Astros Minor Leagues: Five underrated prospects not to ignore

Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez reached the Major Leagues despite all odds - Scott Halleran

Three weeks ago, one of our writers emailed the group with the news that prospect Brandon Meredith had just signed an endorsement contract with 44 Pro Gloves.

Little non-stories like this pop up from time to time and we'll send them to the group, mostly just so everyone stays in the know and for the simple sharing of Astros-related information. However, occasionally they lead to some real discussion, as would happen in this case. One writer responded to the email after some digging:

CRPerry13

So, after reviewing Meridith's numbers....are we overlooking him, as a fanbase? I know he's old for his level, but it's kind of hard to argue with a wRC+ that has never dipped below 126 in three seasons, with a 20% K rate and 14% BB rate. By the stats, he looks like a slightly-better version of J.D. Martinez (mostly b/c of the walk rate). A guy who could easily end up being a non-star regular if he keeps up what he's doing. Why did we rank him 54th? We had him 24th in 2011.


Thoughts?

This was followed by a response from Anthony Boyer, who saw a great deal of Meredith's play in person last year while watching the Lancaster JetHawks:

Anthony Boyer

I think 54th is low, but it really is about his age relative to league. He actually plays a pretty good left field; he's a lumberer, but quicker and more athletic than he looks (he sometimes filled in in CF when Aplin had a day off). He's a guy I like, who may ultimately have a little value as a major leaguer. He's not a favorite, but he's a pretty good player.


The problem is the age. A lot of guys seem to have leap-frogged him in the system. And when Drew Muren leap-frogs you in a system, that's a red flag.

This got me thinking. As someone who's been following the minor leagues since the 2008 draft, I often notice prospects who, for one reason or another, are consistently passed over for national recognition, or even local recognition, despite praise-worthy performance.

If you take a look back, the reality is that many top-tier, star prospects flame out, and a lot of guys who don't get that recognition become valuable Major League players. Sure, they may not be elite, but few are, and any time a player manages to provide any real value at the Major League level, they've outdone probably 70% of their fellow professional players.

Take some of the Astros' previous drafts, for example; from the 2008 draft class, Jason Castro and Jordan Lyles were the only two guys to get any real national publicity. Castro, of course, has panned out quite well so far, despite being hampered by some injuries. Meanwhile Lyles, while young enough to turn things around, has been a disappointment, largely.

But what about Jack Shuck? He was nabbed in the 6th round that year and then completely ignored by the national prospect community. Despite hitting for average consistently, drawing walks and showing some double digit stolen base ability, there was never any love for him. Yet he's a Major League player now, and has Lyles really turned out any better, for all the hype that surrounded him?

The 2009 draft is an even better example. Jiovanni Mier was our first round selection then, and, sadly, it's safe to label him as a bust at this point. Tanner Bushue and Telvin Nash, the 2nd and 3rd round picks respectively, showed up on some Astros-specific top prospects lists, but Nash is striking out so much it seems like he's trying to in Lancaster, and Bushue flopped so hard he spent the last two seasons in short season ball before retiring. Aside from them, no one else that was drafted that year got any national prospect love at all.

That is, until 20th round pick J.D. Martinez finally mashed enough that he simply couldn't be ignored; as you all know, he has nearly 1,000 Big League plate appearances under his belt so far. That draft class' biggest success so far has been unheralded 7th round pick Dallas Keuchel, who, as CRPerry13 pointed out recently, could be the best pitcher in the Astros' rotation this season. Heck, even third baseman Jonathan Meyer has shown a flash here and there, more than Mier can say, and will likely start the year in Triple-A, a Matt Dominguez injury away from getting at least a brief shot in The Show.

It can be even worse with International signings. Why is a picture of Jose Altuve used for this article? One reason is that the guys I'm focusing on are so ignored that there simply isn't a picture of any of them that SBNation has license to use. Another is that Jose Altuve had to hit like blasted Honus Wagner before even the local media woke up to him, much less the national prospect watchers.

Altuve hit .324/.408/.508 with 21 steals in just 45 games in 2009; nothing. He moved up a level and hit .310/.366/.448 with another 39 steals and a surprising 11 homers in 94 games the next year; yawn. It took him hitting .404/.447/.601 in Lancaster and then .361/.388/.569 after a promotion to Double-A before people started saying "gee whiz, maybe this kid can actually play." Now he's the current face of the franchise.

Conor Glassey wrote a great article that was republished over at Fangraphs just before Christmas last year that really dealt well with this issue. It goes position by position and really breaks down just how many notable Major League players were once virtually unknown amongst the big prospect bloggers and followers. One big factor appears to be a player's age compared to the competition he's playing against. This tends to lead to a lot of guys drafted out of college being ignored if they aren't considered elite talents on draft day.

