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Despite his size, Hirsh drew little interest out of high school because he threw just 86-88 mph. He went undrafted, and no NCAA Division I programs wanted him, so he wound up at Division III Cal Lutheran. Hirsh blossomed with the Kingsmen, setting school records for career wins (26) and single-game strikeouts (18), but the number that got him noticed was his improved velocity. By his junior season in 2003, his fastball repeatedly touched 97 mph and his slider was peaking in the mid-80s. The Astros lacked a first-round pick that June after signing Jeff Kent as a free agent, and they made Hirsh their top pick as a second-rounder, signing him for $625,000. He blew away short-season New York-Penn League hitters in his debut but struggled at high Class A Salem in his first full season in 2004. Assigned the task of improving his secondary pitches, Hirsh struggled to do so and lost the edge on his fastball. Undeterred, Houston promoted him to Double-A Corpus Christi in 2005 and he responded by becoming Texas League pitcher of the year. A good year got even better for Hirsh when the Astros drafted and signed his brother Matt, another Cal Lutheran righty, in the 30th round. Matt went 1-2, 5.61 as a swingman at Rookie-level Greeneville. Hirsh's metamorphosis from 2004 to 2005 was astounding. A year after looking like he might not be more than a set-up man, he became a potential frontline starter. He has an intimidating frame at 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, and he's athletic for his size. That allows him to repeat his delivery and his arm slot, which helped him gain the feel of a hard 80-86 mph slider that's much more consistent than it was in the past. Managers rated it the best breaking ball in the Texas League. Hirsh also has improved the sink on his fastball, opting for a two-seamer that sits at 91-93 mph. He can still reach the mid-90s when needed, but he's more concerned with the location and movement on his fastball. His changeup made strides as well, and is an average pitch. He's not afraid to pitch inside and throws strikes to both sides of the plate. As one scout with an American League club said, "To make that much progress in one year tells you about his makeup and aptitude." Having gone from owning no reliable pitch to now possessing three of them, Hirsh just needs to do some fine-tuning. He can still improve his command, which is average now but should become a plus with more experience. Likewise, his changeup can get better and is the least trustworthy of his three offerings. If Hirsh pitches as well at Triple-A Round Rock as he did in Double-A, he'll get called up to Houston in short order. With the Astros deciding not to offer Roger Clemens arbitration, Hirsh could get an opportunity to make the big league rotation in spring training. It's also possible that he could break into the majors as a middle reliever should the Astros develop a need in their bullpen. Hirsh's fastball-slider combination could allow him to excel in that role, but his long-term future is as a No. 2 or 3 starter.
Considered a tough sign after committing to the University of Texas, Patton turned pro for $550,000--easily the highest bonus in 2004's ninth round. In his first full season, he set a low Class A Lexington record with 32 straight scoreless innings, pitched in the Futures Game and reached high Class A. Patton can get strikes with his power curveball both by throwing it over the plate or by getting hitters to chase it out of the strike zone. He also can locate his 90-94 mph fastball all over the zone, and it has average life. He has very good control and a nasty competitive streak. Patton needs to get stronger and battled some mild shoulder tendinitis in 2005. He must improve the command of his changeup, which lags partly because he doesn't use it enough. His arm slot tends to wander, and he flattens out his curve when he gets under it. There's debate within the Astros' front office as to whether Jason Hirsh or Patton is the system's top prospect. Patton isn't as polished or as physical, but he's lefthanded and 31⁄2 years younger. He could open 2006 in Double-A at age 20.
After signing in 1999, Nieve didn't make it past low Class A until his sixth pro season. A Texas League all-star in 2005, he spent the second half in Triple-A and might have earned a September callup if his appendix hadn't ruptured. Nieve has two plus pitches, a 93-95 mph fastball with good riding life that managers rated the best in the Texas League, and a hard slider that's not as consistent. Despite being just 6 feet tall, he pitches on a good downward plane. He repeats his delivery well, enhancing his ability to throw strikes. Nieve's arm action is long, allowing lefthanders to get a good look at his pitches. They batted .273 against him in 2005, and he's working on a splitter to combat them. A changeup would help, but he doesn't have faith in the pitch. He can lose his focus and pitch backwards, and at times he'll use a curveball to the detriment of his slider. Nieve is close to helping the Astros. Some scouts envision him becoming a No. 3 starter, while others see him as a late-innings reliever in the mold of Ugueth Urbina.
