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The Astros have finished below .500 in just one of their last 13 seasons, so they usually have drafted toward the bottom of the first round. The lone exception came in 2001, when they owned the 10th pick, their highest since they took Phil Nevin No. 1 overall in 1992. Houston used that choice on Burke, who was coming off an All-America junior year at Tennessee. The Southeastern Conference player of the year, he led NCAA Division I in runs (105), hits (118) and total bases (221) and was the only player to rank in the top 10 in hitting (.435), homers (20) and steals (49). As a middle infielder who was a catalyst atop the lineup, Burke drew immediate comparisons to Craig Biggio after the Astros took him. He had a rocky first full season in 2002, when he was assigned to Double-A Round Rock because Houston lacked a high Class A affiliate, but has regrouped since. He returned there to win Texas League all-star honors in 2003 and earned similar acclaim in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2004. He made his major league debut last year and also got to play in the Futures Game in Houston. Though the Astros initially believed Burke could play shortstop, last season marked the first time he played solely at second base. The lesser defensive responsibilities allowed him to relax, and he improved in all phases of the game. Burke is Biggio's logical successor as Houston's leadoff hitter, though he'll probably bat No. 2 behind him this year. He does a fine job of getting on base, both via hitting for average and drawing walks, and he's a basestealing threat once he gets there. He handles the bat very well, making consistent contact and showing surprising gap power for his size and position. One scout describes him as Mark Loretta with better speed. Burke made better use of his wheels in 2004, improving his leads, jumps and ability to read pitches. Defensively, he has good range to both sides. He made significant strides turning the double play last season. Managers rated Burke the best defender at his position in the PCL, where he led second basemen in every positive fielding category. His work ethic and professionalism also earn high marks. Burke has too much power for his own good at times. He'll occasionally have to be reminded that he's better off letting extra-base hits come naturally. His arm is his weakest tool, though at second base it's not the liability it was at shortstop. He has smoothed out most of the rough edges, but his second-base play needs a little more cleaning up. If the Athletics had been willing to pick up Jeff Kent's salary for the final six weeks of 2004, he would have been traded and Burke would have started for the Astros last August. Now that Kent has signed with the Dodgers, Burke is ready to take over. Likening him to a possible Hall of Famer is unfair, but Burke does resemble a young Biggio.
When the Astros traded Billy Wagner last winter, Astacio ranked as the third-most important player they got from the Phillies, behind Taylor Buchholz and Brandon Duckworth. A year later, he looks like the best part of the deal. His stuff jumped dramatically as he led the Texas League in innings and strikeouts. Astacio now has the best fastball in the system. Its velocity has increased from 85-90 in 2002 to 88-93 in 2003 to 90-95 mph in 2004, and it has more sink now as well. His curveball is harder and has more bite, and he picked up a splitter that works well as a change of pace. He has three plus pitches at times and commands all of them. Because his curveball is a hard downer, Astacio ultimately may be better served by a true changeup than relying on his splitter. He sometimes loses his focus on the mound. Astacio rode his momentum through the offseason, when he was named rookie of the year in the Dominican Winter League. He'll probably begin 2005 back in Round Rock, now Houston's Triple-A affiliate, but could help Houston as a starter or reliever later in the season.
In a quest to find a quality defensive center fielder, Houston took Taveras in the 2003 major league Rule 5 draft, then sent Jeriome Robertson to Cleveland for his rights and slugger Luke Scott. Taveras led the Texas League in hitting and steals, while managers rated him the circuit's best baserunner, top defensive outfielder and most exciting player. Taveras' speed makes him a prolific and high-percentage basestealer, and gives him the range to catch nearly anything hit in the gaps. His quickness also enhances his hitting ability, as he makes good contact and can beat out all but the most routine grounders. He has above-average arm strength and even better accuracy with his throws. To maximize his leadoff ability, Taveras has to develop more patience at the plate. He'll never hit for power, but he needs to add strength to at least deter pitchers from pounding him inside. If it all comes together for Taveras, he could be a superior version of Juan Pierre. After he spends a year in Triple-A, the Astros would love to make him their center fielder in 2006.
