Ah, the Hangar. There hasn't been a minor league affiliate that caused this much consternation among Astros fans since, well, ever. The Lancaster JetHawks play in a whirlwind of circumstances that make their home ballpark (officially Clear Channel Stadium, but the locals all refer to it as The Hangar) one of the best hitter's parks in the majors.
The Chronicle's Zachary Levine went to Lancaster earlier this season and broke down some of the reasons why it's so friendly to the men at the plate. For one, it's got an altitude thing going for it. Lancaster, California is up in the mountains and if Colorado has taught us nothing, it's that altitude makes the baseball do funny things.
Another reason is the stadium can have a pretty prevalent breeze blowing out on most nights. As is the case with Tri-City's Joe Bruno Stadium, that can really influence extra-base hits. Add that to a good hitter's backdrop and a league where teams are sometimes reluctant to send their top pitching talent, and you can see why there may be a problem with over inflating offensive stats.
The funny thing is the Astros previous High-A affilite, the Salem Avalanche, was almost as severe in its park factors, just the other way around. Salem was one of the best pitcher's parks in the country and yet, there wasn't the same level of panic about prospects going through there. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have an affiliate in the California League. But, it's certainly not the end of the world and it's not hurting these prospects' developments.
Okay, that's enough esoteric discussion of a ballpark. Let's talk about the real, live team right after the jump.
Much like another team you know, the JetHawks suffered from an early-season swoon, but popped out of it to have a nice second half. Lancaster was just 24-46 in the first half before going 31-39 down the stretch to inch back towards respectability.
Still, the JetHawks were a middle of the pack team in runs scored with 721, but gave up more runs than any team in the league. Their minus-132 run differential was really, really bad and emphasized just how much the pitching there needed to improve. Only one team in the California League gave up more home runs (High Desert, 163) and Lancaster finished dead last in strikeouts.
On the plus side, Lancaster led the lead in least strikeouts offensively and had the fourth-highest batting average in the league. They were fourth in home runs with 124 and third in total bases. The hitters may not have had the highs of last season with Jon Gaston and Koby Clemens, but overall the team's offense was pretty good.
Lee Cruz, OF - Some could argue that Brandon Barnes deserves this award, but Cruz finished 22 RBIs behind Barnes for the team lead, despite playing in a little over half the games. He also hit the third-most home runs, had the highest batting average and on-base percentage of all the players with at least 100 plate appearances and had the highest slugging percentage on the team. All in all, Cruz proved to be the most valuable hitter in the Lancaster offense while he was there.
Team Cy Young
Dallas Keuchel, LHP - Though he didn't pitch with Lancaster after July, Keuchel was clearly the most valuable pitcher on that staff this season. He was tied for the second-lowest ERA on the staff, threw the third-most innings, struck out the second-most batters and had the most complete games. The only knock on Keuchel was his won-lost record (5-8) and that's basically meaningless in evaluating pitchers, anyway. The most important part of this season for Keuchel, though, was showing that pitching prospects can succeed in Lancaster.
Players To Watch
Brandon Barnes, OF - How you view Barnes will likely influence how you view a lot of the players on the list. Barnes is a former football player who had a tough transition to playing minor league baseball. He spent two years in Lexington and never really hit there until last season. He strikes out a ton, but has good power numbers and plays pretty well in the outfield. I'm not sure how much upside Barnes has since he's an older guy, but because of his late start into baseball, he could just be a late bloomer.
Jay Austin, CF - The center fielder put lots of things together this season. He hit for some power (48 XBH), stole a ton of bases and at one point had a decent batting average. Though we have to view all his stats through the prism of Lancaster's park effects, Austin took a step forward this season at a young age. Am I worried about his strikeouts and OBP? Yes, there's not doubt those are both issues. But, at his age, his good points outweigh the bad.
Jonathan Villar, SS - How you feel about Villar depends on how you feel in the tools vs. production question. His production at Lancaster probably should have put him in the Disappointed category, but he's still very young and could just be making an adjustment to a new organization. I'm not entirely sold on him, though, and will be interested to see if the Astros just bump him up to Corpus or keep him at Lancaster for another season.
David Berner, RHP - You know that I like Berner. I'm not sure he should be the highest-rated Astros reliever on our prospect list, but I do know he put up a much better season than I expected. I'd prefer if his walk rate were a little lower, but his strikeouts were fine. He's not going to be an overwhelming bullpen arm, but he should provide good depth going forward.
Bryce Lane, OF - This guy has intriguing written all over him. He's an unheralded draft pick who moved up very quickly. He was committed to Auburn before signing with the Astros and was a two-way player in junior college. He's hit pretty well so far and seems like he plays decently in the field. I wouldn't be surprised if he stuck with Lancaster next season as one of the three starters.
Pat Urckfitz, RHP - His value will be dictated largely by whether he's a starter or a reliever. He did some very nice things once he moved into the rotation and he's maintained a pretty good strikeout rate. He turns 22 next season, so he probably deserves a twirl in Corpus' rotation that should feature him, Ross Seaton, Tanner Bushue, Dallas Keuchel and Robby Donovan.
Kyle Godfrey, RHP - Any time a pitcher posts an ERA under 4.00 in Lancaster, you have to take note. Godfrey is a bit of a mystery, in that he was unsuccessful with the short-season teams before picking things up in full-season ball with Lexington and now Lancaster. He's a reliever who doesn't have overpowering strikeout numbers and he gives up way, way too many walks. Still, he should move up a level and he'll be one to watch in the Hooks bullpen.
David Carpenter, RHP - The jewel to the Pedro Feliz trade didn't have a lot going for him this season, simply because he didn't pitch all that much after the trade. Still, he's an interesting arm who should help form a nice little bullpen for the Hooks next season.
Players Who Disappointed
Ross Seaton, RHP - There are degrees of disappointment here. I'm disappointed in his performance, but not so much that I think he's no longer a prospect. Seaton still performed well enough on the road and was young for the league, so I think he gets another year before we rule on him. The question is, do you call him up to Corpus for 2011? I say yes, but I also wouldn't be slow to kick him back to Lexington if he stinks for two months with the Hooks.
Federico Hernandez, C - AppyAstros was talking about him the other day, and I agree largely with what he was saying. Hernandez definitely has the skills to be up on our list of prospects, possibly ahead of some of the catchers we had on there. What I don't love, though, are his batting skills. Hernandez has a little pop but showed no patience at the plate. Plus, he did lots of his damage in the friendliest hitter's park and still couldn't manage an OBP higher than .300. No thank you, sir. I can see him being Ben Heath's caddy in Corpus next season, but any more than that is stretching it.
Brad Dydalewicz, LHP - Will his arm issues be the reason he flames out? Lancaster ate him up and spit him out, but he wasn't much better when he was demoted to Lexington. Left-handers are like cats in they get about nine lives in the minors, so I'm not ready to give up on him or keep him in the bullpen. Still, I expected a little more out of him this season.
Brandon Wikoff, SS - I really liked Wikoff's potential heading into this season, but he never did hit this season. He was drafted in the same round as Ben Heath and showed good skills in short-season ball. I'm still not convinced he's washed up, but his potential definitely got tarnished some with this season.
Ebert Rosario, 3B - You can't get much more disappointing than being turned into a pitcher halfway through the season. Rosario was one of the Astros' only legitimate third base prospects as much as two years ago, but quickly fell off the radar when he couldn't sustain his hitting.
Best Outlook for 2011
While Jay Austin probably has the greatest upside of these players, David Berner has the best chance to make it to Triple-A sometime next season. Heck, I could even see the Astros starting him out there, though he'll most likely end up in Corpus for a month or two.