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Pence was the Southland Conference player of the year and batting champ (.395) in 2004, but he wasn't a premium draft prospect because he looked gangly and awkward and used an unorthodox set-up at the plate. Higher on him than most clubs, the Astros made him their top pick, taking him in the second round (64th overall) and signing him for $575,000. He has gotten better as he has moved up the ladder, slowed only by a strained left quadriceps in the second half of 2005. Managers rated him the most exciting player in the Double-A Texas League last year, and Pence batted .387 with a team-high nine RBIs in the playoffs, leading Corpus Christi to a championship. Pence batted .339 in the Arizona Fall League before the Astros suspended him following a drunken-driving charge in late October. Pence doesn't do anything pretty but he does most things well. His approach at the plate is anything but textbook, as he chokes up on the bat and has a hitch in his swing. There were concerns that advanced pitchers might be able to pound him inside, but he put that notion to rest in Double-A. Pence has quick hands, terrific bat speed and plenty of strength, so he has no problem catching up to any fastball. He tinkered with his load last year, lifting his back elbow and turning his right wrist slightly so he could impart more backspin on balls. That improved his ability to drive pitches, which he does to all fields. Pence isn't the most fluid runner, but he has above-average speed and an aggressive nature on the basepaths. He stole 17 bases in 21 tries in 2006 after going just 12-for-22 over his first three pro seasons. When he entered pro ball, he had a below-average arm that figured to limit him to left field. But he since has improved his throwing mechanics, accuracy and arm strength. While his arm action still looks funky, he had 13 assists last year while spending most of his time in right field. He also saw extended action in center down the stretch. He brings a high energy mindset to the ballpark every day. While Pence has solid plate discipline, he also has a bad habit of chasing sliders off the plate. He uses an open stance and sets up away from the plate, so he sometimes has trouble covering the outside corner. Houston believes he can get the job done in center field, though scouts from outside the organization knock him for taking less than optimal routes to balls. The Astros praise his makeup and believe his embarrassment over the DUI charge last fall will mean it was just a one-time mistake. Houston would like to give Pence a couple of months at Triple-A Round Rock, but those plans may change after incumbent center fielder Willy Taveras went to the Rockies in December's Jason Jennings trade. Chris Burke is the favorite to replace Taveras, but Pence has a better arm and arguably better instincts in center. The long-term plan is for Burke to succeed Craig Biggio at second base, creating an outfield opening, but Pence could force the issue in 2007.
After the commissioner's office talked owner Drayton McLane out of signing 2003 third-round pick Drew Stubbs for $900,000, MLB didn't bat an eye when the Astros Patton (also set to attend the University of Texas) the same amount as a ninth-rounder a year later. Patton is a lefthander with stuff, savvy and moxie. He runs his fastball from 89-94 mph, generates exceptional life at times and easily gets inside on righthanders with it. His changeup improved significantly last year and has nice fade. His hard curveball was his top pitch in high school but now ranks as his third pitch. He's athletic and repeats his compact delivery well. Patton likes to drop down when he throws his curve, making it difficult to stay on top of the pitch and alerting hitters that it's coming. He had minor shoulder fatigue in each of the last two seasons, resulting in diminished mechanics and command. For someone who can command the outside corner, he pounds the inner half too much. Once he adds strength and consistency, Patton will be ready for the big leagues and could grow into a No. 2 starter. He'll probably open 2007 in Triple-A.
A local product who played at a suburban Houston high school and nearby San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, Albers has had one of the system's best arms since signing as a draft-and-follow in 2002. But he showed newfound dedication in 2006, when he was the Texas League pitcher of the year, led the circuit in ERA and made his big league debut. Albers' 91-94 mph two-seam fastball runs in on righthanders and away from lefties, and it chews up bats. He also can hit 97 mph with a fourseamer when needed. He uses a hard breaking ball with slider velocity and curveball break, and it's a solid-average pitch. He does a good job of repeating his windmill delivery, so his command should continue to improve. Albers' changeup is making progress but he needs to trust it more. He sometimes rushes his mechanics and gets under his pitches, losing life and leaving them up in the zone. He had problems with alcohol earlier in his career but has put that behind him. Ticketed for Triple-A at the start of the season, Albers has a ceiling as a good No. 3 starter and could help solidify the back of Houston's rotation later in the year.