A high school quarterback, Barthmaier drew interest from several college football programs but didn't commit to one because he didn't want to scare off baseball teams. He slid in the 2003 draft anyway before signing for $750,000, a record for a 13th-rounder. Strong and athletic, Barthmaier projects as an innings-eater. He has a chance to have three plus pitches, and his fastball and curveball already are that good. He throws his fastball at 91-93 mph and peaks at 95, and his power curve is the best in the system. His changeup also is making progress. Barthmaier doesn't have the same feel as Jason Hirsh or Troy Patton, and he's still learning to locate his fastball where he wants. His mechanics have gotten better since he signed, but they still could use some more smoothing. There are some minor questions about his maturity. Barthmaier is on the verge of putting it all together, and once he does he'll move quickly to Houston. Ticketed for high Class A to begin 2006, he could reach Double-A by midseason.
Iorg was the first outfielder drafted in the first round by the Astros since 1999, when they took Mike Rosamond--the son of the area scout who signed Iorg for $950,000. Iorg has baseball relatives as well, as his father Garth and uncle Dane played in the majors; older brother Isaac played in the Braves system; and younger brother Cale could go early in the 2007 draft. Iorg has a quick, sound swing and a strong frame that should allow him to hit for both power and average. He has slightly above-average speed and good instincts, giving him 20-20 potential in the majors. He has solid range and a plus arm in right field. His intensity is another asset. Iorg, who spent 2003 on a Mormon mission to Argentina, was too old for Rookie ball at 22, but went to Greeneville so he could recover from a stress fracture in his right foot while close to his Tennessee home. He could use more patience at the plate and better accuracy on his throws. Houston might send Iorg to low Class A to start 2006. He needs a sterner test and should reach high Class A before too long.
The Astros made Pence their top pick in 2004. He has done nothing but hit, tying for the system lead in homers in 2005 while finishing second in hitting (.327) and RBIs despite a strained left quadriceps. Pence doesn't look pretty at the plate, choking up on the bat and employing a hitch in his swing, but he has quick hands that enable him to get into good hitting position. He punishes fastballs and has power to all fields. Managers rated him the best hitter and the best power hitter in the South Atlantic League. His speed and athleticism are solid. Some scouts wonder if more advanced pitchers will take advantage of Pence's hitch by pounding him inside. Though he has played primarily center field in the minors, he's destined for left. He doesn't get good jumps and reads on fly balls, and his arm is below-average. Pence has been old for his leagues and needs to be challenged. He'll move up to Double-A in 2006.
Like Fernando Nieve, Paulino signed out of Venezuela, has a power arm and has been brought along slowly. He has intrigued scouts ever since his first pitch in the United States--a 96 mph fastball at Rookie-level Martinsville in 2003. The Astros have seen Paulino throw as hard as 100 mph, other organizations have clocked him at 102 and he usually pitches from 90-98. Batters not only have to contend with his velocity, but also heavy boring and riding action on his fastball. He changed the grip on his curveball in 2005 and came up with a plus 80-85 mph breaker. Paulino is still raw as a pitcher. He's still discovering how to control his curveball, and his overall command can improve. He's reluctant to throw his changeup, stunting the development of the third pitch he needs to remain a starter. Paulino will pitch in the Salem rotation in 2006. It's easier to project him as a reliever once he reaches the majors, and he has the stuff to become a closer.
Gutierrez repeated both the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer and Appalachian leagues, so the Astros had to protect him on the 40-man roster before he reached full-season ball. He accomplished that mission in 2005, even making it to high Class A in August. Yet another Venezuelan power pitcher in the system, Gutierrez has a 90-96 mph fastball and a big-breaking, 77-78 mph curveball that he uses as his out pitch. He'll even flash a plus changeup at times. His curveball was more consistent in 2005, and he showed much better control and feel than he had in Rookie ball. Strong and durable, he should be able to accumulate innings. Gutierrez still needs to grasp the art of changing speeds. His changeup has its moments, but it's a distant third pitch. His mechanics break down at times, costing him control and command. He needs to improve his conditioning and tone down his on-field antics. If Gutierrez continues to improve like he did in 2005, he could soar through the rest of the minors. The Astros will start him off back in high Class A in 2006.