An unheralded fifth-round pick in June, Einertson tied a 44-year-old home run record in the Rookie-level Appalachian League. He went deep twice in the playoffs as Greeneville won the title, won the MVP award, and led the league in extra-base hits, RBIs, total bases and slugging. One scout said the last Astros prospect to have the ball jump off his bat like Einertson was Jeff Bagwell. He can turn around good fastballs and already has started to use the whole field. He's aggressive in the outfield, where his range, jumps and arm are all decent to solid. Einertson struck out in nearly one-third of his at-bats, so it remains to be seen if he'll be as explosive against higher quality pitching. While he played mostly center field in his pro debut, he doesn't cover enough ground to play there in the majors. Houston tried him at second base in instructional league, but he had problems with his footwork and the switch didn't take. Einertson projects best as a right fielder. He's headed to low Class A Lexington, where the franchise home run mark of 25 is within his reach.
Patton was the ace of a Tomball High team that ranked No. 1 in the nation last spring before losing in the Texas 5-A playoffs. Pro clubs thought he was headed to the University of Texas but the Astros signed him for $550,000, by far the highest bonus in the ninth round. Patton's curveball was one of the best in the 2004 draft. He sets it up by throwing his 90-94 mph fastball to all four quadrants of the strike zone. He has an advanced feel for his changeup and for throwing strikes, which could allow him to develop quickly. He has an intellectual curiosity about pitching, trying to pick up a cutter on his own during instructional league. Patton's one obvious flaw is his inability to maintain a consistent arm slot. When he drops down, he loses velocity on his pitches and some crispness on his curve. Like most young pitchers, he needs additional work on his changeup. In addition to his stuff and pitchability, Patton stands out because the system lacks lefthanded pitching prospects. He'll start his first full season in low Class A and shouldn't need a full season at each level.
Drafted out of a suburban Houston high school and signed as a draftand- follow out of local junior college power San Jacinto, Albers has had more strikeouts than innings in each of his three pro seasons. He was suspended for an alcohol-related incident at the low Class A South Atlantic League all-star game last June and spent a month in rehab. He didn't miss a beat when he returned. Albers achieves late, heavy sink with a fastball that sits at 92-93 mph and tops out at 96. He can overmatch hitters simply by pitching inside. He also throws a curveball, slider and changeup, all of which have their moments. He's durable and throws with little effort after improving his delivery. Albers' greatest need is for more consistency on the mound and off the field. His secondary pitches and command come and go, and he must take his career more seriously. His body isn't as soft as it was when he signed, but it's still a concern. Slated for high Class A Salem, Albers could force his way to Houston's new Double-A Corpus Christi affiliate by the end of 2005. He has a high ceiling but also a long distance to go to reach it.
Buchholz topped this list a year ago after arriving in the Billy Wagner trade with the Phillies. He started poorly with the Astros, going 0-5, 7.92 in his first six outings at Triple-A New Orleans. He was pitching better when a shoulder strain shut him down in early July. He didn't need surgery, but made just three more relief appearances in mid-August. Buchholz has one of the best curveballs in the minors, a hard, sharp bender that he can change speeds with. He has plus velocity on his fastball at 91-95 mph. He has improved his changeup, which should become a solid average pitch, and come up with a two-seam fastball with more sink. After his shoulder problems and bone chips in his elbow in 2003, Buchholz needs to get stronger and more durable. He usually throws a four-seam fastball and works too high in the strike zone. He tries to be too perfect and out-thinks himself, and there are some worries that he may give in to adversity too easily. Buchholz should be fully healthy for spring training. He needs some extended success in Triple-A before he'll get his first big league callup.