A highly recruited quarterback in high school, Barthmaier signed for a 13th-round record $750,000 in 2003. He had less polish and more ceiling than any starter in a talented Salem rotation last season--leading the high Class A Carolina League in both strikeouts and walks--and he finished on a 7-1, 1.82 tear. Barthmaier has life on his fastballs, pitching at 91-93 mph with his two-seamer and reaching 96 with his four-seamer. That sets up a curveball that managers rated the best in the Carolina League. Barthmaier made progress with his changeup and his control in the second half of 2006. Strong and athletic, he has missed just one start in four years of pro ball--and that was because of an ankle injury. He battles inconsistency with all his pitches and his command. He overthrows his fastball and loses movement, hangs some curveballs and still fights the feel for his changeup. His arm action is long and there's effort to his delivery. Showing more maturity and improving his preparation would be a big help. Barthmaier could make a dynamic closer, which would allow him to focus on his fastball and curve while not worrying about pacing himself. For now, he'll remain a starter and go to Double-A.
The Astros had to protect Gutierrez on their 40-man roster before he got to full-season ball, and they haven't regretted the decision. He missed six weeks last year with a tender elbow, but returned and did not allow a run in his last four regular-season starts. He won both his playoff outings and was Corpus Christi's Game One starter. Gutierrez has lit up radar guns from years and attacks hitters with a 92-95 sinker. Though he was reluctant to use his secondary pitches against more advanced hitters, his curveball and changeup are solid. One scout liked his changeup more than his fastball, which is saying something. If Gutierrez had his way, he'd still try to blow the ball by most hitters, so he needs to keep mixing pitches and changing speeds. His command is improving but still requires work. He hasn't had arm problems in the past, but Houston will watch him closely after his elbow issues cropped up. All three of his pitches show at least flashes of being out pitches, giving Gutierrez the highest ceiling among the system's pitchers. Destined for Triple-A at the start of 2007, he could help Houston as a starter or reliever in the second half.
Towles' five-tool ability at catcher excites the Astros, but they wish they could see more of it. After finger surgery in 2004, he came back slowly the following year, and he was bothered by tendinitis in his right knee during the second half of 2006. He has played in just 165 games in 2 1/2 pro seasons. Towles handles the bat well and has good pitch recognition. He has added 20 pounds of muscle and developed pull power since turning pro. More athletic than most catchers, he runs well and can steal a base when the opportunity presents itself. Managers rated him the best defensive catcher in the low Class A South Atlantic League last year, when he showed consistent 1.95-second pop times and solid receiving skills. He also calls a good game. None of his injuries has been serious or chronic, but Towles has lost valuable development time. He struggles against quality breaking balls, and he just needs experience to polish his overall game. Add it all up, and Towles could be Jason Kendall with more power and better receiving skills. Houston would love to see him stay healthy enough to catch 110-120 games this year in high Class A.
After Estrada didn't get to low Class A until his sixth pro season, the Astros decided to skip him a level to Double-A in 2006. He responded by nearly leading the Texas League in strikeouts while working out of the bullpen. He led minor league relievers by averaging 13.6 whiffs per nine innings. Estrada has one of the minors' best curveballs, as his looks like a power knuckler before breaking straight down. He also can get strikeouts with his 83-86 mph splitter, and he achieves a lot of sink and armside run with his 92-94 mph fastball. With so much to worry about, hitters take a lot of ugly swings against him. A lot of Estrada's strikeouts come on curveballs out of the zone and splitters in the dirt, and that approach might not work as well against more discerning hitters. Houston has to keep leaning on him to throw his fastball. His stuff isn't as sharp when he pitches on consecutive days. Texas League observers were convinced Estrada could have helped the Astros as a set-up man at the end of last season. They'll be more conservative and start him in Triple-A this year, though he should be one of their first in-season callups.
Paulino has the best pure arm strength among the Astros' starting pitching prospects. They've clocked him as high as 100 mph, while other clubs have seen him hit 102. Paulino usually works at 93-96 mph with his heavy fastball and drives it down in the strike zone with a straight-overthe- top delivery. He changed his curveball grip two years ago and now has a hard 80-85 mph downer that's a plus-plus pitch when it's really on. Still raw after five years as a pro, Paulino doesn't command much beyond his fastball. His shoulder flies open and he falls toward first base in his delivery, making it difficult to stay on top of his curveball and to locate his work-in-progress changeup. He started working on a slider last August. He's a shaky fielder who led high Class A Carolina League pitchers with seven errors in just 21 chances last year. Though Houston will continue to groom Paulino as a starter in Double-A this season, it's easy to envision him as a late-inning reliever. In that role, he could rely more on his fastball and not worry about his changeup.