Bogusevic led Tulane to the 2005 College World Series by going 13-3, 3.25 on the mound and batting .328 as a right fielder. Most teams preferred him on the mound, and the Astros concurred after taking him 24th overall and signing him for $1.375 million. Worn out by his two-way efforts and a hamstring injury in college, he was kept on a 45-pitch limit in his pro debut. Even while tired, Bogusevic still hit 95 mph out of the bullpen at short-season Tri-City and generally works at 89-93 mph with his fastball. His slider can be nasty, his changeup is average and he throws strikes with all three of his pitches. His days as an outfielder are over, but he has plus hitting ability, raw power and speed. Bogusevic needs to get stronger after fading in 2005 as well as 2004, when he hit .183 in the Cape Cod League. He needs to turn his slider into a more consistently plus pitch to work in the middle of a big league rotation. The Astros have few quality lefties in their system, so Bogusevic will get the opportunity to move quickly. He should be able to handle a jump to high Class A.
Some clubs soured on Flores after he turned down six-figure offers from the Braves as a 24th-rounder out of high school and again as a draft-and-follow last spring. He won the national juco batting title with a .519 average, and area scout Kevin Stein and regional supervisor Gerry Craft lobbied hard to draft him. After signing for $217,500, Flores earned Greeneville MVP and Appalachian League all-star honors. The fastest player in the system, Flores goes from the right side of the plate to first base in 3.9 seconds. More than just a speedster, he's an all-around athlete with hitting ability and surprising power. He has good range and a playable arm in center field. Though he led the Appy League in hits, Flores still needs to tighten his strike zone and do a better job recognizing breaking balls. A shortstop until he turned pro, he's still learning outfield nuances such as taking good routes and getting in position to throw. Flores will play in low Class A in 2006. He's a few years away, but he offers more upside than Astros incumbent Willy Taveras.
Towles turned down the Athletics twice, as a 32nd-rounder in 2002 and a 23rd-rounder in 2003, before signing with the Astros as a 20th-rounder in 2004. After he had a lackluster pro debut at Rookie-level Greenville and needed surgery on the tip of his right index finger after getting hit by a foul ball in instructional league, Houston started him in extended spring training last season. The plan was to have him repeat Rookie ball or maybe go to Tri-City. But when Lou Santangelo went down with a torn labrum in June, Towles was needed in low Class A, and he responded by emerging as the system's best catching prospect since John Buck. Towles put on 15 pounds of muscle and moved closer to the plate, and he looked like a different hitter than he had in 2004. He started driving the ball and handled the bat much better. Athletic for a catcher, Towles has average speed and showed bunting and basestealing abililty. He's also the best all-around defensive catcher in the system. His receiving and blocking skills are strong, and he has arm strength. Towles' pop times from his mitt to second base generally sit at an average 2.0 seconds because he has a long release, though he did throw out 33 percent of basestealers last year. Besides his obvious tools, he also has good instincts and a strong work ethic. Towles could open this year back in Lexington if the Astros want to give him regular action behind the plate, or could move up to high Class A if they don't mind a timeshare arrangement with Santangelo.
A local product who played for a suburban Houston high school and nearby juco power San Jacinto, Albers has one of the best arms in the system. But he learned in 2005 that won't mean much if he doesn't improve his dedication. He has yet to place much value on preparing for starts or working on his off days, and his mechanics and command wandered throughout last season. So did his confidence. If he takes his career more seriously, he could be a frontline starter. Albers works consistently at 93-94 mph and touches 97 with his fastball, and both his curveball and slider show the potential to become plus pitches. He doesn't throw his average changeup enough. He needs to get more consistent with his secondary pitches and his control. He was hittable last year because he rarely pitched inside and struggled to keep the ball down. Albers had a soft body when he signed, and while he has gotten in better shape it's still a concern. The Astros suspended him for a month after an alcohol-related incident at a South Atlantic League all-star game function in 2004. He has gotten his life in order, and now must do the same with his career. Some club officials wonder if he lacks the focus to be a starter and might be more effective as a reliever. He'll remain in the rotation for now, though he could repeat high Class A as a wakeup call.
