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The Phillies first approached the Astros about a trade in September, searching for a reasonably priced alternative to David Bell and inquiring about Geoff Blum. After Philadelphia held its offseason organizational meetings, it shifted its top priority to closer and came looking for Billy Wagner, Houston's career leader in saves. The Astros were rebuffed when they asked to build a trade around one of two pitching prospects, Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd. The Phillies initially turned them down on Buchholz as well but relented when they realized it would be a deal-breaker. His commitment to North Carolina caused him to slide in the 2000 draft. His hometown Phillies may have been the only team that could have signed him, and they gave him fourth-round money ($365,000) as a sixth-round pick. Buchholz went 3-13 in his first calendar year after signing before everything started to click. He was the FSL pitcher of the year in 2002 and the youngest player selected for the Double-A Eastern League all-star game in 2003. Buchholz' signature pitch is a hard curveball he picked up in low Class A in 2001. One scout compared its quality and his feel for it to Josh Beckett's and Kerry Wood's, while Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said Buchholz' curve could be one of the five best in the National League within a few years. He throws the bender at 76-79 mph, and can change speeds off it to further befuddle hitters. Buchholz also has a quality fastball that sits in the low 90s, touches 95 mph and has heavy life. He'll flash an average changeup at times. He has a strong, durable frame that has held up well through 78 starts over the last three seasons. He shows good poise on the mound and never let a lack of run support fluster him at Double-A Reading. Buchholz succeeds so easily with his fastball and curve that he hasn't thrown his changeup much. He needs to use it more often to improve its quality and command. He pitched with bone chips in his elbow in 2003, but the problem resolved itself without surgery. Buchholz doesn't always trust his natural stuff and will try to overthrow. Then his front shoulder flies open in his delivery and he leaves pitches up in the strike zone. He needs to do a better job of holding baserunners. The Wagner trade made sense on several levels for Houston. Wagner was unhappy with the direction of the club, he made more money than the Astros wanted to pay when they had a lower-cost alternative in Octavio Dotel, and they got three potential starting pitchers. Buchholz will open 2004 at Triple-A New Orleans. Given how Houston went through 12 starters in 2003, he could get promoted quickly if injuries strike. Buchholz projects as a No. 2 or 3 starter.
Lane started getting taken seriously as a prospect after winning two league MVP awards and three RBI titles in his first three pro seasons. But when the Astros moved Craig Biggio to center field, it left Lane without a spot to crack the big league lineup. Lane is the lone impact hitter in the system. He has consistently hit for power and average as a pro. He's not a burner and fits best on an outfield corner, but he's a better center fielder than any of Houston's regulars. The Astros wanted him to become less pull-conscious and more disciplined in 2003, and he accomplished both missions. Lane has worked hard to eliminate glaring flaws from his game. The only negative in 2003 was a sports hernia that led to two lengthy stints on the disabled list and postseason surgery. He has nothing left to prove in the minors and will break camp with the Astros. But unless the Astros can move Richard Hidalgo's $12 million salary, Lane will serve as a fourth outfielder.
Buck emerged as one of the game's top catching prospects in 2001. While he still maintains that status, he faded down the stretch in 2002 and started to slump again in June 2003 before breaking his right hand in a baserunning accident. With power to all fields and the ability to crush mistakes, Buck has 20-25 home run potential. Managers rated him the best defensive catcher in the Pacific Coast League because of his arm strength and soft hands. He exudes leadership and relishes taking charge of a pitching staff. Buck probably won't hit for much of an average, though he can improve if he improves his recognition of breaking pitches and the strike zone. He has a long release that limited him to erasing just 26 percent of basestealers. He doesn't run well and has bulked up too much in the last two years, though he got into better shape while out with the broken hand. Buck may have been pushed too quickly and definitely needs more time in Triple-A. The Astros re-signed Brad Ausmus as a stopgap and will have him mentor Buck when he's ready.
Forced to Double-A before he was ready because the Astros didn't have a high Class A affiliate in 2002, Burke floundered. His struggles convinced him that what worked in college wasn't going to cut it in the pros, and he made a successful return to Round Rock in 2003, earning Texas League all-star honors. He started for Team USA at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Panama. Burke is ideally suited for the No. 2 spot in a lineup. He gets on base, handles the bat well, has gap power and the speed and instincts to steal bases. He has the quickness and athleticism to be a good second baseman. Burke sometimes has too much power for his own good and must realize hitting homers isn't his game. He needs to take more grounders at second base, so he can improve his ability to read and charge balls. He has played a fair amount of shortstop as a pro but lacks the arm for the position. Unless Burke flops in Triple-A, he'll be Houston's starting second baseman in 2005. Buying Jeff Kent out for $700,000 will be more palatable to the Astros than paying him a $9 million salary.
