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The Athletics were the first team on Towles, drafting him in the 32nd round out of Crosby (Texas) High in 2002 and in the 23rd round out of Collin County (Texas) Community College a year later. Towles ranked fourth among national juco hitters with a .484 batting average as a freshman, then transferred to North Central Texas Junior College after Collin County disbanded its program. Towles turned down an Oklahoma State scholarship to sign for $100,000. In his first three pro seasons, he had problems staying healthy and played just 165 games. He needed surgery after catching a foul tip off his right index finger in instructional league in 2004 and had tendinitis in his right knee in 2006. The Astros hoped he could catch 110-120 games at high Class A Salem in 2007, and he reached that playing-time goal--while unexpectedly climbing to the major leagues. He took off after moving up to Double-A Corpus Christi out of necessity when Lou Santangelo drew a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in May. Towles performed well enough to keep the job when Santangelo returned, then moved up to Triple-A Round Rock in August and Houston in September. In his fourth big league start, he set a club record with eight RBIs in an 18-1 rout of the Cardinals. Towles has a chance to have average or better skills across the board. He has good pitch recognition, handles the bat well and controls the strike zone, so he should hit for average. He's adding strength and starting to pull the ball more often, so he could develop into a 15-20 home run threat. He's more agile and runs better than most catchers, with average speed and double-digit steal totals in each of his three full seasons. Behind the plate, Towles moves and receives well and calls a good game. He has a strong arm and his athleticism gives him a quick release. Because he has played the equivalent of just two full minor league seasons, Towles still needs polish. His primary goal is to get stronger, so he can tap into more of his power potential and be more durable. He can get pull-happy at times and should drive more balls to the opposite field. Despite his quickness, he must be more judicious about stealing bases after getting caught 14 times in 28 tries in 2007. He can improve the accuracy of his throws after throwing out 28 percent of basestealers last season. Houston re-signed Brad Ausmus yet again, but only as a mentor and backup to Towles. The Astros have sent only one catcher to the All-Star Game in franchise history (Craig Biggio, 1991) and believe Towles can become their second.
Originally signed as a shortstop, Paulino quickly moved to the mound and could be the next in the Astros' long tradition of flamethrowers. Houston has seen Paulino's fastball hit 100 mph, while other clubs have had him up to 102. Paulino has consistently gotten better in making the transition from thrower to pitcher. He's improved at maintaining his athletic delivery and locating his fastball. He likes to bust hitters inside, then make them look silly with a hammer 80-85 mph curveball. Paulino works up in the strike zone with his four-seam fastball, and major league hitters turned it around for five homers in 19 innings. His improved curveball and changeup are still not consistently reliable. He'll fly open in his delivery at times, costing him command. He's an adventure as a fielder, having led his minor leagues in errors by a pitcher the last two seasons. The Astros still haven't determined Paulino's long-term role. He'll compete for a rotation spot in spring training, but he eventually could emerge as their closer if Chad Qualls doesn't seize the job.
Gutierrez spent four years in Rookie ball, which meant that he had to be protected on Houston's 40-man roster before he even reached a full-season league. But the Astros haven't regretted that decision or their patience, and he made his big league debut in August. Gutierrez has one of the better fastballs in the system, both in terms of its low-90s velocity and its sink. He'll flash a plus changeup at times, allowing him to keep hitters off balance. He has a sturdy frame and has missed time just once in seven years as a pro, when he had a tender elbow in 2006. His command regressed last season, as did his secondary pitches. Gutierrez doesn't finish his curveball consistently and it's probably going to be an average pitch at best. He's unflappable on the mound, but he's also too happy-go-lucky at times. Gutierrez could wind up as a reliever. He pitched better in that role during his big league stint, and he may not have enough command or pitches to stick in the rotation. Houston isn't ready to make that move yet, however, and will give him a long look in spring training.
