I think he was a guy I moved up late in the process; somewhere 18-25. His best pitch is his changeup, which profiles him a bit better as a starter, and his slider is his weakest pitch, which again hurts him as a setup guy, because it's not a swing-and-miss pitch.

    Aurelio (Brownsville): Is Chia-Jen Lo healthy?

John Manuel: HE did not throw in instructs; he did not have surgery, and the Astros expect him to be ready for spring training. That was what I had as of early December; I have not done an update in the last month.

    Frank (Galveston): Is trade pickup Wes Musick in the rotation at CC and does he fall within the Top 30?

John Manuel: That deal happened after the handbook deadline, but I think Musick would have slotted into the middle of this top 30, behind R.J. Alaniz but probably ahead of Fernando Abad, because he's got a chance to be a back-of-the-rotation starter. It's a plus changeup, according to our reports, and a solid-average fastball with a chance for an average curve. Sounds like another John Halama, who once upon a time was my favorite Astros prospect, non-USC division.

    Nick (Boston): I am surprised by how low Austin Wates was, is it because of his lack of a position? What can we expect from him in the future? CF?

John Manuel: I think most are surprised he's in the Top 10, actually. The Astros believe he can play CF, and I talked to enough scouts when Wates was an amateur who believe he can do it too, so he ranked 9th. He's not a profile guy if he doesn't play CF, he doesn't have the power for the corner spots (1b, lf) that he played in college. As stated earlier, I like the bat, even if the swing's a bit unorthodox, and I like his speed and athleticism.

    BaggyWasRipped (Cooperstown): Does Tanner Bushue get skipped to AA?

John Manuel: Doubtful. More likely he goes back to Lexington. He's a guy whose stuff was down, to an extent. Again, I think people cherry-pick out scouting reports. We wrote last year that he hit 93 with his fastball before the draft, but no one ever said Bushue sat 93. The fact that he hit 93 encouraged scouts to believe it's in there and that it's within reason to project his fastball to improve from the upper 80s, where it sat in high school while touching the low 90s. He sat in the mid-to-upper 80s this year; lots of 84-88 reports. But he's a projection guy all the way, athletic, good frame. I expect the Astros to keep him in A ball rather than push him to Double-A, and a repeat at Lexington in a prospecty rotation with Foltynewicz, Alaniz, Bobby Duran and maybe a repeating Zach Grimmett would be interesting.

    Dan (Missouri): Jose Altuve had some of the best numbers in the Astros minor league system last year. However, at 5'5" and on the shy side of 150lbs, will his smallish stature keep him from ever being considered a "prospect"?

John Manuel: Asked and answered. His stature won't keep him down; the fact that his body keeps him from having big-time tools is what will keep him down. Know any 5-5, 155-pound guys with average power, or average hitting ability? Plus at that size, not being a burner, it's a much tougher sell.

    Doug (McLean, VA): Telvin Nash has plus plus power tool for a 19 year-old (13 homeruns in 200 ABs in 2010) can he develop enough in other areas to be an MLB regular?

John Manuel: The Astros believe so; I'm pretty sure internally, he's in their Top 10. He just missed ours because he has a lot of swing and miss and I'm not convinced he's more than a 1B. If he's in LF, at least early career, then he has a bit more wiggle room and defensive value. I learned a lesson from BA's aggressive ranking in 2003 of Brian Dopirak to go crazy on righthanded-hitting, righthanded-throwing 1Bs who don't have defensive versatility. That could be Nash's path. His power is legit, and he's working out in the ATL, I understand, with Jason Heyward and Xavier Avery, among others, working to improve his batting eye and maintain his athleticism.

    Michael N (San Antonio): Why do you see J.D. Martinez returning to the Hooks to start the season as opposed to playing in Bricktown Ballpark in OKC, particularly as Ed Wade is much more apt to push prospects along than GMs past?

John Manuel: Could definitely see him in Triple-A OKC to start the year. I don't know that Martinez has everyone convinced that he's for real, because like Wates, he has an unorthodox swing. His is described in some detail in the writeup. Martinez would be a nice place-holder if the Astros can move Carlos Lee — longtime BA readers may recall Lee's a personal all-time favorite, as I covered him when he was 17 in the SAL at Hickory. It's a shame that El Caballo's contract has become an albatross, but I think moving him is job one for Wade this year, especially with the team being for sale. Martinez would be a natural guy to take Lee's place, so I do think he'll be pushed.