The Astros planned on taking a college pitcher with the No. 23 choice in the 2006 draft, but when all the arms they liked went off the board, they took Sapp. Signed for $1.4 million, he went to short-season Tri-City because 2005 second-rounder Ralph Henriquez needed to repeat Rookie ball. Sapp held his own as the youngest regular in the New-York Penn League before battling elbow tendinitis late in the summer. He went in the first round because of his bat. He has a strong frame and plus power. Reducing a high leg kick that he used as a trigger improved his timing and gives him a better chance to hit for average. He has a good approach for a young player, including a willingness to draw walks. His arm strength is his best defensive tool, and he led NY-P catchers by throwing out 42 percent of basestealers. Some clubs worried that Sapp wouldn't be able to remain behind the plate, but he sold the Astros by promising to commit to it. Thick and barrel-chested, he has lost weight and started doing Pilates to improve his agility. His receiving still needs work, especially on pitches out of the zone. He's a below-average runner. Sapp has enough bat to get the job done at first base, but Houston is confident he'll stay at catcher. He'll move up to low Class A Lexington this year at age 19.
The Astros have a knack for finding college seniors, with Eric Bruntlett, Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane and Chad Qualls all contributing to their 2006 club. Next in line is Reineke, who has alternated between starting and relieving in pro ball and pitched better in the latter role once he reached Double-A last year. Reineke uses his 6-foot-6 frame to deliver his pitches on a steep plane, and yet his 93-95 mph fastball seems to climb on hitters. His hard slider has late sweep and is a strikeout pitch at its best. His delivery was much improved in 2006, with less effort and better balance. He's comfortable pitching out of the bullpen with the game on the line. Reineke is more effective in relief because he doesn't have to worry about his changeup. It shows good dive at times, but it's inconsistent and he's reluctant to throw it. His fastball has velocity but only sporadic life, so he'll need to keep it down against big leaguers. If Houston wants to continue trying Reineke as a starter, he'll return to Double-A. If he's going to stay in the bullpen, he could move up to Triple-A. Either way, he could make his major league debut late in 2007.
If Max Sapp had been gone when it came time for the Astros' first-round choice last June, their backup plan was to take Perez. Instead, they got him 44 picks later in the second round and signed him for $550,000. Perez starred at Tampa, throwing the Spartans' first no-hitter in a decade and helping them win the Division II College World Series. He earned a win as a starter in the semifinal and a save in the finale. After his long college season, Houston eased him into pro ball as a reliever in low Class A. Though he wasn't comfortable coming out of the bullpen, Perez showed a lively 92-93 mph fastball that topped out at 97 and good feel for his hard slider. He struggles at times to repeat his delivery, which includes violent arm action. The Astros plan on developing him as a starter, and he'll need to develop a usable changeup to flourish in that role. He could return to Lexington to begin his first full season, but he has the stuff to skip a level at some point.
Originally drafted by Houston as a shortstop, Sampson retired after hitting .239 in his pro debut. He drifted into coaching at Collin County (Texas) Community College, where he threw batting practice and began to wonder if he might have potential on the mound. He contacted the Astros and was re-signed in January 2003. From the day he returned, Sampson has shown amazing command and feel. His stuff doesn't leave him much margin for error, so he just doesn't make many mistakes. He led Triple-A Pacific Coast League starters in fewest unintentional walks (1.1) and baserunners (9.4) per nine innings, and he threw 67 percent of his pitches for strikes in the majors last season. Sampson's best pitch is his 87-92 mph sinker, followed by his slider. He also has an 11-to-5 curveball and a changeup, and he has come up with a promising splitter. He has plus command to both sides of the plate and he's unflappable. He likes to back lefthanders off the plate by throwing his slider down and in to them, and he could come up with a four-seam fastball to go up and in against righties. As would be expected given his background, Sampson hits better than most pitchers. He batted .391 in Triple-A last year, including a 5-for-15 (.333) performance as a pinch-hitter. He handled every role Houston threw at him in the majors, allowing just one earned run in three starts and pitching well out of the bullpen. He should make the Opening Day roster in 2007 and projects as either an effective No. 5 starter or as a set-up man.