Though Nieve had pitched just three innings above Rookie ball, the Astros fretted about possibly losing him in the 2002 Rule 5 draft. They're glad they didn't after watching him mature as a pitcher and a person and lead Houston farmhands with 14 victories. He has continued to build on that success by dominating in the Venezuelan League (4-1, 1.88). He doesn't have the highest radar-gun readings, but Nieve's fastball is the best in the system because it combines velocity (91-95 mph) with heavy sink and boring action that rides in on righthanders. His curveball improved dramatically in 2003, as did his approach. He's now a pitcher rather than a thrower who believes he can survive on fastballs alone. Nieve still is learning to throw a changeup and doesn't throw it often. He'll need that pitch and possibly a four-seamer to combat lefthanders at higher levels. He has trouble pitching lefties inside because his two-seamer tends to run back over the plate. Nieve's progress was the farm system's most pleasant development in 2003. Ticketed for high Class A Salem, he's at least two years away from Minute Maid Park.
While the Astros system has slipped, not many organizations have a pair of potential starting catchers like John Buck and Gimenez. Managers have ranked Gimenez the best defensive catcher in the low Class A South Atlantic and high Class A Carolina leagues in his two domestic seasons. One CL manager said he tried to run on Salem just because he liked watching Gimenez' arm in action. Gimenez has a plus arm and ranked second in the CL by throwing out 39 percent of basestealers. He throws better and has more agility than Buck. He's similar offensively, producing more for power than for average. As a bonus, he's a switch-hitter. Still adapting to the United States, Gimenez doesn't have Buck's leadership skills. Gimenez needs to improve his English so he can better handle a pitching staff. He sometimes lets bad at-bats affect his defense. As a hitter, he has only a raw grasp of the strike zone. Like most catchers, he has below-average speed. Gimenez is two years behind Buck. The Astros will return him to high Class A in 2004 and promote him once he gets going offensively.
Like Chris Burke, Qualls was promoted to Double-A before his time in 2002. While he led the Texas League with 142 strikeouts, he went 6-13, 4.36. His Round Rock encore started no better, as he went 3-8, 5.42 in the first three months. Then he finished with a 5-3, 1.93 flourish, establishing himself as the Astros' most advanced starting pitching prospect until they traded for Taylor Buchholz. Qualls' resurgence started when he realized that he's not a power pitcher. His out pitch is a slider, and he wins when he gets his 87-94 mph fastball to sink. He improved his changeup and started throwing a splitter. He's durable and mentally tough. Qualls has difficulty maintaining his mechanics. When he drops down too low, he loses his heavy sink and hitters sit on flat fastballs. His inconsistent delivery also hampers his control. He still has work to do with his changeup, the pitch that ultimately will determine whether he's a big league starter or reliever. Houston's plan is for Qualls to begin 2004 as a Triple-A starter. But he could be an attractive relief option for the Astros by midseason.
Hirsh threw just 86-88 mph in high school, attracting no interest from NCAA Division I programs. Thanks to weight work and mechanical adjustments at Division III Cal Lutheran, he boosted his fastball up to 96 mph and his slider up to 86 last spring, when he recorded 17 and 18-strikeout games. The Astros took him with their top pick after forfeiting their first-rounder to sign free agent Jeff Kent. By the time he reaches the majors, Hirsh could have two 70 pitches on the 20-80 scouting scale. His fastball sits at 92-93 mph and shows nice arm-side run at times. He has intimidating presence on the mound and is athletic for his size. He was more polished than the Astros expected. Hirsh needs more consistency with all of his pitches. At times his fastball is straight, and his slider is far less reliable. His changeup has its moments but his inexperience throwing offspeed stuff shows. Hirsh could be a formidable starter or reliever. Some have projected him as a set-up man, but that might be underestimating him. He'll pitch in the low Class A Lexington rotation in 2004.