Though Nieve has pitched just 17 innings above Class A in six pro seasons, his upside has led the Astros to carry him on their 40-man roster since the end of the 2003 season. He dominated the Venezuelan League last winter, but didn't enjoy the same success there this offseason. Nieve pitches off his electric 91-97 mph fastball. He gets heavy sink on his two-seamer, likes to challenge hitters up with a four-seamer and mixes in some cutters. He throws both a curveball and a slider, and they can be strikeout pitches at times. He has a strong body and resilient arm. Nieve lacks consistent feel for a changeup because he prefers to throw hard. For that same reason, he can fall in love with his straight four-seamer, and doesn't always locate it where he wants. He can get caught in between his two breaking balls, resulting in a slurve. If his secondary pitches don't improve, Nieve could become a power reliever in the mold of Guillermo Mota. He competed well in Double-A at the end of 2004 and will pitch in the rotation there this season.
Anderson led NCAA Division I in 2003 with 57 steals and finished third in hitting at .447 behind first-round picks Rickie Weeks and Mitch Maier. He has swiped 105 bases in 213 games and topped the minors with 79 last year. Anderson has plus-plus speed and knows how to use it. He has succeeded on 83 percent of his pro steal attempts, and he also covers a lot of ground in center field. He's similar to Willy Taveras, with Anderson owning significantly more gap power. He has solid average arm strength. Anderson's full-tilt style borders on recklessness. He's too aggressive in the outfield, often breaking wrong on balls and hoping his speed will help him recover. He tore up low Class A, but was far less effective when his plate discipline evaporated following a promotion to high Class A. Taveras is the frontrunner to be Houston's center fielder of the future, but Anderson can close the gap if he learns to play within himself and show more patience at the plate. He'll probably open 2005 in Double-A.
After Pence won the Southland Conference batting title (.395) and player-of-the-year award last spring, the Astros made him their top draft pick. Most teams didn't expect him to go as early as the second round, but he showed diverse tools during a strong pro debut. He doesn't have a classic swing and chokes up on the bat more than most players his size, but it works for Pence. He has quick hands, a feel for hitting and as much raw power as anyone in the system. He also controls the strike zone. Pence's gangly body is deceptive, because he's a good athlete with solid speed. He plays hard while keeping himself under control. Though Pence acquitted himself well playing center field at short-season Tri-City, his reads and arm are slightly below-average. He's going to have to move left field at higher levels, but the good news is that he should have enough bat for the position. Pence will begin his first full season with one of Houston's full-season Class A clubs, and he should be able to handle the jump to Salem if he skips a level. He quickly has become an organization favorite and could move more quickly than initially expected.
If Qualls can shake off a couple of meltdowns in the playoffs--a three-run homer to Adam LaRoche to blow Game Four of the National League Division Series, and a five-run sixth inning to take the loss in Game One of the NL Championship Series--he has the stuff to become Houston's top set-up man for Brad Lidge. Summoned by the Astros late last July, he posted the best ERA among their regular relievers after Lidge and Octavio Dotel. He showed the poise Houston hoped for. Groomed exclusively as a starter in the minors until the Astros traded Dotel last June, Qualls has well-above-average command of a plus slider. Since he has signed, Houston has worked to get him to keep his arm slot up, and that lesson finally seems to be sinking in. A true three-quarters angle adds more sink to his 87-94 mph fastball and gets groundballs. To better combat lefthanders, he's been working on a splitter, but didn't use it much in the majors last year. Qualls has enough pitches to start, but he's more valuable to Houston serving as a bridge to Lidge right now.
Because Gutierrez has repeated both the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer and Appalachian leagues, he had to be protected on the 40-man roster this offseason, before he even threw a pitch in full-season ball. While he remains raw, the Astros weren't going to risk losing him in the major league Rule 5 draft. He tied for the Appy League lead in victories with Greeneville teammate Levi Romero, and Gutierrez capped his season by pitching seven innings of one-run ball in the championship clincher. He already has two plus pitches in his 90-96 mph fastball and a big-breaking curveball. Houston also praises his makeup, pointing to his leadership as a key factor in Greeneville's championship. Guttierez' changeup should become at least average, but he needs to use it more. He had difficulty maintaining his mechanics early in the summer, so for a while he won with just his fastball. If he learns how to repeat his delivery, he'll also improve his control, which wavers at times. He has a sturdy frame but needs to make sure it doesn't go soft on him. Gutierrez was old for the Appy League at 21, and now that the clock on his options has started ticking, the Astros will accelerate his development. It's possible he could skip a level and open 2005 in high Class A.