Iorg has an extended baseball family, as his father Garth and uncle Dane played in the majors, older brother Isaac played in the Braves system, and younger brother Cale will be drafted once he returns from a two-year Mormon mission. Eli spent 2003 on a mission to Argentina, which is why he was a 22-year-old junior when the Astros made him the 38th overall pick in 2005 and signed for $950,000. He has been slow to get untracked in pro ball. A stress fracture in his right foot lingering from college abbreviated his pro debut, and his swing got out of whack in his first full season. Perhaps because he was disappointed to be assigned to low Class A, Iorg tried to hit homers and pressed too hard at the plate. Houston tried to stress a more disciplined approach, with only moderate success. He has plus raw power and slightly above-average speed, so he could be a 20-20 man in the majors. He needs better pitch recognition, however, which would help him stop chasing breaking balls in the dirt. Iorg has solid range and a strong arm in right field, but he needs to do a better job of hitting the cutoff man. He also can get too aggressive on the bases. He'll begin 2007 in high Class A, though the Astros would like to get him to Double-A before season's end.
A two-way star at Tulane, Bogusevic led the Green Wave to the 2005 College World Series by going 13-3, 3.25 and batting .328 as a right fielder. Though he offered plus hitting ability, raw power and speed, the Astros went with the conventional wisdom and took Bogusevic as a pitcher, sgining him for $1.375 million. They're still waiting to see the pitcher they thought they were drafting. Bogusevic was worn out in his pro debut after a long college season, but he didn't look any better for most of 2006. After he hit rock bottom by allowing eight runs (including three homers) without recording an out on May 4, doctors diagnosed elbow tendinitis and Houston shut him down for seven weeks. Upon his return, he seemed to get back on track. His fastball was back at 88-92 mph and his slider regained its sharpness. He also flashed a solid changeup. Bogusevic posted a 3.43 ERA over his final 11 starts and finally earned his first pro victories. When things weren't going well for him, he let the pressure of being a first-round pick get to him. He rushed his delivery and battled his mechanics, leaving his pitches up in the zone. Including a 2004 stint in the Cape Cod League, he has tired in each of the last three summers and must get stronger to handle the grind of pro ball. He also has to do a better job of holding runners after surrendering 13 steals in 14 attempts in 2006. The Astros also have worked with him to lower his arm angle to a true three-quarters slot. There's some thought that he'd hold up better as a reliever, but he'll stay in the rotation this year in high Class A.
Snubbed for a spot on Houston's 40-man roster after the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Conrad came out and did what he always does in 2006. He brought high energy to the ballpark every day and continued to overachieve. He had the best season of his career, leading the minors with 79 extra-base hits and topping the Pacific Coast League in runs, triples and total bases (284). Conrad has always shown offensive ability, with a short stroke, gap (and sometimes home run) power, an eye for drawing a fair amount of walks, and the savvy and enough speed to steal an occasional base. He did strike out more than ever, a tradeoff for his added power production, but he continued to work counts. More important for his career, Conrad displayed increased versatility last year. His arm, range and throwing accuracy all rate as 40 or 45 on the 20-80 scouting scale, limiting him even at second base. But his arm responded to a throwing program and he was able to play a passable third base. He also saw time at all three outfield positions in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .359 as a replacement for Hunter Pence. Conrad can be David Eckstein with less polish and more power. He won that 40-man spot this offseason, though he still faces a challenge to make the big league club in spring training.
Anderson led the minors in steals in 2004 and the Texas League in each of the last two years, but he's still trying to prove he can do more than run wild on the bases. He repeated Double-A and put up essentially the same numbers as the season before. Managers rated Anderson the Texas League's best and fastest baserunner, and his speed rates at least a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He also uses his quickness well in center field, where he did a better job reading fly balls last year. The key for Anderson will be producing at the plate. He's a slightly below-average hitter--his speed allows him to beat out infield hits and pump up his average--with well-below-average power, so he must focus on getting on base. But his plate discipline has regressed during his two years in Double-A, and his bunting needs work as well. Anderson tried to get his hands in position earlier in 2006, which would allow him to fend off inside fastballs better, but the results weren't noticeable. His biggest improvement came against lefthanders, as he hit .354 off them after they held him to a .210 average in 2005. He has a playable, accurate arm and did a better job of hitting the cutoff man last year. He's similar to Willy Taveras, who was traded to the Rockies in December. But Anderson is a lesser defender, and he'll play in Triple-A this year rather than take over for Taveras.