Houston acquired Bourn and Mike Costanzo along with Geoff Geary in a November trade that sent Brad Lidge to Philadelphia. Bourn spent all of 2007 in the majors but got just 15 starts and 119 at-bats while serving mainly as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. Upon his arrival, Bourn immediately became the fastest runner and one of the best defensive outfielders among Houston prospects. One club official joked that Bourn's speed rated a 90 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and he was caught just once in 19 steal attempts last season. He knows how to make best use of his quickness, spraying line drives from gap to gap and showing an eye for drawing walks. He has a strong arm for a center fielder. Bourn never will hit for much power and needs to make more consistent contact to be a truly effective leadoff man. He hit just .154 against lefthanders in 2007, though battling southpaws hadn't been a problem in the past. The best-case scenario is Bourn develops into the younger version of Juan Pierre. It will be an upset if he's not batting leadoff and playing center field for Houston in 2008, shifting Hunter Pence to right.
Thanks in part to a strong performance in Hawaii Winter Baseball, Norris rates as the best prospect from the Astros' 2006 draft despite lasting until the sixth round. He struck out 33 in 25 innings and opponents hit .184 against him in Hawaii. Norris worked in the mid-90s and topped out at 97 mph as a reliever, and he sat in the low 90s as a starter. His fastball also has late life, making it that much more difficult to hit. He has the best curveball in the system, a power downer that he throws in the low 80s. Norris still lacks polish. His control of his curveball comes and goes, while his changeup is still very much a work in progress. He's still honing his feel for pitching, and when he rushes his delivery he loses rhythm and command. He's not very big, so there are questions about his long-term durability as a starter. The Astros will continue to start Norris to give him more innings, but he profiles better as a reliever. He likely will begin 2008 in high Class A Salem, and he could develop into Houston's closer of the future.
A teammate of J.R. Towles at North Central Texas, James took longer to emerge as a true prospect. Once he found a consistent delivery and release point at low Class A in 2006, his stock surged upward. He tore up high Class A in the first half of 2007, then got hit harder in Double-A and the Arizona Fall League. James relies heavily on a low-90s sinker that generated a 2.1 groundout/flyout ratio last season. His slider serves as a fine complement to his sinker. He has the mental toughness to pitch in any role the Astros throw at him. He depends on his sinker too much at times, which caused trouble against more advanced hitters. He has yet to come up with an effective changeup; he doesn't have enough command or arm speed on his current model. He's starting to realize that he has to have the changeup to remain a starter. After he pitched in the AFL, James was diagnosed with a fracture in his right foot. He had a screw inserted in the foot but still was expected to be ready for spring training. Added to the 40-man roster in November, James will head back to Double-A as a starter to begin 2008. There's a good chance that he'll eventually wind up in the bullpen, and he has enough stuff and the makeup to become a setup man.
Reineke had the size and stuff to warrant an early-round selection, but a spotty track record in four years at Miami (Ohio) dropped him to the 13th round of the 2004 draft. He has bounced between starting and relieving in each of his three full seasons. He spent April and May in Round Rock's rotation, moved to the bullpen in June and July and started again in August. Reineke's fastball and slider both grade as average to plus pitches, though they both slipped a bit in 2007. His fastball sat closer to 90 mph more often and his slider wasn't as hard or as sweeping as it had been in the past. He delivers both pitches on a steep angle that's tough on hitters. Houston keeps starting Reineke in an attempt to develop his changeup. It will dive at times but still remains inconsistent. So do his mechanics and his command, which is a problem because his fastball is fairly straight. He relies on his slider too heavily. Ticketed for another half-season at Round Rock after being placed on the 40-man roster, Reineke could be another Chad Qualls. Qualls had only intermittent success until the Astros made him a full-time reliever in Triple-A, and they'll probably wind up making the same move with Reineke.
Iorg comes from an extended baseball family, as his father Garth and uncle Dane played in the majors, older brother Isaac played in the minors and younger brother Cale signed with the Tigers in August. Eli's 2007 season ended in late May when he tore a ligament in his right elbow diving into first base. Iorg has the tools to be a 20- 20 man and play a solid right field. He chased fewer pitches, made more consistent contact and used the opposite field more often in 2007. He has slightly above-average speed and a plus arm. He has good instincts on the bases and in the outfield. He was less stubborn and quicker to make adjustments this season. Because he went on a Mormon mission while in college, Iorg is already 24 and losing three months of at-bats was costly. He still doesn't trust his swing enough and tries to drive balls from a dead start. He's still not very adept at working counts. Iorg hit well enough in two months in high Class A to open 2008 in Double-A. He'll likely play DH to ease his return from Tommy John surgery. The Astros are strong on the outfield corners with Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, but Iorg has the upside to force his way into the picture.