    Michael N (San Antonio): Does Jay Austin ever put things together at the plate?

John Manuel: Signs point to no, hence he didn't make the top 10. Not a lot of encouraging signs in his development this year, and he doesn't seem to be making a lot of adjustments, which is a bigger concern. Still has some pretty big tools, but the hit tool is the one that counts the most.

    Angel (Hidalgo): TJ Steele suffered through an injury-plagued 2010. What's his prognosis for the new year?

John Manuel: Prognosis Negative! (wish I could just add the link: http://seinfeld.wikia.com/wiki/Prognosis_Negative) Anyway, Steele didn't make the top 30. His track record going back to Arizona is big tools, no plate discipline, injury-prone. I'll pass, and will be happy for him if he proves me wrong.

    Karl of Delaware (Georgetown, Delaware): What was the discussion and factors that resulted in Villar being the 2014 shortstop rather than Mier?

John Manuel: Villar has much bigger tools — better range, better arm, much better speed. You see a lot of 60s and 70s on Villar's reports, more 50s and 60s on Mier.

    Greg (Ohio): What's the reason for the texas whoopin' Jordan Lyles took at AAA last year?

John Manuel: He was the only teenager in the Pacific Coast League, and Triple-A hitters are good. I think that explains it best. I put very little stock in those six starts. Good that he made them, but all they indicate is that he's probably not going to win the fifth-starter spot in 2011, at least at the outset. I think the Astros think that too, hence 2 Rule 5 picks plus signing Ryan Rowland-Smith.

    Greg (Ohio): Why Austin Wates behind JD Martinez?

John Manuel: Because Martinez hit in Double-A, and there's a bit more known with him. That was a pretty loud year. Wates has hardly played pro ball and doesn't have the huge tools like DeShields has that allowed him to rank that high as a new draftee. If Wates can't handle CF, then he's a LF like Martinez, and Martinez's bat profiles much better there.

    Michael (Houston): How much can Lyles' fastball improve (velocity)? I've seen him pitch in person several times, and it appears that he could add some weight. His delivery is also very easy. Are these the recipe to gaining more on the fastball while maintaining his excellent command?

John Manuel: I got mixed reports on that but you're right in that he does it easy and has a projectable frame. I thought the report said he can throw a bit harder, but he's never going to be a power pitcher with a dominant fastball. That's the important takeaway, whether he throws 1-2 mph harder consistently or not.

    Jake (Goodyear, AZ): Hi there, you say that Jordan Lyles profiles as a No. 3 starter on a major league contender, but he's #1 on the list...what does that say about the Astros farm system.

John Manuel: They do not have a star-caliber player is what it says. DeShields and Foltynewicz could be, but they have a long way to go. As I wrote in the overview, the system has improved, but it's been baby steps, and it was a huge hole to crawl out of. This farm system was 29-30-30 the previous three Handbooks; that's Death Valley.

    Michael (Houston): What is the upside potential for Ruben (R.J.) Alaniz? Legit prospect? Why did scouts pass on drafting him?

John Manuel: People just couldn't see him because of an outbreak of swing flu that wiped out his high school baseball season. He had a lot of looks and exposure that summer via workouts and his play in a summer league in the East Cobb Complex around Atlanta, so the Astros had to pay him a six-figure bonus to get him. He's a dude, top 15 in the top 30.

    Jasen (FLL): Will Villar be able to contribute with the bat? Or primarily just a defensive player with speed on the bases?

John Manuel: That's the big question. He has hitting tools but he needs to have more of a contact, little man's approach. I think he'll hit for average but not much power, but he could be an impact basestealer.

    Randy (Cactus Corners): Delino DeShields Jr at second base? Isn't there alot more value in profile CF who can hit? Seems al that speed is wasted playing the infield.

John Manuel: I respectfully disagree. I'd rather have a premium athlete involved a lot more if possible, and 2Bs make more plays than CFs. Also Michael Bourn is quite good defensively now in Houston, and Austin Wates from the '10 draft also might wind up in CF, so the Astros aren't wasting him by trying him at 2B at all.

    Tony (Lakeland, FL): Who is most likely in your opinion to jump into the top 10 next year?

John Manuel: Nash, Alaniz and Kvasnicka.

    Kevin (Houston): Is it safe to say that the Koby Clemens overdraft has proven to be accurate? Is he in the future in any capacity at the big league level?

