We're sitting right around the midpoint of the minor league season, so perhaps now is a good time to take a look at the Astros' top prospects. There have been some shakeups based on their performances this season; players whose stock has fallen and players who are having breakout seasons. There have also been players who have done exactly what we hoped they would do, climbing the ranks as a result. Then there are the new additions from this year's draft.
The Astros farm system is much deeper than it appeared to be at this time last season. Last year's widely-publicized top ten lists were dominated by grade C+ prospects, with only the top three (Lyles, Castro, and Mier) obviously above that ranking. Now, a large majority of the top ten are above that level, and a generous grader could even argue that prospects in the 10-20 range deserve a B- grade.
Now occupying the number one spot is Jordan Lyles, after skipping Class A-Advanced and excelling against Class AA competition as a teenager pitching against more experienced opponents. Catcher Jason Castro has solidified but not increased his stock, and should see time in the majors this season.
Notably dropping is 2009 first-rounder Jiovanni Mier, a shortstop, who has scuffled against low A pitching after tailing off at the end of last year. He's still a good prospect on the strength of his glove and makeup, but his offensive struggles have brought back the questions about his bat which were thought quieted by his solid performance in his first season with the organization.
New additions from the 2010 draft class are Delino DeShields, Mike Foltynewicz, and Michael Kvasnicka, and they are aggressively ranked due to their scouting reports and upside, despite their lack of professional track records. The other reason I am including them on this list is because I want to get across what having three of the first thirty-three picks should do to help our farm system. Ignore them if you prefer and move all of the prospects behind them up a notch.
In general, don't take the order of these rankings too seriously, as it is based on my impressions; I am not a professional scout or analyst. View it more as a list of thirty interesting prospects in the Astros' minor league system and a rough, non-definitive idea of where they rank in value.
1. Jordan Lyles, RHP (AA). Lyles has significantly increased his stock this season, performing very well against Class AA competition after skipping a level.
2., C (AAA). Plus on-base skills and plus defense are enough to rank Castro highly, but the power hasn't shown up yet outside of the hitter-friendly California League.
3. Tanner Bushue, RHP (A). After a solid performance in the first half of the season at Lexington, Bushue will look to follow the Lyles path in 2011 and possibly skip straight to Class AA.
4. Mike Foltynewicz, RHP (Rk). "Folty" has the most upside of any pitcher in the Astros farm system, and he has a solid floor as well, but he hasn't thrown a professional pitch yet.
5., OF (A+). Great tools and a solid performance as one of the youngest players in the California League have quickly vaulted Austin up the rankings among Astros prospects.
6., 1B (AA). Tons of power, but can he make enough contact? Clemens could be in Houston as early as 2011 and has a chance to be a solid everyday major league first baseman.
7. Jiovanni Mier, SS (A). Mier is struggling mightily at the plate in his first full season, and his stock has dropped as a result. He needs to prove he can hit above rookie ball. Fortunately, his plate discipline has still been good.
8. Delino DeShields, OF/2B (if signed). The Astros 8th overall pick this year has a lot of upside, but with a relatively low floor, he'll need to prove himself before he ranks more highly.
9. J.D. Martinez, OF/1B (A). Martinez has hit wherever he has gone, but he's old for his level, doesn't have enough loft in his swing, and is raw on defense. He'll rank more highly if he continues to rake above class A.
10. Dallas Keuchel, LHP (A+). Keuchel doesn't blow hitters away, but his above average strikeout rate is impressive when you couple it with his good command and high groundball rate.
11. Michael Kvasnicka, C/OF/3B (A-). He'll need to prove he has the bat and the defense for the position, but Kvasnicka could become a very good third baseman.
12. Jose Altuve, 2B (A). If he were a few inches taller, Altuve would rank much more highly as a speedy second baseman with plus defense, contact skills, and more power than you'd expect.
13., RHP (AA). His fastball is just average, maybe a tick above, but righty reliever Villar mixes solid secondary stuff with great pitchability to strike out plenty of batters.
14., RHP (AA). Profiling much like Villar, both of these relievers could be in the big leagues in 2011.
15., 3B (AAA). With improved contact skills and power, Johnson is making a bid to become the Astros' everyday third baseman as early as this season. If he maintains his hot start at Round Rock, he could rank much higher by the end of the year.
16. Sammy Gervacio, RHP (MLB). Injury problems have derailed Gervacio's season, but if he can get healthy, he could be an excellent major league reliever.
17., RHP (AA). With an impressive fastball but not-so-impressive control, Lo still has some work to do to make it to the big leagues--but he'll need to get healthy first.
18., RHP (AA). Completing the second pair of AA relievers (great stuff, poor pitchability), Nevarez profiles similarly to Lo. Both could be future closers if they get everything figured out.
19. Jonathan Gaston, OF (AA). The plate discipline has improved at AA, but the power hasn't shown up yet. If it does, he could become a very good corner outfield prospect.
20., OF (AAA). Former pitcher turned position player should be a frontrunner for a bench role on the Astros next season.
21., OF (AA). As a slap hitter with elite on-base skills but little power, Shuck will need to prove he can play good defense in center field to have a chance at starting in the big leagues.
22. Kody Hinze, 1B (A). Hinze's breakout season with Lexington has been impressive, but questions about his contact skills and his lack of a track record will hold him down until he proves himself at higher levels.
23. Kyle Greenwalt, RHP (A+). A survivor of the disastrous 2007 draft class, Greenwalt still has the chance to become a solid back of the rotation starter, with good control and a good groundball rate.
24., OF (AA). Tools aplenty, but his production has never matched them outside of a shortened season in hitter-friendly Lancaster, and some are beginning to wonder whether it ever will.
25. Albert Cartwright, 2B (A+). Cartwright is having a breakout season at Class A-Advanced, but it's happening in a hitter-friendly park and has all the makings of a Lancaster mirage. He needs to prove himself at AA.
26., LHP (AA). A pitchability lefty with a fantastic minor league track record, Abad's season was derailed by an unspecified injury shortly after he was converted to a starting role. Will need to stay healthy and prove himself as a starter.
27. Jonathan Meyer, 3B (A). Meyer has a good glove at third base, but his offense remains a question mark, and he hasn't performed very well at Lexington this season.
28. Ross Seaton, RHP (A+). The only problem with projectability picks is that sometimes they don't project. Seaton's strikeout numbers have dropped with every season, and his prospect stock is freefalling as a result.
29., RHP (A). There is little to no scouting information out there about Cisnero, but he has struck out lots of hitters everywhere he's gone, and he's doing it again this season at Lexington. He could be a promising sleeper prospect.
30. David Berner, LHP (A+). A pitchability lefty reliever, Berner is nevertheless missing bats at Lancaster while inducing lots of groundballs. There isn't much to go on statistically, but early returns are promising.
In keeping with the minor league mid-season theme, we will look at an all-prospects Astros lineup of the future tomorrow morning.