With all that said, I've tried to identify some guys in our system who have fallen between the cracks. Far from just being considered long shots, I'd challenge you to find any of them on any prospect list, or even just a blurb in an article praising them. By and large, they're simply considered non-prospects.

Brandon Meredith - OF

Taken in the 6th round in 2011, Meredith was certainly drafted high enough to be a name that drew attention if he performed well, but after a so-so debut with Tri-City that year, most people forgot about him. He hit .278/.377/.506 with 15 homers and 12 steals for the Lexington Legends in 2012 during his age 22 season, which would have made him a 20-20 player with a full Major League season's worth of plate appearances, but once again failed to garner much recognition.

He followed that up in 2013 with an extremely similar .279/.399/.507, 16 home run, six steal campaign, but perhaps due to his age (23 and still playing below Double-A) or the nature of offensive numbers in the California League, he once again received no love from prospect watchers.

This is despite remarkably consistent performance in those last two seasons, and indeed improvement in some respects; his walk rate (BB%) jumped up 2.7% while his strikeout rate (K%) fell 3.5%. So we have a prospect who appears to be a solid defender at the corner outfield spots and has shown the ability to draw walks and hit for solid power while not striking out a great deal,  sprinkling in some potential on the base paths as well. Given his age, it's no surprise he's not a top prospect, but shouldn't he be getting some recognition?

The concern about Lancaster's ballpark, and the California League in general, inflating numbers is very real. If you've been following the Minor Leagues for a while, you might remember the 2009 season when Lancaster had a ferocious 1-2 punch in the heart of their lineup; Koby Clemens and Jonathan Gaston. Clemens posted a 170 wRC+ with 22 homers while Gaston put up a 144 wRC+ and bashed 35 homers, tacking on 13 steals to boot as well.

However, the year previous, Gaston hit a mere .193/.292/.285 with just two bombs in 236 PA during his professional debut, and Clemens had hit a considerably more pedestrian .268/.369/.423 (119 wRC+) in the previous season in Lancaster, and even worse than that for Lexington in 2006 and 2007.

In other words, the numbers that Clemens and Gaston put up in Lancaster were much better than what they had done previously, while Meredith has proven himself against A-level pitching prior to moving up, and saw no such likely-unsustainable explosion afterwards.

Along with that, while Meredith's strikeout rate has trended down, falling under 20%, Clemens saw no such improvement, whiffing 22.2% of the time during his huge season, and Gaston clearly had serious problems in that department (27%) which were a glaring red flag, indicating a coming regression.

Matthew Duffy - 3B

Duffy, also taken in the 2011 draft (20th round) is another prospect who's had age and, well, not much else be a knock against him thus far in his career. He played 63 games in short season ball in 2011 after being drafted, hitting .298/.370/.417 with a pair of long balls, good for a 130 wRC+. In 2012, his first full professional season, he hit .280/.387/.447 with 16 homers and six steals in 587 PA, posting a slightly better 134 wRC+ as one of Lexington's two biggest threats (along with Delino DeShields jr.).

He moved up to Lancaster in 2013 and continued to hit, compiling a .323/.397/.553 batting line with 19 homers in 424 PA, posting a stellar 147 wRC+. He was moved up and spent August with the Double-A Corpus Christ Hooks where he struggled a bit for the first time in his career, hitting .247/.295/.461 with five bombs in 95 PA, good for a 112 wRC+.

While that performance after the big jump to Corpus wasn't inspiring, it was a relatively small sample size, it was just his first crack at better pitching, and he was far from helpless; his strikeout rate, while spiking, didn't go through the roof, and he still hit for considerable power despite leaving the hitter's haven in Lancaster.

Duffy has never been a walk machine, nor does he make contact at an especially-notable rate; his career 7.0% walk rate and 18.1% strikeout rate in the Minors, while solid, are certainly unspectacular. He has, however, shown a fair amount of consistency; much like Meredith, he performed very well in Lexington and then performed just as well in Lancaster. A bit better actually, but that's to be expected. The point is, once again, the numbers he put up in Lancaster, aside from a few more homers, were very consistent with what he had already shown himself capable of in a more neutral hitting environment. A crash certainly can't be expected based on his performance alone.