Albers is a local product, drafted out of a suburban Houston high school and signed after a year in junior college. He made tremendous strides from his first pro summer to his second, topping the New York-Penn League in strikeouts and turning in quality starts in each of his last six outings. Despite a short, stocky frame, Albers generates 91-95 mph fastballs with little effort. He also has a quick, sharp breaking ball and is picking up a changeup. His fearless makeup might be as good as his stuff. He did a better job controlling his mechanics and his pitches in 2003. His feel for his craft also improved. Houston has had success with short pitchers, but Albers not only was short but also had a soft, pudgy body when he signed. The Astros challenged him to improve his conditioning and he responded, though he'll have to continually watch himself. His secondary pitches require more work. Albers will team up with Jason Hirsh again in low Class A. Hirsh has a higher ceiling, but Albers is more polished and consistent at this point.
Barthmaier could have gone in 2003's supplemental first round, but several Southeastern Conference football programs recruited him as a quarterback, clouding his signability. When the Braves passed on him, other teams followed suit, but Barthmaier had told Astros area scout Ellis Dungan that he was open to turning pro. He signed for $750,000 as a 13th-rounder--$125,000 more than Houston gave Jason Hirsh as a second-rounder. Barthmaier is loaded with physical tools. He has size, athleticism and arm strength. He throws a heavy fastball at 91-94 mph and should add velocity. His slider is a second power pitch, registering as high as 85 mph. He soaks up instruction quickly. Because he divided his time between two sports, Barthmaier is raw. He used to throw his slider with a football motion, and he barely has used a changeup. He throws across his body and varies his arm slots, so he'll have to clean up his mechanics. Barthmaier will need plenty of time to develop. He'll begin the 2004 season in extended spring training and report to short-season Tri-City. He probably won't see full-season ball until 2005.
The Astros lack center-field prospects and have been stretching it defensively at that position in the majors with Richard Hidalgo, Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio. With that in mind, they spent a major league Rule 5 pick on a center fielder for the second straight year. The Astros had to return Victor Hall to the Diamondbacks in 2003 but may be able to retain Taveras. If they can't keep him on their 25-man roster all year, they'll have to put him through waivers and offer him back to Indians for half the $50,000 draft price. Cleveland liked Taveras but had too many prospects to protect on its 40-man roster. Taveras is a potential leadoff hitter whose line-drive approach and control of the strike zone suit him well for the role. He has to get stronger to keep pitchers honest, but power never will be a big part of his game. Taveras' best tool is his speed, which made a huge impression on Carolina League managers in 2003. They rated him the fastest baserunner, best baserunner and best defensive outfielder in the league. Not only can he fly, but he also has basestealing aptitude, succeeding on 57 of his 69 attempts last year. Taveras can cover more ground than any outfielder in the organization, including the majors, and he has a solid arm. He really needs to be playing every day in Double-A at this stage of his career, so if Houston holds on to Taveras, it will come at the expense of stunting his development.
Since they signed him as a second-rounder in 2002, the Astros have compared Talbot's repertoire to that of former all-star Ron Darling. Because the Astros temporarily embargoed signing draft picks that summer, he didn't make his pro debut until 2003 at Rookie-level Martinsville. The layoff didn't hurt him, as Talbot showed a lot of polish for a teenager. Hitters have trouble making solid contact because he has a quick, deceptive arm action and gets a lot of boring and sinking action on his fastballs. He sits at 89-92 mph with his twoseam fastball and can get up to 95 with a four-seamer. His curveball, changeup and ability to pitch are all advanced for his age. He should have three average or better pitches when he reaches the majors. Talbot still needs to tighten his curveball and refine his mechanics a little bit. He'll work on that in low Class A this year.
The presence of lefty closer Billy Wagner obscured the fact that the Astros lacked a reliable southpaw set-up man from 1999-2002. Gallo filled the void when he was promoted last June, and Houston says he can become more than a lefty specialist. The 1999 Big West Conference pitcher of the year (beating out Chad Qualls and Kirk Saarloos, among others), Gallo moved to the bullpen as a pro in mid-2000. He spent three full years in Class A before rocketing from Double-A to Triple-A to the majors in less than three months last year. Gallo goes right after hitters with an 88-91 mph fastball, a big-breaking curveball he'll throw to lefthanders and righthanders, a compact slider and a changeup. His fastball jumps in on lefties and he uses the changeup to combat righties. Gallo has improved his ability to locate his pitches in the strike zone. He incorporates a leg kick and a lot of motion into his delivery, making him deceptive. He does the little things such as fielding his position well and holding runners, allowing just four steals in eight tries last year. Gallo isn't big and can hang his slider when he doesn't stay on top of it. He needs to do a better job against big league righties, who hit .295 against him, and some Houston officials would like to see him drop down occasionally versus lefties. Gallo was sharp in the Arizona Fall League, recording a 0.89 ERA and 11-0 strikeout-walk ratio in 11 innings, reinforcing the Astros' faith in him.