Anderson led the minors in stolen bases in 2004 and topped the Texas League in 2005, but he needs to show more well-rounded offensive skills if he's to be a big league regular. Since he tore up low Class A at the beginning of 2004, his hitting, gap power and plate discipline have regressed at higher levels. He has leadoff speed but must develop the on-base ability to match. He doesn't need to worry about hitting home runs, but driving a few balls in the gaps and being able to fight off inside fastballs would keep pitchers more honest. Managers rated Anderson the fastest baserunner and the best defensive outfielder in the Texas League, though he could use more polish in both areas. He was caught stealing 19 times last year and sometimes tries to swipe bags in less-than-opportune situations. He doesn't always read line drives well and relies on his speed to make up for his mistakes. His arm is average. He has upside and more pop than Astros incumbent Willy Taveras, though he's not as refined, as fast or as gifted defensively. Anderson needs to tone down his aggressiveness in every aspect of the game and enhance what he does best. After a strong Arizona Fall League performance, he'll move up to Triple-A in 2006.
Buchholz was the key player from the Astros' perspective in their Billy Wagner trade with the Phillies in November 2003, but Ezequiel Astacio since has passed him in that regard. Little has gone right for Buchholz in his two seasons in the Houston system. He went 0-5, 7.92 in his first six starts and was just coming out of that slump when he went down with a strained shoulder in July 2004. He had arthroscopic surgery on his labrum and his biceps in November 2004, and seemed hesitant to cut loose last season. Once again, he had to be shut down as he was starting to get on a roll, missing most of the second half with a sore shoulder. He came back at the end of August and did look strong in the Arizona Fall League. It's hard to know what to make of Buchholz. He still has one of the best curveballs in the system, but his velocity ranged from 84-86 to 92-94 mph in 2005. He throws from a high three-quarters angle, robbing his fastball of life and leaving it hittable when he doesn't keep it down. Confidence may be the key with Buchholz. He doesn't aggressively put hitters away, too often laying the ball over the plate after he gets ahead in the count. He needs to use his changeup to get lefthanders out, but he doesn't trust it enough. Staying healthy is also important, as Buchholz had shoulder problems and bone chips in his elbow in 2003. The Astros will send Buchholz to Triple-A for the third straight season, and they'd like to see him develop a mean streak and force his way to Houston.
As if getting the rights to Willy Taveras for Jeriome Robertson weren't enough, the Astros also got Scott in a March 2004 deal with the Indians. With Lance Berkman sidelined with a knee injury, Scott became a surprise Opening Day starter for Houston in 2005. He went down to Triple-A in May and led the Pacific Coast League in homers despite playing in just 103 games, then came back up in August and made the National League Division Series roster. He has huge lefthanded power, a commodity the Astros valued coming off their bench, and can crush balls out of the park to all fields. He's an incredibly streaky hitter, and he'll sometimes get himself out when he's going good, needlessly making adjustments because he fears pitchers will do the same. He controls the strike zone well for a slugger, and he holds his own in left field. Scott's speed and arm are both below-average tools but not liabilities. The 27-year-old doesn't figure to win a regular job with Houston, but he should be able to claim a reserve role in spring training.
Zobrist, the shortstop for Team USA at the 2005 World Cup in the Netherlands, has performed well at all three of his minor league stops, including leading the New York-Penn League in batting and on-base percentage in his 2004 pro debut, but he always has been old for his league. He got a later start on his pro career than most players because he was 19 when he graduated high school and spent four years in college between Olivet Nazarene (Ill.), where he started out as a pitcher, and Dallas Baptist. A switch-hitter who excels at handling the bat, Zobrist has solid-average tools across the board, with the exception of power. Managers rated him as having the best strike-zone discipline in the South Atlantic League last year, and no one controls the zone better in the Houston system. His swing is a little longer from the right side, but he's effective from both sides of the plate. He's bigger and doesn't have the range of a typical shortstop, but his instincts enable him to make the plays required at the position. He also made just 15 errors in 102 games at short in 2005. He continues to remind the Astros of quintessential utilityman Bill Spiers, but they also say it's too early to write off Zobrist as a regular shortstop. They need to push him more, and he'll begin 2006 in Double-A with a chance for a midseason promotion to Triple-A.
It's difficult to sway high school players from a commitment to Rice, but the Astros did that with Douglass after taking him in the 12th round in 2002 and giving him a bonus of $225,000. He did little to justify that bonus in his first three pro seasons, spending two years in Rookie ball before getting torched in low Class A. Douglass broke through in 2005, however, leading the Carolina League in innings and ERA while earning the organization's Salem MVP award. He relies on command and sink. Douglass throws his two-seam fastball in the low 90s and locates it well in the strike zone. He throws two breaking balls, and his slider has some crispness at times. He'd be better off relying on the slider and relegating his curveball to a show pitch. His changeup is below-average now, but it's improving and has good downward movement at times. He's intelligent and a tough competitor. With a strong frame and an easy delivery, he can hold his stuff through games. Projected as a No. 4 or 5 starter, Douglass will advance to Double-A this year.