Whiteman got himself back in the Astros' good graces in 2004, a year after he turned them off with a mediocre performance and a poor attitude. Last season, he was more driven and focused and took a much better approach at the plate. The lone negative came in mid-July, when he broke the tip of his right thumb during a bunt attempt. He played just one more game before the Arizona Fall League, and had he not been hurt he would have received big league playing time in September. Whiteman continues to show five tools at shortstop. He hit a career-high .320 in 2004 and has good gap power for a middle infielder. An average runner, he moves well and has a strong arm and sure hands at shortstop. After getting too bulky in 2003, he got stronger without losing flexibility last season. Whiteman still needs more strength. His swing can get long, making it a struggle for him to catch up to quality fastballs, and he tends to chase high pitches. He'll play every day at Triple-A, but he may start to push big league incumbent Adam Everett because Whiteman has a superior bat. He would become the first member of the Crow Nation to reach the big leagues.
The inclusion of John Buck in the Carlos Beltran trade left Gimenez as Houston's best catching prospect by default. In order to hold off 2004 draftees Lou Santangelo and J.R. Towles, Gimenez will need to start showing more offensively. While he has some pop, he has little feel for the strike zone and his batting average has declined in each of his five pro seasons. His bat looked sluggish last year, and few Texas League observers had faith in his ability to hit. A switch-hitter, he consistently has performed better from his natural right side. Defensively, Gimenez has all the tools. He has a strong arm and a quick release, moves well behind the plate and has a durable frame. He's not afraid to try to pick off baserunners. As his English has improved, so has his ability to call a game, and he's doing a better job of not allowing bad at-bats to affect his work behind the plate. His speed, like that of most catchers, is below-average. Though Gimenez will have to repeat Double-A this year, the good news is that he's still just 22.
Teams viewed Barthmaier as a possible supplemental first-round pick in 2003, but they couldn't gauge his signability. Several Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conference football programs recruited him as a quarterback, and though he never officially accepted a scholarship, clubs weren't sure he'd give up the gridiron. Barthmaier told Astros area scout Ellis Dungan he was willing to turn pro, however, so Houston was able to take him in the 11th round and sign him for $750,000, more money than they gave any other 2003 draft pick. He has spent both of his pro seasons in the Appalachian League, which he led in innings last summer. He won the championship clincher in the playoffs, working three scoreless innings in relief. As expected from a former quarterback, Barthmaier is tall, athletic and owns a strong arm. His fastball sits at 91-92 mph, already touches 93-94 and features late life. Houston changed his grip on his hard curveball, which now has more of a downward break. He's still in the early stages of developing his changeup. His mechanics have improved, but he still throws across his body too much and needs more refinement. His fastball command has gotten better, but he has to work on his control and consistency of his other pitches. He overthrows his curveball at times. Barthmaier will move up to low Class A this year.
The Astros aren't sure exactly what they have in Zobrist, who led Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) to the NAIA World Series in 2003 and Dallas Baptist to the Christian College Athletic Association World Series title last spring. After signing for $55,000 as a sixth-round pick, he topped the short-season New York-Penn League in batting and on-base percentage. But at 23, he was one of the oldest players in the league. Zobrist has average tools across the board, but his makeup and instincts stick out more than his physical attributes. He does everything well, from controlling the strike zone as a switch-hitter to running the bases to making the plays at shortstop. Zobrist's power lags behind his other skills, but he's 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, and Houston expects him to develop more pop. Though the transition to pro ball didn't slow him down, he has a few adjustments to make. His swing can get a little long from the right side, and he can be a better bunter. Defensively, he needs to do a better job of setting his feet so he's in position to make throws on routine plays. Realistically, Zobrist's ceiling is probably as a utility player in the mold of former Astro Bill Spiers, yet it's too early to discount him as a possible everyday shortstop. He needs to be challenged with an assignment to high Class A, but that's also the likely destination of shortstop prospects Edwin Maysonet and Osvaldo Fernando.