Whiteman, whose Native American name is Owner of Outstanding Horses, is believed to be the first pro athlete from the Crow Nation. Along with Jimmy Barrett, he was one of the system's biggest disappointments in 2003. He tailed off badly after a hot start in Double-A, with his performance declining each month. Even worse, he refused to take responsibility or acknowledge the slippage. The Astros finally got his attention by moving him to third base and playing Chris Burke at shortstop, not that the move jump-started Whiteman's bat. His trip to the Arizona Fall League was a waste of time, as he went 0-for-9 before leaving with soreness in his right scapula. What has been especially frustrating for the Astros is that Whiteman has shown five tools at shortstop. He has the bat speed to hit for average and gap power, and he's a solid-average runner once he gets going. Defensively, he has plus instincts and hands, and his quick first step gives him good range. But Whiteman has to show more energy and dedication to become a big league regular. He needs more strength and plate discipline, as he can be beaten with good fastballs inside and he chases breaking balls. He hasn't corrected a tendency to flip his throws on routine plays, which hurts his accuracy, though that may have been related to his scapula problem. The injury only required rest and rehabilitation, not surgery, so he'll be good to go for spring training. Because they've put him on the 40-man roster for two straight years, the Astros will push Whiteman to Triple-A in 2004. If he doesn't make adjustments and improve, he won't be protected a third time.
Taylor Buchholz and Brandon Duckworth were the centerpieces of the Billy Wagner trade with Philadelphia, but the Astros got a third potential starter in the deal with Astacio. After filling out in the offseason and adding 3 mph to his fastball, he led the Florida State League and the Phillies system with 15 wins in 2003. Astacio throws strikes with all three of his pitches: an 88-93 mph fastball, a curveball that's average now and has plus potential, and a changeup. He needs to become more consistent with his curve and learn to use his changeup better. He'll abandon it for stretches, then rely on it too much. While Astacio is stingy with walks, he's hittable because he catches too much of the strike zone and doesn't pitch inside enough. He's intelligent and should be able to make those adjustments. There's also room for more projection with his long, loose arm. Headed for Double-A, he projects as a No. 5 starter or middle reliever.
Gothreaux is similar to Ezequiel Astacio. They posted virtually identical statistics in 2003, led high Class A leagues in victories and have comparable stuff. Gothreaux began the season in the Salem bullpen and didn't crack the rotation until late April, yet topped the Carolina League in wins and finished third in ERA. His best pitch is his breaking ball, which has slider velocity (81-82 mph) and drops like a power curveball. He also has an 88-93 mph fastball and can vary speeds with both pitches. Gothreaux also shows good touch with his changeup and used it more as a starter last season. He keeps the ball down in the zone, pitching to contact and inducing grounders. Like Astacio, Gothreaux doesn't beat himself with walks but doesn't miss many bats. He's fully developed and doesn't figure to get better than he is now. He has the same projection (fifth starter or middle reliever) and destination (Double-A) as Astacio.
Jimmy Barthmaier wasn't the only top quarterback recruit that Houston signed away from college football in 2003. After leading Eupora High to the Mississippi 2-A finals in baseball and football, Davis was ticketed for the University of Alabama--where former baseball prospects Brody Croyle and Spencer Pennington are one-two on the quarterback depth chart. The Astros changed Davis' mind with a $200,000 bonus. Because he hadn't received much instruction or focused on baseball in the past, he's raw. He'll take considerable time to refine, but he is a strong athlete with a classic pitcher's body (6-foot-6, 215 pounds) and the opportunity for two plus pitches. Davis won two games in five days to give Eupora the state baseball title, leaving him worn out by the time he signed. His velocity dipped from 92-94 mph in the spring to 86-89 mph, but Houston expects the velocity and rising life on his fastball to return. He also shows a hard, knee-buckling curveball at times and has a decent feel for a changeup. Davis' command was off during his pro debut at Rookie-level Martinsville, and the Astros will try to improve his mechanics. He has a funky delivery, throwing from a three-quarters arm slot and holding the ball close to his head. While he needs a lot of innings and a lot more consistency, his ceiling is high. He'll report to extended spring in April, and to either Tri-City or the organization's relocated Rookie-level Appalachian League team in Greeneville, Tenn., in June.