Most Texas area scouts regarded Roger Clemens' eldest son as a decent player who'd be best off following through on his commitment to Texas rather than turning pro. So it was somewhat of a surprise when Houston took him in the eighth round and signed him for $380,000, the equivalent of late third-round money. But Koby proved to be better than scouts had thought and more than a nepotism pick. Though he threw two no-hitters and flashed a low-90s fastball as a high school senior, Clemens won't follow his dad to the mound. His best tool is his power, and he showed more pop and hitting ability than even the Astros realized he had. Growing up around the game enabled him to make an easy transition to pro ball, and he showed a feel for making adjustments. He has a sound swing and began to use the opposite field. Clemens has his father's build but in a 5-foot-11 frame, so he's not a tremendous athlete. He has the arm strength to play at third base, but will have to exert himself to maintain the range and agility to stay there. That's not an issue because his work ethic (like Roger's) is off the charts. He had back surgery in 2004, so he might move to a less demanding position eventually. If Clemens can remain at the hot corner, he could develop into a big league regular. He has the makeup to handle an assignment to low Class A in 2006.
Einerston's first full season was the exact opposite of his pro debut. An unheralded fifth-round pick in 2004, he tied a 44-year-old Appalachian League home run record, went deep twice more as Greeneville won the playoffs and won the MVP award after also leading the league in extra-base hits, RBIs, total bases and slugging percentage. One scout said no Astros prospect had the ball jump off the bat like Einertson since Jeff Bagwell. Einertson's encore was a huge disappointment, however. He started 2005 in a 3-for-32 slump, didn't homer until May 11 and took four weeks off in midsummer to resolve personal issues. With that behind him, Houston hopes he'll revert to his previous form in 2006. The power potential is still in there, though he has a long way to go with pitch recognition. Even when he was crushing Appy League pitching, he struck out in nearly one-third of his at-bats, so he has to close a lot of holes in his swing. Einertson got some time at second base in instructional league after the 2004 season, but had footwork problems and will stay in the outfield. His range, arm and instincts are all fine for right field. He'll get a second chance to prove himself in low Class A this year.
As a projectable 6-foot-4 high school sophomore, Mitchell tore up the summer showcase circuit in 2003 and looked like a first-round pick for the 2005 draft. He made little progress over the next two years, however, and seemed likely to attend juco power San Jacinto (Texas) when the Astros took him in the 20th round last June as a draft-and-follow. Instead, he proved an easier sign than expected and turned pro for $35,000. Mitchell has the potential to rocket up this list in the future. He already throws 90-92 mph, touches 94 and can add more velocity as he gets stronger. He throws his curveball and changeup for strikes and has uncanny command for his age and size. How much he can improve the quality of his secondary pitches will determine how good he becomes. Mitchell is fearless on the mound and has baseball savvy. His arm action has some funk to it, as he has a short arm stroke and sometimes gets too far out in front, but he showed the aptitude to clean it up under the tutelage of Houston's minor league staff. Like Koby Clemens, who took Mitchell under his wing at Greeneville, he won't be overwhelmed by low Class A as a teenager.
Santangelo has a pair of outstanding tools with his raw power and arm strength, but he's still learning how to get the most out of them. He can hit the ball farther than any Houston farmhand except for Luke Scott, but Santangelo tends to do most of his damage against mistakes hung over the plate. He doesn't recognize breaking balls well and has struggled to hit for average or make contact dating back to his college days at Clemson and Seton Hall. He never topped .300 with metal bats. He has shortened his swing as a pro, but the same problems persist. Even though he had a tear in his labrum that cost him six weeks in the second half and forced him to share time with J.R. Towles in the second half, Santangelo threw out 43 percent of basestealers in 2005. He has a quick release and good accuracy to go with his strong arm, and he'd be even better if he got into a better position to throw. He's a lazy receiver who doesn't shift his body to get in front of balls. He works hard, but he also takes his natural gifts for granted at times. He has below-average speed but runs well for a catcher. His shoulder didn't require surgery and isn't expected to give him problems in the future. He could jump to Double-A depending on how much the Astros decide to spread out their catching talent, but Santangelo would be best off by starting 2006 in high Class A.