Douglass signed for an above-slot $225,000 as a 12th-rounder in 2002, then did little to justify the bonus in his first three pro seasons. He broke through by leading the Carolina League in ERA in 2005, then was a solid starter on Corpus Christi's championship team. He won both his Texas League playoff starts, striking out 19 in 12 innings. Douglass is a lesser version of Chris Sampson, relying on command of average stuff. He now has the best changeup in the system after refining it over the last two years. He sits at 87-88 mph and tops out at 92 mph with his sinker, and he also mixes in a curveball and slider. Both of his breaking balls have their moments. Douglass does a good job of throwing strikes and working inside, but he sometimes catches too much of the plate. He needs to improve his conditioning and athleticism. Douglass has a ceiling as a workhorse back-of-the-rotation starter, and he'll work toward that goal in Triple-A this year.
Few Astros farmhands can hit a fastball farther than Santangelo, but he's still seeking offensive consistency after three years in pro ball. He never managed to hit .300 with metal bats in college at Seton Hall and Clemson, and he matched his career average by hitting .241 in high Class A last year as a 23-year-old. Santangelo doesn't recognize offspeed and breaking pitches well, so they give him fits and he has trouble making contact. Nevertheless, he has averaged a homer for every 20 pro at-bats and tantalized Houston with a three-homer game on July 22. That he's also a catcher makes Santangelo all the more intriguing. Fully recovered from a labrum tear that truncated his 2005 season, he has a strong arm and threw out 42 percent of basestealers last year. His receiving skills aren't as advanced, but he did move better behind the plate in 2006 than he had in the past. He's a below-average runner but not bad for a backstop. Santangelo will advance to Double-A this year and could have a future as a platoon catcher in the majors.
Flores won the national juco batting title with a .519 average in 2005, turning down sixfigure offers from the Braves both before and afterward. His gamble paid off, as the Astros gave him $217,500 as a fourth-rounder that June. After an encouraging pro debut, he struggled to adjust to the speed of the game in low Class A in 2006. Flores stood on top of the plate and tried to pull everything, failing to stay back and protect the outer third of the plate. He does have power, but he'll have to tighten his strike zone and adjust his approach. His best tool is his speed, which ranks as the best in the system, just ahead of Josh Anderson. Flores swiped bases at an 82 percent success rate last year, but he needs to be more aggressive and run more. A shortstop before turning pro, he's still learning in center field. He's good on balls hit directly in front of or behind him, but struggles to take efficient routes on drives in the gaps. His arm is average. Houston believes he has the makeup to succeed, and thus feels confident he can handle a jump to high Class A in 2007.
After the Phillies drafted him as a pitcher in the sixth round in 2003, Parraz opted to attend junior college. He hit 96 mph with his fastball but lost his spot in the rotation because of poor command. He also hit .359 with wood bats as an outfielder, and the Astros took him in 2004 for his bat. Parraz was inconsistent and played out of control during his first two lackluster years in pro ball before breaking out in 2006. Perhaps because he heard whispers that Houston might return him to the mound, a move he didn't want to make, Parraz toned down his game and played more under control. In his second tour of the New York-Penn League, he led the circuit in batting, slugging and on-base percentage. He showed a more consistent swing, allowing him to make better use of his average power and slightly above-average speed. Parraz runs well for his size and has seen time in center field, though he fits best in right. He reads balls off the bat better on the corners, and he obviously has enough arm strength. He still plays with reckless abandon, but he's also beginning to figure pro ball out. Parraz is finally ready for low Class A in his fourth pro season.