Speed was the system's biggest deficiency entering 2003, and the Astros addressed that in June by drafting Anderson in the fourth round and Jeff Jorgensen in the seventh. Jorgensen, who missed the summer with a broken foot that kept him out of the College World Series with Rice, is faster. But Anderson is nearly as quick--he can go from the left side of the plate to first base in 3.95-4.0 seconds--plus he's stronger and more polished. He led NCAA Division I with 57 steals in 65 attempts at Eastern Kentucky last spring, and he finished third in hitting behind first-round picks Rickie Weeks (Brewers) and Mitch Maier (Royals) at .447. While some scouts viewed Anderson as having questionable power and no more than fourth-outfielder potential, Houston loves his tools across the board. He made a surprisingly quick adjustment to wood bats. The Astros say he'll be a dangerous stolen base threat while hitting for respectable power. Anderson covers a lot of ground and gets good jumps in center field. He also has a strong arm and can throw nearly as well lefthanded as righthanded. Houston officials describe him as an untamed stallion who can get too reckless in the field and on the bases. A more patient approach at the plate also would benefit him, as would shortening his swing and improving his bunting. After earning New York-Penn League all-star recognition in his pro debut, Anderson likely will begin 2004 in low Class A.
The Astros signed three draft-and-follows from the 2002 draft, and all of them made the top 30. While Scott Robinson (seventh round) and Ryan McKeller (45th) were drafted higher and received more exposure, initial returns indicate that Diaz (47th) is the best of the group. Houston originally drafted Diaz in the 29th round in 2001, as an outfielder out of a Puerto Rican high school. He went to Laredo (Texas) JC, where the Astros again drafted him as an outfielder in 2002. The Astros liked his speed and arm strength, and his 6-foot-7 frame projected power though there were questions about his bat. Laredo started using Diaz as a reliever last spring, and he immediately hit 91-92 mph with his fastball. Houston made him a full-time pitcher after signing him in May, and he surpassed their expectations with a 0.90 ERA and .162 opponent average in Rookie ball. He then surprised the Astros by joining Santurce in the Puerto Rican League and pitching well in middle relief. Diaz touches the mid-90s at times and has good spin on his inconsistent curveball. He still needs to hone his curve and command and develop a changeup, but he's coordinated and has a good delivery for someone of his size and inexperience. His winter showing makes it that much easier to send him to low Class A in 2004.
The Astros really wanted to sign Robinson, the best pure hitter they drafted in 2002, out of high school but had to settle for catching a break. Though he couldn't come to terms, he changed his college plans from San Diego State to Palomar (Calif.) JC, meaning Houston retained his rights as an unexpected draft-and-follow. The move paid off for Robinson, who ultimately signed for $225,000. Robinson's father Bruce was the 21st overall pick in the June 1975 draft and played briefly in the majors, as did his uncle Dave. The only high school player ever to play in the Alaska League, Robinson went 4-for-18 as a rising senior with the Alaska Goldpanners in 2001. He returned after graduating in 2002 and was team MVP as the Goldpanners won the National Baseball Congress World Series. Robinson is often compared to Mark Grace. He has a good feel at the plate, controls the bat well and should be able to hit for average with line-drive power. He can handle good fastballs already. He also has athleticism and moves well around the first-base bag. He throws equally well with both hands. Also like Grace, he doesn't have typical first-base power. Robinson could top out at 10-15 homers annually, and he must add upper-body strength to help him drive more balls. He makes consistent contact yet must draw more walks. Following his so-so pro debut in the New York-Penn League, the Astros expect he'll hit more this year in low Class A.
Carlson wound up with the Astros because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. While in minor league camp with the Tigers, he was an innocent participant in an off-color skit that insulted Oneonta manager Randy Ready's wife. Though Carlson had a strong pro debut in 2002, Detroit released him and two other players because of the incident. After signing with Houston, Carlson was unhittable at Lexington, where he was named team MVP. His best pitch is a sharp, late-breaking slider, and he's especially tough on lefthanders because he throws from a low three-quarters slot. His fastball arrives at 88-91 mph and he mixes in an occasional changeup. Carlson's stuff is nastier than Mike Gallo's, though Gallo has proved himself four levels higher than Carlson has at this point. Houston will give him the chance to catch up in 2004, when their rights to Carlson end if he's not kept on the 40- man roster after the season. He'll start the year in Double-A and move to Triple-A as soon as he shows he's ready.