The Braves tried to sign Flores before and after he won the national juco batting title with a .519 average at Triton (Ill.) JC in 2005, but he declined six-figure offers on both occasions. He turned pro for $217,500 after the Astros made him a fourth-round pick that June. Flores has been inconsistent since signing, but he still has the best package of tools among the club's center-field prospects. He's a more well-rounded player than Michael Bourn, acquired from the Phillies in the offseason. Flores' most obvious tool is his speed, which grades as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Managers rated him the best baserunner in the high Class A Carolina League last year, when he stole 39 bases in 44 tries between two levels. Houston would like to see him get more aggressive and improve his reads of pitchers so he could steal more often. Similarly, he can get more out of his speed in center field once he learns to take better routes on flyballs. He has fringe-average arm strength, but that's fine for center field and he registered 12 assists last year. Flores' offensive performance has been up and down, typified in 2007 when he hit well in high Class A but couldn't solve Double-A pitching. He has a short stroke and good pop for a speedster, but he's vulnerable to being set up by advanced pitchers and slow to adjust when that happens. He has some grasp of the strike zone but needs better discipline, especially if he's to bat at the top of the order. Flores is a gifted athlete but doesn't have the best instincts. He'll give Double-A another try in 2008.
Will the real Mitch Einertson please step forward? Is he the guy who has won league MVP awards in the Appalachian (2004) and Carolina leagues (2007), and tied a 44-year-old Appy record with 24 homers in his pro debut? Or is he the guy who batted .222 in two years in low Class A, taking four weeks off in 2005 to deal with off-field issues? The Astros sure hope he's the first one, though there's mixed opinion within the organization. Einertson says his Appy League homer binge was the worst thing that could have happened to him, because it fouled up his approach. Last year, he finally realized that he had to shorten his swing and use the whole field rather than taking a huge hack and trying to pull everything out of the park. He also looked more balanced at the plate and understood that he can just let his power, which is at least average, come naturally. He's making more consistent hard contact now, though he still doesn't walk much. Einertson is a decent runner but not a basestealing threat. He played all three outfield positions in 2007, spending the most time in center field, but scouts who saw him play in the Arizona Fall League didn't like his routes and jumps. He has the arm for right field but may wind up in left, and an experiment at second base in instructional league in 2004 didn't go well. Houston will watch with fingers crossed to see if Einertson can continue to make progress in Double-A this year.
The Astros' 2007 draft was a debacle, as they forfeited their first two choices as free-agent compensation for Carlos Lee and Woody Williams, then failed to sign the top two picks they held onto, third-rounder Derek Dietrich (now at Georgia Tech) and fourth-rounder Brett Eibner (now at Arkansas). That made fifth-rounder DeLome the highest selection they actually got under contract. Signed for $135,000, he was considered one of the best college athletes in the draft. A former middle infielder at a small-town Texas high school, DeLome was considered more raw than most collegians, but he surprised Houston by showing more polish than expected in his debut. He hit fastballs and lefthanders (.324 versus southpaws) better than the Astros' reports indicated he might. He'll still need time to develop but has the tools to become a well-rounded player. He has a compact swing and good balance, stays back on offspeed pitches and has the bat speed for at least average power. His ability to hit for average will be tied to how much progress he can make with his strike-zone discipline. He has above-average speed but lacks instincts in the outfield and will drop some catchable flyballs. Bothered by shoulder tendinitis in his debut, he played mostly left field and Houston may leave him there even though he has enough arm strength to play anywhere in the outfield. DeLome has the quickness to steal bases, but he's still figuring that part of the game out too. The Astros' conservative approach to promoting college players will be good for him, because he doesn't need to be rushed. He'll move up to high Class A in 2008.