College senior signs Eric Bruntlett, Morgan Ensberg, Mike Gallo, Jason Lane and Chad Qualls all played roles in Houston's run to the World Series, and the Astros may have another find in Reineke. He was a 13th-round pick in 2004 after going an uninspiring 13-9, 4.63 in four seasons at Miami (Ohio). But his velocity picked up when he moved into a short-relief role as a senior, and he has maintained a consistent 93-94 mph fastball as a pro. Reineke also throws a plus slider that can reach the upper 80s. He uses his 6-foot-7 frame to hide the ball and to throw on a good downward plane. Reineke moved to the rotation in mid-July to get more innings and work on a third pitch. He improved his feel for his changeup but it still has a long ways to go. He was more hittable as a starter but did a better job of throwing strikes. He has toned down the effort in his delivery but still battles his command. He may get some more starts this year in high Class A, but he projects as a late-inning reliever.
When the Astros included John Buck in the Carlos Beltran trade in June 2004, Gimenez became the best catcher in the system. He since has been passed by J.R. Towles and Lou Santangelo, and 2005 second-round pick Ralph Henriquez is in his rearview mirror. But after Gimenez' bat stagnated in 2003-04, he bounced back while repeating Double-A last year. For the first time in his pro career, his batting average didn't decline from the previous season. His offense won't be his strength, but Houston still thinks Gimenez might hit enough to warrant consideration as a regular. He's a switch-hitter with some pop. He lacks the bat speed or strike-zone control to hit for much of an average or slot in the upper half of a lineup. He offers little speed on the basepaths. Gimenez' work behind the plate is his ticket to the big leagues. He has a plus arm and a quick release to go with solid receiving skills and agility. He threw out 41 percent of basestealers last year and likes to try to pick off runners. His game-calling skills have improved along with his English, and he has learned not to let his offensive struggles affect his defense. Gimenez will head to Triple-A this year with an eye on supplanting Raul Chavez as Brad Ausmus' backup in 2007.
Like most of the Venezuelan power pitchers in the system, Estrada has developed at a slow pace. He spent four years in Rookie ball and another at short-season Tri-City before finally advancing to low Class A in 2005. He's still raw and has been used mainly in relief, but on the right night Estrada can show two pitches that grade out as 70s on the 20-80 scouting scale. He can run his fastball up to 95 mph and also flash a knee-buckling curveball. He usually pitches at 92-94 mph with his four-seam fastball, and at 88-90 mph with some sink on his two-seamer. His curve isn't consistently dominating, and he's still searching for a dependable third pitch. He never showed any feel for a changeup, so he switched to a splitter last year and the pitch has good tumble. Estrada's control still needs some work, but he's no longer walking a batter an inning, as he did in his first two U.S. seasons. He sometimes rushes his delivery and leaves pitches up in the zone. He's durable enough to start if he fleshes out his repertoire, and he may pitch out of the rotation this year in high Class A.
After hitting the wall in the upper minors the last two years and requiring surgery to repair ligament damage in his elbow, Gothreaux was removed from the 40-man roster in November. But the Astros still believe he can contribute, probably in a relief role after spending most of his career as a starter. Gothreaux' out pitch is a slider that has a lot of tilt and ranks as the best in the system. His fastball ranges from 88-92 mph when he pitches out of the rotation, though scouts have seen him touch 94 and project that he'd add 2-3 mph coming out of the bullpen. His fastball also has some nice, late armside sink. Gothreaux hasn't had much success keeping more advanced lefthanded hitters honest with his changeup, and he also has tried a splitter with the same results. Though he has a long arm action, he repeats his delivery well and has good command. At times, he can throw too many strikes. He's just 6 feet tall, so his stuff can flatten out and ride high in the zone when he doesn't stay on top of it. Gothreaux has the competitive makeup to pitch in the late innings, and he may shift to the bullpen this year in Triple-A. He made just one start in the second half of last season but was soft-tossing again in November and should be 100 percent for spring training.