Every time Scott seems to make progress, his career takes a detour. He announced himself as a legitimate prospect when he led the Cape Cod League with 11 homers in 2000, but blew out his elbow and required Tommy John surgery in 2001, preventing him from making his pro debut after signing with the Indians as a ninth-round pick. He started to establish himself in the Cleveland system with a 20-homer season while reaching Double-A in 2003, only to get included in the Jeriome Robertson-Willy Taveras trade last March. Because he joined the Astros after they had their minor league rosters mostly set, Scott had to go back to high Class A at age 25. When Houston finally found a Double-A job for him in late June, he raked for the rest of the season. The Astros are short on lefthanded power, and that's Scott's best tool. They love his makeup but want to see him do a better job of using the whole field and dealing with breaking pitches. His speed and arm are below-average but not terrible, and he fits better in left field than in right. Scott will begin this year in Triple-A and could get his first big league callup later in the season.
Pitchers grabbed 20 of the 30 spots on this list a year ago, and Houston addressed its need for position prospects in the 2004 draft, spending its first five picks on hitters who made the top 30: Hunter Pence, Jordan Parraz, Santangelo, Mitch Einertson and Ben Zobrist. While Einertson tied the Appalachian League record for homers, one Astros scout says Santangelo has more raw power. The difference between the two is that Santangelo does more of his damage against fastballs out over the plate or mistake breaking balls, while Einertson handles himself better against quality pitches. The key for Santangelo is making consistent contact. A hitch in his swing prevented him from topping .300 with aluminum bats at Seton Hall and Clemson. Though he shortened his stroke after turning pro, he was overmatched by breaking balls, in part because his pitch recognition is lacking. Santangelo won't need to hit for a high average to be a valuable catcher with his power and defense, but a .201 average in the New York-Penn League won't cut it. He's a below-average runner but runs well for a catcher. His defensive skills are nearly as good as those of Hector Gimenez. Santangelo has a strong and accurate arm, finishing second among NY-P regulars by throwing out 36 percent of basestealers. He'll begin his first full season in Class A, perhaps at Lexington in order to get his bat going.
Parraz went to the Community College of Southern Nevada after the Phillies took him in the sixth round in 2003, making him the highest pick among draft-and-follows from that draft. Philadelphia selected him as a pitcher, and Parraz touched 96 mph in junior college. But his control was so poor that he lost his job in the rotation, and when he re-entered the 2004 draft, the Astros made him a third-round choice as an outfielder. Signed for $400,000, Parraz offers a tantalizing array of tools and a frustrating lack of baseball acumen. Though he hit .359 with wood bats at Southern Nevada during the spring, he arrived in pro ball with an ugly swing. He batted just .198 through July before the Greeneville staff adjusted how he held his hands in his stance. Able to catch up to fastballs better after the change, he hit .295 the rest of the way. Parraz has average power and slightly above-average speed, but he'll have to make more contact to use them. He's probably not consistent enough to play center field, and he undermines his plus-plus arm strength by throwing to the wrong base. Parraz will need plenty of time to develop, and his next step is low Class A.
Reineke served as a midweek starter and long reliever in his first three years at Miami (Ohio), enjoying only sporadic success and drawing no interest in the 2003 draft. Moved to short relief as a senior, he saw his velocity and pro prospects improve. After signing as a 13th-round pick, Reineke showed a 92-96 mph fastball and mid-80s slider at times during his pro debut. He hides the ball well, and at 6-foot-7 he throws on a steep downhill plane, making him that much more difficult on hitters. He's also a tough competitor. Whether Reineke becomes a late-inning reliever in the majors depends on whether he can find consistency. He's not flexible, so he can't always finish his delivery. That makes it tough for him to repeat his stuff and to throw strikes. Reineke is a project, but he has a solid two-pitch foundation to build upon. He'll probably start 2005 in low Class A.