Perez was the Astros' backup plan for their first-round choice in the 2006 draft, so they were delighted to get him 44 picks later in the second round. He was a star at NCAA Division II Tampa, throwing the Spartans' first no-hitter in a decade and helping them win the national title in his draft year with a win as a starter in the semifinals and a save in the clincher. Houston eased him into pro ball as a reliever that summer but returned him to the rotation in 2007. There's nothing subtle about Perez. He likes to go after hitters with his 91-93 mph fastball, which tops out at 95 and peaked at 97 in college. His heater has late life, and he backs it up with an 83-85 mph slider. The Astros liked his changeup when he was at Tampa, but he uses his slider too much at the expense of it now. He also tips off the changeup by slowing down his arm action. Perez' arm action isn't pretty, with a wrist wrap in the back, but it gives him some deception and Houston doesn't want to change him too much. He's working on a two-seam fastball to go with his four-seamer, because hitters don't tend to miss his mistakes. Perez has a high-maintenance body and must remain dedicated to his conditioning. He still could wind up a reliever in the long run and has the mentality to work the late innings. The Astros have moved him aggressively and will send him to Double-A this year.
With Mike Costanzo included in a trade for Miguel Tejada a month after the Astros acquired him in a deal for Brad Lidge, Johnson is once again the franchise's third baseman of the future. Not all scouts were sold on Costanzo and Johnson may be on the verge of a breakout, so he may have passed him anyway. The son of former big leaguer and current Red Sox Triple-A manager Ron Johnson, Chris holds the Stetson career batting mark with a .379 average. He hit just .261 in his first full pro season, though there were extenuating circumstances. The Astros didn't help him by playing him out of position for 19 games at shortstop in low Class A, and he injured a wrist on a checked swing in high Class A. Houston thinks he'll hit for more power than average anyway, as he shows above-average pop to all fields. He needs to show more patience and make pitchers challenge him to unlock his offensive potential. Despite a thick lower half, Johnson has average speed and can make some spectacular plays at third base. He has quick feet, good actions and range to both sides. He has one of the strongest infield arms in the system, though it sometimes leads to errors when he tries to make throws he shouldn't. Johnson reinjured his wrist during his fourth game in Hawaii Winter Baseball but should be ready for spring training. He'll open 2008 back in Salem with a good chance for a midseason promotion.
Gervacio has been consistently successful in his five years as a pro, striking out more than one batter per inning at every stop and limiting opponents to a .190 average overall. He's the rare prospect who has been a full-time reliever since signing, which in some ways is odd because he has three pitches and a resilient arm. He's not physical but he has a quick arm that produces low-90s sinkers that seem to jump out of his hand. He also shows a plus changeup that he'll throw in any count, and a slider that he commands well. There's a lot of deception and guile to Gervacio, who will vary his arm angles from three-quarters all the way down to sidearm. He's impossible to fluster and he'll throw any pitch in any count. On the right day, he'll flash three above-average pitches. His stuff isn't as consistent as his results, but it's not short either. The Astros haven't tried to start him because they don't believe his slight frame would hold up, but his repertoire and durability as a reliever at least make it a possibility worth considering. Houston added him to the 40-man roster this offseason and he could get his first taste of the majors at some point in 2008.
Manzella's future with the Astros took a hit when they traded five players for Miguel Tejada in December. However, he still could surface as a starter if Tejada's declining range leads him to third base in the future. Manzella also could soon become an Eric Bruntlett-style utilityman after Bruntlett was sent to the Phillies in the Brad Lidge deal. Manzella draws comparisons from inside and outside the organization to Adam Everett, Houston's starting shortstop for five years until getting nontendered in December. He's a better hitter than Everett though not as spectacular as a fielder. Nevertheless, defense is Manzella's best tool. He has range to both sides, as well as the arm and body control to make difficult plays. He had a long, metal-bat swing when he signed in 2005 and now has shortened it somewhat. He makes good contact and uses the opposite field, but he has no power and pitchers have no reason to walk him. He has average speed and good baserunning instincts. Last season was his first relatively healthy year as a pro after he battled elbow and ankle problems in his first two years. He's ready to play defensively in the majors right now, but with Tejada on board he'll get a much-needed year in Triple-A to work on his bat.
In a season of disappointments for the Astros, Estrada was the biggest downer in the farm system. He pitched spectacularly in 2006, nearly leading the Texas League in strikeouts while pitching out of the bullpen. He topped all minor league relievers by averaging 13.6 whiffs per nine innings and looked like he should have been pitching in Houston. Hitters had little clue how they were supposed to handle a downer curveball that looks like a hard knuckler, a sick 83-86 mph splitter or a 92-94 mph fastball with sink and armside run. If there was a knock on Estrada, it was that he could fall deeply in love with his curve and splitter. The Astros forced him to use his fastball more in 2007, and the net effect was disastrous. He maintained his 92-94 mph velocity, but his long arm action creates little deception or movement on his heater. When it got hit, he became more tentative throwing his fastball over the plate, and his control deteriorated. His splitter was still good but his curve was much more hittable. Estrada didn't exhibit much poise while getting pounded, and he let an already less-than-ideal body get softer. Estrada clearly needs to pitch backward to succeed, and he'll try to pick up the pieces in 2008.