Holdzkom's father Christopher was a well-known pianist in the late 1960s, and he started his son on the piano at age 2. Lincoln played the piano on "The Tonight Show"with Johnny Carson when he was 6 and later contributed a song to the "Forrest Gump"soundtrack. He shares baseball in common with his brother John, a 6-foot-7 righthander who signed with the Mets as a fourth-round pick last June. Holdzkom had a chance to go early in the 2001 draft, but after he was kicked off the team at Arizona Western he lasted until the Marlins took him in the seventh round. He blew out his elbow in 2004, when he missed the entire year following Tommy John surgery. Florida brought him back slowly in 2005, then sent him to the Cubs in a deal for Todd Wellemeyer at the end of spring training last March. Holdzkom came down with shoulder problems that cost him two months last summer, so Chicago thought it could leave him unprotected for the major league Rule 5 draft. But after he touched 95 mph with his fastball in the Arizona Fall League, the Astros pounced. Holdzkom usually works at 91-93 with his fastball and backs it up with a hard slurve. He has yet to allow a home run in 206 pro innings. After six years in pro ball, he's still a project. He has to prove he can stay healthy, throw consistent strikes and maintain his stuff for more than an inning at a time. Makeup questions also have dogged him in the past. But if Holdzkom can harness his electric arm, he can help Houston's bullpen. The Astros have to keep him on their major league roster throughout 2007. If not, they have to pass him through waivers and offer him back to the Cubs for half his $50,000 draft price.
Norris began his career at Cal Poly as a two-way player before focusing on pitching as a sophomore and emerging as the Mustangs' No. 1 starter as a junior last spring. He eased into pro ball as a reliever and spent the summer throwing his four-seam fastball by New York- Penn League hitters. Norris pitched at 90-93 mph as a starter during the spring, and his velocity rose to the mid-90s and topped out at 97 when he worked out of the bullpen. His heater has late hop at the end, making it difficult for hitters to square up. His No. 2 pitch is a power curveball with 12-to-6 break, though he doesn't command it effectively. The Astros will start Norris this year in low Class A to give him the innings to polish his repertoire. He needs to do a better job of working all four quadrants of the strike zone. He throws his changeup too hard and it doesn't have enough separation from his fastball. In the long term, Norris' stuff and bulldog attitude will probably fit best in the bullpen.
Manzella hasn't had anything come easy to him since he turned pro in 2005. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his family's home in Chalmette, La., during his debut. He also had a tough time adjusting to wood bats and had elbow problems that required arthroscopic surgery. In 2006, he went down twice during the season with ankle problems, and had to leave Hawaii Winter Baseball early when doctor diagnosed the injury as a hairline stress fracture. The Astros would love to see what Manzella can do when healthy, as he has the best all-around package of tools among their shortstop prospects. He is cutting down a swing better tailored for metal bats, and with further adjustments he could hit for a decent average. He also has gap power and enough speed to steal an occasional base. Where Manzella really stands out is with his glove. Managers rated him the best defensive shortstop in the South Atlantic League last year. He has solid range, a strong arm and fine instincts. Manzella's upside is as a stronger version of Adam Everett. He'll head to high Class A in 2007, with a good chance at a mid-season promotion if all goes well.
The son of former big leaguer and current Red Sox Triple-A manager Ron Johnson, Chris turned down Boston as a 37th-round pick in 2003 and opted to attend Stetson instead. After redshirting in his first year, Johnson set a school record with a career .379 batting average. When he signed for $242,500 as a fourth-round pick in June, he immediately became the system's top corner-infield prospect. Johnson has more raw power than most Houston farmhands and can drive the ball to all fields. He tried to do too much in his pro debut, hampering his own pop when he lost control of the strike zone. After playing mostly first base in college, Johnson shifted to third base in pro ball. He runs and moves well for his size, has enough arm for the hot corner and made just three errors in 49 games there. His lower half has gotten thicker, however, and some scouts believe he'll wind up back at first base. Houston expects significant improvement with the bat in low Class A this year.
Clemens already has made a significant contribution to the Astros, as his presence in the organization helped persuade his father Roger to pitch at least one more season for the club in 2006. When Roger made his first tuneup start at Lexington on June 6, Koby was his third baseman and backed him with an RBI double. He's also a natural leader who's looked up to by many of his teammates. Houston believes Clemens can help them with his on-field performance as well. He missed five weeks after dislocating his left pinky diving into a base in late April, and he never got going in low Class A. He does have a sound swing and raw power, and the Astros think his ability to make adjustments will get him back on track. Clemens has below-average speed, range and athleticism, but he has worked hard to make himself into a third baseman. He gladly accepted an assignment to Hawaii Winter Baseball, where he focused on his defense. He showed a low-90s fastball as a high school senior, so he has more than enough arm for the hot corner, but if his body gets any thicker he could face a move to first base. Houston could challenge him with a move to high Class A in 2007.