Talbot hasn't grown into the velocity the Astros expected when they made him a second-round pick in 2002, and he receives mixed reviews from club officials. Yet he's still an interesting pitching prospect with the best changeup in the system. He throws it with excellent arm action and it drops straight down. He'll occasionally hit 94 mph on the radar gun, but he usually pitches at 88-90 with a two-seam fastball and 91-92 with a four-seamer. He's athletic and has a clean delivery and arm action, so it's possible he could add more velocity in the future. Those attributes allow him to throw strikes with ease. Talbot never has had much success with a breaking ball. He has tried both a slider and curveball, and usually winds up with a mediocre slurve. His best option may be a pitch that's closer to a cut fastball than a true slider. His job in Double-A this year remains the same as it was in 2005: to find a dependable third pitch.
McLemore never has had a winning record in three seasons at Oregon State or in four seasons as a pro. He was starting to come into his own and ranked second in the Texas League in ERA last June when he had to be shut down with shoulder problems. He had surgery to repair his labrum in late July, and the Astros kept him on their 40-man roster rather than risk exposing him to the major league Rule 5 draft. Before he got hurt, McLemore was throwing three solid pitches as a starter. He had an 88-92 mph fastball with good sink, a tight slider with late tilt and a deceptive changeup. When his shoulder started bothering him, he got away from throwing his secondary pitches. McLemore's health and command will determine how far he goes. He has trouble maintaining a consistent release point, leading to deep counts and too many pitches up in the zone. Regaining his confidence, which took years to build, is another key. Houston expects him to be ready to go for spring training and likely will start him back in Double-A.
Manzella's 2005 pro debut couldn't have been more trying. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his family's home in Chalmette, La., but Manzella gritted it out until Tri-City completed its schedule even after the Astros offered to let him leave. He had a tough time adjusting to wood bats and dealt with a balky elbow that required arthroscopic surgery in the offseason. He has the makeup to bounce back from adversity, and he did just that after he had a mediocre junior season at Tulane that left him undrafted in 2004. As a senior, he emerged as the Green Wave's No. 3 hitter and RBI leader, helping them reach the College World Series. A third-round pick that came from the Mets as part of the compensation for Carlos Beltran, Manzella signed for $289,000. He's a better hitter than he showed in his first taste of pro ball, but he'll have to make adjustments to a long swing that's more tailored for metal bats. He had trouble fighting off inside pitches or lifting the ball. He has enough aptitude and strength to hit .275 with gap power and average speed. The Astros think he'll hit as much as Adam Everett and if that happens, Manzella's glove is good enough to make him a big league regular. He's the best defensive infielder in the system. He has good hands, a strong arm and fine instincts at shortstop, and he made just six errors in 45 pro games. Manzella likely will open 2006 in low Class A to help rebuild his confidence.
Sutil has batted .312 in his two seasons in the United States, showing a contact-oriented swing and a willingness to use all fields. There's some question as to how he'll fare at more advanced levels, however. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds, he has little strength. Better pitchers may be able to just blow him away with good fastballs, so he's going to have to get stronger. If Sutil can adapt and get on base enough, he can be a useful player. He has slightly above-average speed and doesn't try to do too much at the plate. He's a good defender who has the range and arm to play shortstop, and he slid over to second base when he teamed with Tommy Manzella last summer. Sutil was steady at both positions, committing just five errors in 58 games. He positions himself well and has good instincts. The next logical step for him is low Class A, which could mean playing second base alongside Manzella again. If Sutil can fend for himself at the plate, he could have a big league future as a utilityman.
In 2005, Conrad did what he has done throughout his pro career. He moved up a level and proved himself again. He got left off the 40-man roster and didn't get a sniff in the major league Rule 5 draft for the third straight year, yet he's an organization favorite. The Astros love his makeup and his ability to play above his tools. "Everybody loves Brooks Conrad," said Jackie Moore, his manager at Round Rock, "except for the equipment manager because he has to wash his uniform every night. He gets a lot dirtier than most players because he always gives 100 percent." Conrad also has more pop than most middle infielders, setting a career high with 23 homers last year, and he's a switch-hitter to boot. His swing can get long at times, but he has the eye to draw walks. He has average speed and the instincts to steal an occasional base. Conrad's defense lags behind his offense and limits his potential. There's nothing wrong with his hands, as he made just 10 errors in 130 games and led Pacific Coast League second basemen with a .987 fielding percentage last year. But his arm is a little short, even at second base, his footwork isn't smooth and he lacks the range to play shortstop. He's going to have a difficult time beating out Craig Biggio or Chris Burke at second base in Houston, and his lack of versatility limits his ability as a utilityman. He'll probably repeat Triple-A this year.
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