Rosario's first two big league starts couldn't have been any different. He beat the Rangers in his big league debut, allowing just four hits and two runs (one earned) in six innings. Six days later he faced Texas again, but this time a sore shoulder forced him to leave after two scoreless innings and signaled the end of his season. When Rosario had surgery in August, the damage was worse than initially believed. He had labrum and rotator-cuff tears plus instability in the shoulder, not to mention a torn biceps tendon. A healthy Rosario would have ranked third on this list, but he probably won't pitch at all in 2004. The Astros released him in November and brought him back on a minor league contract in January. Hitters have difficulty making solid contact against Rosario. Though he threw 93-95 mph in his brief major league stint, he usually sits at 91-92 mph and gets a lot more movement when he does. He doesn't have a classic slider, but when he stays on top of the pitch it works for him. He had shown an improved slider and changeup before he got hurt. Because Rosario has a slight build, his durability may always be questioned. So will his future until he returns to the mound and shows if he can recapture his ability to miss bats.
Jimerson dominated the 2001 College World Series. His power, speed and defense carried Miami to the national championship, and his backstory was even better. His mother was a crack addict who abandoned Jimerson and his younger brother, while his father was abusive toward his mom and became homeless. Raised by an older sister, Jimerson attended Miami on an academic scholarship and played sparingly until midway through his senior year. He left the Hurricanes with one CWS Most Outstanding Player award, two national titles and a computer-science degree. The question now is how happy the baseball ending will be. Jimerson is the best athlete in the system and could become another Eric Davis if everything clicks. But thus far it hasn't and he hasn't progressed past high Class A. Physically, he has it all. Few players in the organization can match his raw power and plus speed, and none of them runs out grounders harder than Jimerson does. He has outstanding range in center field and a strong arm as well. But he's still unrefined and lacks instincts. He has a long stroke, swings through too many pitches and doesn't read breaking balls, often leaving him defenseless at the plate. He's intelligent and works hard but hasn't been able to make adjustments. Missing six weeks early last season after a pitch broke his right hand was a huge setback because he needs at-bats. Jimerson reminds one scout of Jesse Barfield, who was almost released in Double-A before blossoming into an American League home run champion. Houston hopes Jimerson can take a similar path and showed faith in him by adding him to the 40-man roster this offseason. That decision makes it likely that he'll spend 2004 in Double-A.
Self made news last August when he got trapped in a dugout bathroom during a game at Kinston. He slammed the door in anger after a bad at-bat in the top of the ninth, then missed the bottom of the inning and was stuck for 20 minutes after the game ended. Now if he can just unlock his power. Self was a defensive hitter when he entered pro ball, letting himself fall into bad counts. Now he works pitchers masterfully, and managers rated his strike-zone judgment the best in the Carolina League last year. Self is getting stronger and makes consistent, solid contact, but at 25 he has just 22 homers in 387 pro games. He's still learning to recognize which pitches he can drive, and he must start punishing fastballs rather than serving them to the opposite field for singles. He made great strides against lefthanders in 2003. While Self's strong arm is suitable for right field, his below-average speed and poor routes make him better suited for first base. If he doesn't start producing more homers, his ceiling will be as a bench player in the majors. Self will move to Double-A this year.
McKeller has some of the best pure stuff in the system, and the Astros are trying to help him figure out how to make the most of it. As with Raymar Diaz, Houston had to draft McKeller twice and then wait another year to land him as a draft-and-follow. The Astros took him in the 38th round out of high school in 2001, but he chose to attend McLennan (Texas) Community College. He was too wild to earn many innings there as a freshman, so he transferred to New Mexico JC in 2002. McKeller had limited success with the Thunderbirds, going 6-3, 9.77 last spring, but the Astros made sure to lock him up before he could re-enter the draft again. Minor league pitching coordinator Dewey Robinson and Martinsville pitching coach Jack Billingham have made good initial adjustments to McKeller's mechanics, getting him to slow down his delivery and throw more strikes. He has a 91-95 mph fastball with good late life. His curveball had its moments in instructional league but still needs a lot of work, and his changeup is further away. While he's currently a one-pitch guy who can locate that pitch only adequately, McKeller is lean and lanky and should get stronger or better. He can be intimidating with his velocity, size, wildness and a funky twist in his delivery that makes his pitches hard to pick up. He might be best served with an assignment to extended spring training and then Tri-City this year.