Beneath the surface, Duffy has shown some real hitting talent. His non-stellar strikeout rate keeps his batting average from being elite, but he's consistently posted very good, above-average, yet not crazy BAbip rates, and during 2011 and 2012 he was spraying line drives all over the field (22.3% and 22.7% line drive rates, respectively). It fell off in Lancaster, but only a touch to 19.9%. Even with that and an unsustainably-low line drive rate in that small Corpus sample (10.4%), he owns a career 20.9% line drive rate in 1,371 PA in the minors.

The few reports I've found on him have all spoken highly of his defensive ability, including his arm, at third base; while none consider him super elite at the position, he was a shortstop in college and he's considered easily above-average at third and projected to be so throughout his prime years.

So we have a plus defensive third baseman, who could also handle second base, first base, the corner outfields (thanks to the arm) and possibly even shortstop in a pinch, who has thus far shown some consistent, solid hitting ability, 15-20 home run power and decent plate discipline. That sounds like a real prospect to me. In all likelihood, he won't be any better than Matt Dominguez is right now, but Matt Dominguez is a Major League player, and any prospect that has a real chance in making the Majors and sticking around for any length of time to provide some value deserves some attention.

Mike Hauschild - RHP

After a sparkling 30.1 inning debut with Greeneville in 2012 that saw him post a 1.91 FIP, 2.67 BB/9 and 11.57 K/9, Hauschild followed that campaign up in 2013 with a nice run in Quad Cities (2.62 FIP, 1.73 BB/9 and 6.37 K/9 in 83.1 innings) and finished the year in Lancaster's rotation, where things weren't nearly as rosy for him (5.23 FIP, 3.15 BB/9 and 6.33 K/9 in 40 innings).

Hauschild is pretty old for his level (his 24th birthday was two weeks ago). He doesn't throw hard, and he doesn't miss a lot of bats (6.42 K/9 in 2013). It's little wonder that prospect watchers have completely ignored him. However, if for none other, there's one thing that should draw anyone's attention to what he's done so far.

His name may end with "child," but this guy is a man among boys when it comes to when it comes to getting groundballs. How good? How does a 62.3% groundball rate sound for those 83.1 innings in Quad Cities? Even after the promotion to Lancaster hurt his groundball rate a bit, he still ended up with a 59.1% ground ball rate on the year, in an impressive 123.1 inning sample. His 75% ground ball rate (yowza) in 2012 boosts his career number to 61.6%.

That's not just a groundball pitcher, that's a groundball master. That's Derek Lowe for goodness sake. At the Major League level, very few pitchers reach that 60% mark. Derek Lowe, Brandon Webb, Trevor Cahill and Tim Hudson are a few of the only guys to make it. Generally you'll have one guy per season have a rate like that. It's elite, elite territory.

Jane from What the Heck, Bobby? had a great interview with Hauschild in November of 2012, and the whole thing is worth a read. Near the beginning is a quote from Jordan Jankowski, and eyewitness to Hauschild's greatness. Jankowski identifies Hauschild's sinker as the pitch he'd most like to steal from a teammate (keep in mind this was just after the 2012 season when Jankowski was on the same roster as Lance McCullers jr., Michael Feliz, Kevin Comer, Joseph Musgrove and Adrian Houser):

"I'd have to say definitely Mike Hauschild's fastball. His fastball moves like two feet. If I could steal that off him, that would be unreal. He can throw that to lefties, righties. That's one of the best pitches you could possibly have that moves that much and he just gets so many groundballs, it's just unreal to watch him pitch."

Depending on just how good his command ends up, Hauschild could end up having a very productive career, to say the least.

Mitchell Lambson - LHP

It's not a surprise that a late-round reliever out of college isn't getting much attention, but I'm betting the majority of you haven't even heard this kid's name before.

Lambson was a 19th round pick, again in 2011 (Ed Wade's last draft isn't looking too shabby some two and a half years later) out of Arizona State. That year his ERA in pro ball was an uninspiring 4.33, but the 3.31 FIP, 9.93 K/9 and 2.04 BB/9 told a different story. He started off 2012 all the way down in Greeneville, but after 9.2 flawless innings there he was moved up to Lexington, where he posted a 2.72 ERA, 10.40 K/9 and 2.48 BB/9 in 36.1 innings.

He spend the entirety of 2013 in Quad Cities and formed a nice one-two punch at the back of the bullpen with Jordan Jankowski, owning a 3.03 ERA (2.71 FIP), 9.97 K/9 and 3.15 BB/9 in 71.1 innings. He's not a ground ball whiz (39.5% and 36.2% in 2012 and 2013, respectively), but he's been respectable enough in that area given how many bats he's missed.