Signed for $1.4 million as the 23rd overall pick in the 2006 draft, Sapp held his own as the youngest regular in the short-season New York-Penn League during his pro debut. Drafted for his exceptional offensive potential for a catcher, he enthused the Astros by hitting .337 with 10 doubles last May. But that was his only good month in 2007, as he battled hip and back injuries and hit .207 with just 15 extra-base hits over the rest of the season. Sapp's thick, barrel-chested frame has a big lower half, and his body was a point of contention. He has lost some weight and committed to conditioning, but while he has a good work ethic, it may take an exceptional effort to keep that body in shape. Houston believes in his bat and his power but acknowledges that his value will be reduced drastically if he has to move to first base. He has reduced a high leg kick that he used as a timing mechanism and is willing to take walks, but he'll need to make more consistent contact. He's obviously a liability on the basepaths. Despite a minor shoulder tear in high school (it didn't require surgery), Sapp has a strong arm. He led NY-P catchers by throwing out 42 percent of basestealers in 2006, though his success rate dipped to 28 percent last year. He's not very agile behind the plate and struggles to block pitches in the dirt. The Astros still think he can make catching work and that he can hit if he can get into the best shape possible. He'll repeat low Class A in 2008.
Parraz creates a lot of debate within the organization. Though he has moved at a snail's pace, he has been one of the system's most productive hitters. He led the New-York Penn League in batting (.336), slugging (.494) and on-base percentage (.421) in 2006, then topped Lexington in most offensive categories and was the team's MVP last year. Those who like him say he's a multitooled athlete similar to Eli Iorg. Those who don't say he has holes in his swing that will be exposed by advanced pitching. No one questions his athletic ability and he works hard, but the game doesn't come easily to Parraz. He does have raw power and slightly above-average speed, but he still hasn't gained control of the strike zone against lower-level pitchers. He plays out of control on the bases and in the outfield. His arm is a cannon, as he was clocked up to 96 mph at the CC of Southern Nevada--where he couldn't demonstrate enough command to stick in the rotation. Managers rated his arm the best among low Class A South Atlantic League outfielders last year, when he recorded 13 assists. High Class A should be a good test in 2008 for Parraz.
The Astros hoped to draft Jacoby Ellsbury with the 24th overall pick in the 2005 draft, but the Red Sox grabbed him right ahead of them. Houston's consolation prize was Bogusevic, who figured to improve as a full-time pitcher after starring as a two-way player at Tulane. But he only has flashed the ability that earned him a $1.375 million bonus. He battled some elbow tendinitis in 2006 and has been inconsistent with his stuff, command and ability to repeat his delivery. Bogusevic has solid velocity for a lefthander, but his 88-91 mph fastball lacks life and hitters pick it up easily. He's still working to find a reliable breaking ball, and his slider is currently ahead of his curveball. He did make some progress with his changeup last season. There's some thought within the organization that Bogusevic would have more success as a reliever, but he'll remain a starter in Double-A this year. There's no talk yet of trying him as an outfielder--his bat, power, raw speed and right-field arm were all plus tools at Tulane--though that idea has occurred to some club officials.
When the Astros traded outfield prospect Josh Anderson to the Braves for Oscar Villareal, new Astros GM Ed Wade said he wouldn't have made the deal if he hadn't signed Ramirez as a six-year minor league free agent. Several teams pursued Ramirez, but Houston sweetened its offer with the promise of a spot on the 40-man roster and a long look in big league camp this spring. There's little doubt about Ramirez' defensive ability, as he's the best center fielder in the system. He has exceptional range thanks to his first-step quickness and ability to read balls off the bat, and he has a plus arm as a bonus. The question is whether Ramirez can hit enough to be a productive big leaguer. Though he set personal bests in many categories last year, he's still a career .251 hitter with modest power and little plate discipline. The ball does jump off his bat at times, but not on any kind of consistent basis. Ramirez is too aggressive at the plate, but he's starting to figure out that his chances of playing in the majors depend on making more contact and getting on base more often to take advantage of his above-average speed. The Astros may start Ramirez at Double-A this year, but they'd like him to be ready in 2009 as insurance in case new center fielder Michael Bourn can't get the job done.