Coming into 2004, Gothreaux and newly acquired Ezequiel Astacio had similar resumes. They had comparable stuff and nearly identical statistics in 2003, when they both led high Class A leagues in victories. But as Astacio took a huge step forward last year, surprisingly becoming the organization's best pitching prospect, Gothreaux leveled off in Double-A. Though he finished strong with a 1.57 ERA in his final eight starts, he now looks like he'd be best off going the Chad Qualls route and using his plus slider to become a set-up man. Moving to the bullpen likely would boost Gothreaux' 88-92 mph fastball a couple of notches, making him more effective. He also has developed a decent changeup. Gothreaux throws strikes but can work in the zone too often, becoming hittable because he doesn't have a true put-away pitch. Though he'll remain a starter in Triple-A for now, he could see the bullpen-- and his first glimpse of the big leagues--in 2005.
The only Utah high schooler taken in the first 35 rounds in 2002, Talbot got caught in the Astros' temporary embargo on signing draft picks and didn't make his pro debut until the following summer. His polish served as a contrast to the rest of Lexington's 2004 rotation, which included more electric but less refined arms in Matt Albers, Derick Grigsby and Chance Douglass. Talbot already has the best changeup in the organization and a feel for pitching beyond his years. His athletic delivery and arm action, which have prompted comparisons to Ron Darling and Todd Stottlemyre, allow him to throws strikes with little difficulty. He runs his 90-91 mph fastball, which peaks at 93, in on hitters. What Talbot needs to reach his ceiling as a No. 3 or 4 starter is a better breaking ball. He has been working on a slider, but his arm action might be more conducive to throwing a curveball. Ticketed for high Class A in 2005, he could move quickly once he finds a reliable breaking pitch.
Though Conrad hasn't cracked the 40-man roster the last two years and drawn nary a nibble in the Rule 5 draft, he has two team MVP awards and two league all-star selections in four seasons of pro ball and seems destined to scrap his way to the majors. He's not pretty but finds a way to get the job done, and he has winning makeup. A switch-hitter, Conrad gets on base and has surprising pop for his size. At times he'll get too much loft in his swing or too much length in his righthanded stroke, but he made progress in both areas last year. More of a run producer than the typical middle infielder, he has averaged 83 RBIs per full season and tied for the minor league lead with 12 sacrifice flies in 2004. Conrad has average speed and good instincts on the bases. Defensively, he won't always show the best reads or footwork, but he has sure hands and makes plays. With Chris Burke ahead of him, Conrad probably won't ever start for the Astros. But he has proven himself at every step of the way, with Triple-A the only hurdle remaining before he can help a big league club.
Maysonet is a sleeper shortstop prospect, but his teammates have prevented him from logging much time at the position since he turned pro. Wade Robinson handled most of the shortstop duties at Tri-City in 2003, and Osvaldo Fernando was the primary shortstop at Lexington last year. Maysonet had to settle for playing short once or twice a week and spending the rest of his time at second base. His range and arm are average at shortstop, and his hands and instincts are assets. He's not as slick a fielder as Robinson or Fernando, but Maysonet is much more dangerous at the plate. He has a knack for drawing walks, can drive mistakes to the gaps and can steal bases with his average speed. With 2004 sixth-rounder Ben Zobrist also pushing for playing time at shortstop in Class A, Maysonet may never get to play regularly there. But he just might make a good utilityman, and he'll keep working toward the majors this year in high Class A.
McLemore's arm always has been light years ahead of his confidence. He never had a winning record at Oregon State, where he went 3-9 in three seasons, and he dropped 17 of his 20 decisions in his first two years of pro ball. McLemore started to believe in himself when he opened 2004 with 12 consecutive scoreless outings out of the bullpen, and he finished the year by posting a 3.63 ERA in 14 starts after moving to the rotation. If he can believe in his stuff as the Astros do, he can reach the big leagues. He has good velocity for a lefty, as his fastball ranges from 88-93 mph. His breaking ball is deceptive and inconsistent. When it has true curveball break, it can be unhittable. Even when it's slurvy and has more sideways movement, he still keeps it down in the zone. He has good feel if not total command of his changeup, and took to throwing it more often as a starter. McLemore came down with shoulder tendinitis late last season--his 93 innings were a career high--but he's fine now. He just needs to avoid giving in to hitters. When he's reluctant to challenge them, he falls behind in the count, then too often lays a straight fastball over the heart of the plate. When he's aggressive and maintains his arm slot, he can flash a plus fastball and curve and an average change. The Astros hope he can build on his 2004 success this year in Double-A.