Selecting college seniors is one way to save money in the draft, and the Astros are nothing if not thrifty. They're also efficient at spotting talent that has been overlooked. Big leaguers Morgan Ensberg and Kirk Saarloos were senior signs, as were eight members of this top 30. Houlton handled the jump from low A to Double-A last year with aplomb, though he hit the wall in Triple-A. He doesn't have a standout pitch but he has succeeded with a deep repertoire, good command and a feel for mixing locations and speeds. The Astros give him credit for getting further with his stuff than most pitchers would. The consensus is that Houlton's best pitch is his big 12-to-6 curveball, with his changeup right behind. His fastball runs from 86-92 mph, and he gets nice bore on his two-seamer. He doesn't hesitate to challenge batters inside. He also throws a cutter, slider and a splitter. Houlton got into trouble in Triple-A when he changed his style and tried to become more of a power pitcher. He tried to impress the radar guns and went to too many four-seam fastballs, which lacked movement and got pounded when he didn't spot them on the corners. He also went with his slider more than his curveball. If Houlton gets back to his basics in Triple-A this year, he could reach Houston by September.
Barrett emerged as the system's best starting pitching prospect in 2002. He came into 2003 trying to cruise on his ability and justify his spot on the 40-man roster, and he didn't do either. Barrett completely lost his feel for pitching and his curveball, and he got pounded for three months. He did recover to go 5-3, 3.45 in his last 10 starts, and he took steps forward in instructional league. The natural cutting life on his fastball returned as it sat at 89- 91 mph and topped out at 94. He's replacing his curveball, which was too loopy, with a slider that's slurvy at this point. Barrett's changeup, command and delivery also need improvement. If there was any good to come out of 2003, Barrett was humbled and learned he must be a pitcher rather than a thrower. Houston kept Barrett on the 40-man roster and will send him back to high Class A in 2004.
After getting shelled in low Class A in 2002 and knocked around in his first two starts last year, Pluta was cruising with a shutout for four-plus innings in his next outing. Then he felt a pop in his elbow while throwing a changeup, and his season was over. Pluta had Tommy John surgery in June and was doing well in his rehabilitation. Many pitchers come back stronger after the operation, and Pluta may benefit from adopting more of a finesse approach. He had explosive life on a 94-96 mph fastball but not much to go with it. He showed a good overhand curveball during his pro debut, but his breaking ball devolved into a three-quarters slurve. He also had only sporadic feel for his changeup, and exerted so much effort in his delivery that it cost him command. Pluta's best fit may be as a late-inning reliever, though he'd still need to come up with at least one more pitch. He'll start throwing again this June and may get back on the mound by the end of the season.
Grigsby didn't look like the same pitcher Houston drafted when he made his pro debut last year. In junior college he threw a 95-96 mph fastball and power slider from a high three-quarters slot. In 2003, his arm angle dropped slightly and his stuff dropped a lot. Grigsby showed only an average fastball, though it did have good life when he kept it down in the strike zone, and his slider morphed into a slurve. His changeup remains raw, and his command was only slightly better. Grigsby showed signs of getting more aggressive in instructional league, where his stuff began to rebound. The Astros will handle him carefully because he's reserved and has had to deal with tough family circumstances. Grigsby's mother died unexpectedly during routine surgery in 2001. He used part of his $1.125 million bonus to buy his father a motorcycle, and his dad was seriously injured (including losing toes on his left foot) in a motorcycle accident when Grigsby reported to instructional league last year. Grigsby will try to recover his previous form in high Class A in 2004.
Paulino has the best raw arm strength in the system. He announced his presence with his first pitch in the United States, a 96 mph heater last June in Martinsville. His fastball sat at 94-98 mph in the Appalachian League, and he topped out in triple digits. Velocity and a strong frame are the only things Paulino has going for him right now, but they're hard to ignore. He doesn't command his fastball well, and doesn't have much consistency with his hard slider. His mechanics are rough and he's still learning how to pitch, both from a mental and physical standpoint. If the Astros can refine Paulino they might have a future closer. He'll begin the year in extended spring training and head to Tri-City or Greeneville in June.