The best lefthanded pitching prospect in the system didn't become an Astro until the Winter Meetings. Houston selected Wright from the Dodgers in the major league Rule 5 draft. Now he'll have to stick on the 25-man roster all season, or else be put through waivers and be offered back to Los Angeles for half his $50,000 draft price. Wright has steadily pitched his way to prospect status, though he was left off the Dodgers' 40-man roster and they feared losing him in the Rule 5. He got hammered in his first taste of Triple-A last year but finished with 16 straight scoreless innings in Double-A after a demotion. Wright pitches off his deft command of an 88-91 mph fastball that has late, riding life. His solid-average spikecurveball is his best secondary pitch, and he'll mix in a below-average slider and changeup as well. Wright offers good feel for pitching and consistency, two things major league managers covet. As a middle reliever or situational man, his ceiling is modest, but he could be a useful part of a bullpen.
Torrence has spent this fall as a reserve wide receiver and punt returner for Ohio State. While Ohio State was marching toward the national championship game, Torrence was calling farm director Ricky Bennett and area scout Nick Venuto, asking about a baseball training regimen and the organization's plans for him this summer. After falling to the 16th round of the 2007 draft because of his commitment to the Buckeyes, Torrence turned pro in baseball for $123,000. He emerged as a baseball prospect when he hit 14 homers as a high school sophomore, though that has led him to sell out for power ever since. He'll have to overhaul his approach after striking out 48 times in 87 at-bats in his pro debut. The best athlete in the system, he has well-above-average speed but still is learning to use it on the diamond. He's definitely quick enough to play center, though he'll have to improve his reads and jumps. His arm is below-average. When he rejoins the Astros in mid-2008, he'll head to either Rookie-level Greeneville or to Lexington.
Santangelo didn't do his career any favors when he got busted for using performance-enhancing drugs last May. The Astros already considered J.R.Towles a superior catching prospect, but Santangelo's 50-game suspension enabled Towles to take his job in Double-A and move up once Santangelo returned. Houston believes Santangelo has learned his lesson, but didn't bother to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, where he drew some interest but ultimately wasn't selected. He does two things well: hit for power and throw. He has as much raw power as anyone in the system and can drive balls out to dead-center. However, he doesn't make full use of his pop because he's not a very good hitter. Teams will pitch around his power and give him some walks, but he's mostly a dead-fastball hitter with little patience. He doesn't work counts or recognize pitches well, and he also gets too pull-happy. Fully recovered from a labrum tear in 2005, Santangelo has plus arm strength and threw out 30 percent of basestealers last year. He can get lazy behind the plate, though, which limits his ability as a receiver and blocker. He doesn't project as more than a backup, but his power and arm could make him a useful reserve. He figures to return to Double-A to open the season.
McLemore's stuff has come back since he missed a year following labrum surgery in mid-2005, and last year he posted his first winning record since he was a high school senior in 1999. All three of his victories came in the majors, where he had decent success as a middle reliever. He works with an 89-92 mph fastball with natural sink and backs it up with a tight, late-breaking slider and a changeup. He never has done a good job of maintaining his release point. He'll fly open early in his delivery and lose command, leading to too many deep counts, walks and pitches up in the zone. McLemore may start incorporating a true twoseamer so he can keep the ball down in the zone more often. His mental toughness has been in question throughout his college and pro careers, but he proved something by competing well with Houston. He's not going to be the three-pitch starter the Astros once hoped he could become. He'll head to Houston as a lefty reliever this year unless he bombs in spring training.