Why does he strike so many guys out? Well, according to John Klima, this is a lefty with a big time change up:

The seperator [sic] for Lambson is the above-average change-up, CHG in shorthand, though some scouts might write OMG. I had it at 72-74 and I'm sold on the arm slot repetition.

This guy also raves about him:

outstanding 72-74 CU with outstanding arm action that sometimes dips into upper-60s; uses the CU a ton; 85-87 FB, 88-90 peak; plus command; plus control

(Note: check out the rest of that link for more thoughts on other 2011 draftees, including Meredith and Duffy)

Changeups are usually used against opposite-handed batters to help a pitcher minimize the disadvantage he faces against them, and looking at Lambson's splits, it bears out;

LHP vs. LHB: 2.19 FIP, 42.7% GB%, 0.38 HR/9, 1.51 BB/9, 10.38 K/9

LHP vs. RHB: 2.90 FIP, 33.3% GB%, 0.60 HR/9, 3.00 BB/9, 10.03 K/9

It's clear that he still does better against same-side batters, but those he has outright-dominated while he's managed to much more than hold his own against righties. Of particular note is the virtually identical strikeout rate, a good indicator that his changeup is likely good enough to help him miss as many bats as he is with his slider against those lefties he's dominated.

When you see a lefty reliever who destroys left-handed batters, you immediately think of a LOOGY which, while one of the least impressive roles on a team, is still a valuable, necessary role on a Major League team. That alone gives a considerable boost to Lambson's future potential. The fact that he also possesses a real weapon to help him compete very well no matter what kind of batter he faces only boosts his floor further. This is a perfect example of a prospect that has shown very real potential to become a valuable Major League player, but is passed over due to his age and lack of the sexy tools that mainstream prospect watchers drool over.

Jordan Jankowski - RHP

I've mentioned this guy twice already now in other guys' write-ups, but I'd be remiss to leave it at just that. Interestingly, Jankowski was originally taken by Ed Wade's regime in 2008, but he elected to go to college. Jeff Luhnow's crew liked him as well, and again took him in 2012. He started his pro career in 2012 with 32.1 stupendous innings for Greeneville, posting a 1.44 FIP, 2.78 BB/9 and a staggering 14.75 K/9.

He came back down to earth in 2013 in a larger sample size for the River Bandits, but was still excellent, compiling a 3.29 FIP, 1.17 BB/9 and 8.33 K/9 in 89.2 innings. Late in the year he earned an 11 appearance cup of coffee in Lancaster, and while his 4.22 FIP wasn't awesome, his peripherals stayed very strong (2.16 BB/9 and 10.8 K/9).

What lies further down only adds to the encouraging performances; unlike Lambson, Jankowski both misses bats and gets ground balls at a nice rate (50.0% in 2012 and 46.3% in 2013). Even more, the line drive rates against him are quite good as well; just 11.8% of the balls put in play against him this year were line drives. Considering the groundballs, the strikeouts and that line drive rate, it must have been nigh-impossible to square him up last year. Indeed, he allowed just 0.90 HR/9 (that number nearly doubled after moving to Lancaster but, well, it's Lancaster, after all).

It should also be noted that Jankowski was one of the pitchers in the tandem rotation while that experiment was happening, but after it was abandoned he moved to the pen permanently. SP vs. RP splits won't do much good as half his "starts" were scored as relief appearances under that tandem system, but his final official start was on July 13th, and thereafter, he pitched exclusively out of the pen (and notably just one or two innings per appearance, as opposed to three or four in his tandem relief appearances earlier on).

He made just six appearances after moving out of the tandem system before being brought up to Lancaster. All that is to say that most of those great numbers he posted with Quad Cities were essentially posted as a starting pitcher rather than a relief pitcher.

A Few Others

LHP David Rollins: gets ground balls (40.4% career), good control, solid strikeout numbers; 2.91 K/BB career. Peripheral splits indicate he competes against RHB almost as well as he does LHB.

LHP Thomas Shirley: 46.1% career GB%, 9.16 K/9 career from a lefty, solid command as well. Limits long balls excellently; has allowed just eight in his career, 0.56 HR/9. Peripherals ludicrous vs. LHB (2.12 BB/9, 11.65 K/9), possible LOOGY floor with back end relief upside on top of it.

RHP Daniel Minor: dominant in 2012, solid in 2013. Has some ground ball tendancies, good control and command profile. K/9 improved this year, and he limits home runs very well. Not quite as old as others mentioned, chance for a breakout in 2014.

OF Austin Wates: draws walks, limits strikeouts, steals bases, can play multiple OF positions. Very high career BAbip (better than .350) during a large total sample size indicates natural hitting ability.

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