John Manuel: Jim Callis wrote this way back when Koby was first drafted — the fact that him being an Astros farmhand helped convince his dad to play one more season in Houston was a win for the organization. He's been a good organizational player, nothing wrong with that, a lot of eighth-rounders do that. When I was in the AFL, one observer told me he saw Clemens working out at 2B, and that he was surprised by it, that Clemens looked OK there. If he makes it, he'll make it on sheer hard work and his solid hitting ability. It sounds like his makeup is as good as anyone in the organization. I'm rooting for him, but he didn't make the top 30.

    Karl of Delaware (Georgetown, Delaware): Besides Deshields and Foltynewicz, what other Astro prospects will be stocking the low A Lexington team in 2011?

John Manuel: Wates could be there, though I believe he'll be pushed. Expect Alaniz there, as mentioned previously when I talked about the Lexington rotation, and Kvasnicka could be there. Telvin Nash is a key part of that team. Not sure all these guys are prospects, but Ben Orloff will be there, as will Daniel Adamson and probably Chris Wallace, plus Thomas Shirley, Carlos Quevedo and Jake Buchanan.

    Jason (Charlotte): Did Jake Buchanon get any consideration the for list ?

John Manuel: Not really, below-average fastball, some pitchability but not a great profile in terms of body, physicality, etc. I like him as an org player.

    Mark (Fargo, ND): Who has the best chance in the Astros top 30 of becoming a closer?

John Manuel: I'll take conversion guy Jorge De Leon, who came into 2010 as an infielder and ended it as a righthander on the 40-man roster. He's up to 98 mph, a guy who other organizations definitely took note of and who would have been popped if he'd been Rule 5 eligible.

    Ryan (Abingdon, MD): I've heard that while Dustin Pedroia is listed at 5'9", he's actually several inches shorter. Do you think the 5'5" listing for Altuve is accurate?

John Manuel: I think it is accurate. I haven't seen him in person but talked to several coaches in the organization and 5-5 was the consensus. I believe Pedroia is closer to 5-7 than 5-9, but this is not Pedroia.

    glenn (Harrisonburg VA): What Astro prospects have a chance of making the top 100 prospect list this year?

John Manuel: Lyles will be on there obviously, and fairly high. For me, DeShields and Villar also are top 100 guys, but that's about it.

    jedjethro (Ed Wadesville): John, Thanks for the chat. Other than lack of talent do you see any overriding weaknesses either in the Astros system or approach? I'm wondering if there's another organization that's as offensively on-base-skills-challenged as Houston.

John Manuel: I don't think that OBP criticism holds up; JB Shuck, Mier, Wates all control the strike zone well and those are three of their best hitters. They just don't have many hitting prospects period. They had zero athletes in the system, zero. I think other scouting departments would have taken over in Houston in 2008 and said, damn, we have zero talent, let's load up on college players. But the Astros instead have consistently gone for athletes, upside, you can even say risky picks. They've been consistent. We'll see how it all works out; returns right now are solid, not spectacular, but to really turn a system around, you have to have a fire sale of MLB talent, and the Astros didn't really ever do that. Even when they did deal Oswalt and Berkman, they got MLB talent back (Happ, Melancon), not just prospects, and they sold low on Berkman.

    Rob (Hamilton, ON): Besides JD Martinez, anything else from the late rounds of the 2009 draft panning out that looks exciting?

John Manuel: Jake Goebbert can hit some; he could put up some big numbers in Lancaster in 2011 and got some consideration. He's probably a left fielder long-term though, so he's going to have to really hit. That might be it.

    Carlos (Boston): What can you tell us about Rod Quintero?

John Manuel: Quintero is an arm-strength guy and a Cuban refugee who went to JC at Chipola and was a nice find as a late-round guy. He's on the depth chart, but frankly I didn't have enough quality info to rank him in the top 30. Same for sleeper Luis Perdomo, who was quite good in the GCL, and some sources outside the system like him as a top 20 type of prospect. I have him as a four-pitch guy with no standout pitch and an 86-92 mph fastball, so that wasn't enough to rank him, but he had an excellent US debut and is a nice sleeper to keep track of.

John Manuel: Well, that's going to do it for the Astros chat. Thanks for the questions; if you have more you can hit me up on Twitter at @johnmanuelba and I'll do my best to get to all of them. Thanks for coming by and making this a fun exercise, I'm up to 12 organizations which remains the BA record in terms of Top 30s. They've all been pretty fun to do. Have a great weekend.