Most teams thought Bono wanted to catch and figured he'd play both ways while attending Connecticut. But the Astros took him in the 12th round and gave him a $105,000 bonus to convince him to pitch. Though Bono didn't exactly put up big numbers in his pro debut, Houston knew he would be a work in progress. His fastball sits at 89-91 mph and tops out at 94. He works from a three-quarters arm slot and has a surprisingly clean delivery for someone who just became a full-time pitcher. Bono can flash a dastardly curveball, but he doesn't have much feel, command or consistency with the pitch. He has also begun messing around with a slider. He actually has made more progress with his changeup than with his breaking pitches. Bono will need a lot of time to add some polish, but he's unquestionably one of Houston's better hopes from its disappointing 2007 drat. He may not be ready for a full-season assignment at the start of 2008.
Even if he doesn't play in the majors, Clemens will have made some significant contributions to the Astros. His presence in the system helped entice his father Roger to pitch an additional season for Houston in 2006. Koby also has made a positive impression on several farmhands with his leadership, work ethic and utter lack of any sense of entitlement. The Astros say he has some talent, too, though they were the only club that would have popped him in the eighth round of the 2005 draft. He doesn't have his father's natural ability, but he does have a sound swing and legitimate raw power. He boosted his slugging percentage 66 points while repeating low Class A in 2007, but his strikeout rate spiked in the process. He does have the patience to draw some walks. Clemens is going to have to hit because his athleticism, speed and range at third base are all well-below-average. He works very hard on his defense and has made some progress, but he's still not going to get to balls that other third basemen will gobble up. If he gets any thicker or slower, he'll have to play first base. Clemens will remain at third base and move up to high Class A this year.
The Astros always thought Muecke had enough stuff to pitch in the majors, and he may get that opportunity in 2008 after posting a 1.56 ERA as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League. He has a solid arsenal for a lefthander, with an 88-92 mph fastball, a cutter he'll run in on righthanders and a useful slider and a changeup. He also possesses a curveball, but it's not very effective. His control improved in 2007 because he started to challenge hitters more aggressively than he had in the past. Muecke's mental toughness had been in question and he tried to pitch away from contact in the past, but work with a sports psychologist has changed him for the better. Though he has worked as a swingman the last two years, he projects as a big league reliever. His first taste of Triple-A wouldn't hurt Muecke.
Ash is the best pure hitter in the system. He has a career .310 average in pro ball and never has batted less than .297 in any of his five pro stops. He's one of the minors' most difficult batters to strike out, fanning just once every 13.4 at-bats, and managers rated his strike-zone judgment the best in the Texas League last year. But he's more of an overachieving organization player than a true prospect, because the rest of his game is fringy at best. Though he stunned Chad Cordero with a memorable College World Series homer while at Stanford, there's no power in Ash's bat and he doesn't project to do much damage in the majors. His speed is below-average, as are his range and arm at second base. He has reliable hands but doesn't have the tools to play other positions. Ash's 2007 season ended in July with a knee infection that required surgery, which won't help his tools. He'll advance to Triple-A this year, but his ceiling is limited to that of a reserve and reliable pinch-hitter.
Cusick is a newer version of Jonny Ash. Like Ash a product of the Pacific-10 Conference, Cusick went in the 10th round of the 2007 draft and signed for $75,000. He hit better than .300 with more walks than strikeouts in each of his three years at Southern California, then did the same in his pro debut. He first demonstrated his aptitude with wood bats by hitting .304 in the Cape Cod League in 2006. As with Ash, the question becomes what else Cusick can bring to the table. He makes contact, though not as much as Ash, and doesn't drive the ball consistently. His speed is below-average as are his defensive tools, with the exception of his hands. Cusick can't play other positions well enough to become a utilityman. He'll advance to Class A this year and try to develop some skills to complement his contact hitting ability.
When Mets outfielder Fernando Martinez had to miss the Futures Game with a hand injury, Van Ostrand replaced him on the World roster. He provided one of the prospect showcase's highlights when he homered off the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw. It was a nice moment for Van Ostrand, but he's not really in the same prospect stratosphere as Kershaw and Martinez. Van Ostrand offers average raw power as his best tool. He has a line-drive stroke and uses the whole field, but he's more of a gap hitter than a true home run threat. His speed is well-below-average and limits him defensively. While his average arm would play in right field, he's a left fielder at best and may have to be a first baseman. Hamstring problems last year forced him to spend time on the disabled list and at DH. Van Ostrand finished 2007 as a 23-year-old in low Class A, so he really hasn't been challenged. He should see Double-A at some point this year, though he may start off in high Class A.
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