As with many of their Latin American prospects, the Astros have brought Severino along slowly, keeping him in Rookie leagues for four straight years. Last season was his most impressive yet, as he led the Appalachian League in strikeouts, whiffs per nine innings (11.9) and even caught-stealing percentage (60 percent). At this point, Severino is a small, lean lefty with a quick arm that delivers explosive 92-93 mph fastballs. He scrapped his curveball last year in favor of a slider that can be tough to hit, but he doesn't always throw it for strikes. His changeup and mechanics are similarly inconsistent, and his maximum-effort approach doesn't lend itself to working deep into games. Severino's profile screams reliever, but Houston likely will continue using him as a starter to maximize his innings. At 22, he'll finally get his first opportunity in low Class A.
When John Buck went to the Royals in the Carlos Beltran trade in June 2004, Gimenez was left as the best catcher in the Houston system. But J.R. Towles, Max Sapp and Lou Santangelo since have eclipsed him as prospects, and Humberto Quintero has made an inroads on the Astros' backup job. A switch-hitter, Gimenez is much better from the left side. He hits for average and has home run pop, but he doesn't stand out in either regard because his bat speed and plate discipline are fringy. Sanchez is more of a defensive player who has a strong arm and a quick release. He's aggressive at picking off runners and threw out 36 percent of Triple-A basestealers last year. He has made significant improvements with his English and his game-calling since signing as a 16-year-old Venezuela. He's a well-belowaverage runner. Gimenez has seen time at first base and even taken grounders at third in an attempt to increase his versatility. He did make his big league debut last September, but his chances of making much of a contribution in Houston have diminished. He seems to wear down mentally and physically over the course of a season, which doesn't help his case.
Ramirez made a successful U.S. debut in 2006 and was the MVP at Rookie-level Greeneville and an Appalachian League all-star. Though he weighs just 149 pounds, he has surprising pop for his size and pitchers can't knock the bat out of his hands. His plate discipline still leaves something to be desired, but he does a good job of using the entire field. If he gets stronger, he could be an asset on offense as he moves up the system. He's an average runner. Ramirez is a legitimate middle infielder but may not be able to stay at shortstop. He has good body control and nice range to his left, but his footwork needs improvement and his arm grades as just a 45 on the 20-80 scouting scale. The Astros haven't given up on him at shortstop yet and believe that his arm may improve. They appreciate his bubbly personality and love for the game. Ramirez had a three-game cameo in low Class A at the end of last season and will return there in 2007.
Rodriguez played on College World Series championship teams at Miami in 1999 and 2001, ranking second in NCAA Division I with 53 steals (in 55 attempts) for the latter club. The Astros thought they were getting a catalyst who could wreak havoc when they made him a second-round pick in 2001. Instead, he has proven to be an above-average runner and not a burner, and he hasn't made a huge impact on the bases. He's a poor man's version of Josh Anderson, albeit with the best plate discipline in the system. Rodriguez has a sound swing and puts the ball in play. Getting stronger would make him more of a threat at the plate. He's also a solid center fielder who takes good routes, especially on balls hit in front of him. He has an average arm and a quick release. Rodriguez has been bothered by shoulder problems throughout his career, and he had to leave the Arizona Fall League early to have surgery to clean up his labrum. Added to the 40-man roster for the first time in the offseason, he'll get a look as an extra outfielder this spring.
Salamida was a 13th-round find by area scout Mike Maggart, who previously stole Wade Miller and Tim Redding for the Astros. Signed for $20,000, Salamida headed to Tri-City, based just five minutes from where he grew up, and became the New York-Penn League's most dominant pitcher, leading the circuit in wins, ERA and opponent average. A two-way player at Division III Oneonta State, Salamida is a good athlete who repeats his low three-quarters delivery well. His arm angle makes his 89-91 mph fastball seem quicker, as does a changeup that rates as a plus pitch at times. His slider needs the most refinement, and he doesn't consistently stay on top of the pitch. He likes to cross up hitters by pitching backward. Houston compares his competitive drive to Mark Buehrle's, and thinks Salamida could become a No. 5 starter or a middle reliever. If the Astros don't send him to high Class A to begin 2007, he should get there by the end of the year.
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