Hirsh spent his first full pro season in high Class A last year, and the challenge was a bit too much for him. After throwing just 86-88 mph in high school and flying under the radar of scouts and NCAA Division I programs, he blossomed at Division III Cal Lutheran. By 2003, he was flashing a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider, which made him a second-round pick. With those pitches and a 6-foot-8 frame, Hirsh can be intimidating. But in 2004 he didn't scare hitters very often. While trying to improve his secondary pitches, he lost velocity on his fastball. It dipped to the low 90s and had inconsistent sink to begin with, so it no longer blew away hitters. The quality of his stuff varied wildly from start to start, and his changeup didn't make much progress. Some scouts projected Hirsh as a set-up man to begin with, and the bullpen will be his destination if he can't develop three usable pitches. He might benefit from starting 2005 back in high Class A.
If Alcantara truly had been 16 when the Astros signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 2001, he'd rank much higher. But Houston discovered in 2003 that he was four years older than originally believed. That has been a kiss of death for many prospects, but Alcantara has been able to generate positive momentum with his performance and his tools. He earned Appalachian League all-star honors in 2003 and Lexington's team MVP award last year. Alcantara began to tap into his raw power in 2004. He also has average speed and runs better than that once he gets under way. He does strike out a fair amount, but tempers that by drawing his share of walks. Alcantara has seen time at all three outfield positions, showing enough range to handle center field and a slightly above-average arm. Now 24, he needs to get to Double-A this year and face competition closer to his age.
The Astros have come to accept that Self is what he is. He has a talent for getting on base, but has so little home run power that he's not going to make a case for playing every day in the majors. Managers rated his strike-zone discipline the best in the Texas League in 2004, no surprise considering he led the TL in on-base percentage and earned the same recognition in the high Class A Carolina League the year before. Using an extremely level swing, Self topped .300 for the fourth consecutive season. He has hit just 33 homers in five years as a pro, however, because he doesn't lift pitches and is usually content to line soft singles to the opposite field. Self broke into pro ball as an outfielder and has the arm strength to play right field. But his speed, range and routes are all below-average, limiting him to first base. Though Houston has declined to protect Self on its 40-man roster the last two seasons, he could carve out a big league role as a lefty bat off the bench. He'll move up to Triple-A in 2005.
Bruntlett's mental toughness has enabled him to become a big league utilityman. The Astros jumped him from Rookie ball in his debut to Double-A in his first full season, and he survived. He had never played anywhere but shortstop and second base when he received his first callup in 2003, yet he was able to handle third base, left field and center field in the majors. Bruntlett never has hit for much of an average, but he's not an easy out and has solid pop for a middle infielder. He draws his share of walks and has average speed and savvy on the bases. Bruntlett doesn't have a plus defensive tool, but he gets by with athleticism and instincts. He's solid fundamentally and rarely makes mistakes. He'll probably never be a major league regular, but Bruntlett is a favorite of managers and could have a long career as a versatile reserve.
In his U.S. debut last summer, Sutil made an impression with his speed and defense. A plus runner, he led the Appalachian League in steals (but also in times caught stealing, with eight). For a teenager, he displayed tremendous poise, body control, and footwork. He always seems to be in perfect position to make a throw, enhancing his slightly above-average arm. Wiry and undersized, Sutil knows he has to play the little man's game at the plate. He can reach the gaps on occasion but has focused on making contact and reaching base. His bat ultimately may hold him back, but he held his own last year. The Astros are interested in seeing what he can do in low Class A this year.
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