55. Troy Patton - LHP Astros - DOB: 09/03/85 - ETA: June 2007
Previous rankings: mid-2005 #39
5-2, 1.94 ERA, 59 H, 94/20 K/BB in 78 2/3 IP for low Single-A Lexington
1-4, 2.63 ERA, 34 H, 38/8 K/BB in 41 IP for Single-A Salem
Thought to be on his way to the University of Texas, Patton slipped to the ninth round of the 2004 draft. The Astros took him and offered him second-round money and now have their best pitching prospect since Roy Oswalt. Patton throws 91-94 mph and his curveball neutralizes left-handed hitters. An improving changeup should help him against right-handers when he reaches the majors, something that might happen as soon as the second half of the year. He could emerge as a No. 2 starter.
71. Fernando Nieve - RHP Astros - DOB: 07/15/82 - ETA: April 2007
Previous rankings: 2004 #119, mid-2004 #59, 2005 #78, mid-2005 #45
4-3, 2.65 ERA, 62 H, 96/29 K/BB in 85 IP for Double-A Corpus Christi
4-4, 4.83 ERA, 92 H, 75/33 K/BB in 82 IP for Triple-A Round Rock
Nieve's ERA took a big jump after he arrived in Triple-A last summer, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio held up pretty well. The native of Venezuela could probably help the Astros as a middle reliever this year, but he still projects as a No. 3 starter. He keeps the ball on the ground when his moving low-90s fastball is working and he can push it up to 95 mph when he needs to. He also has a pair of quality breaking balls in his curve and slider. His changeup is a problem, so he's not ready to start in the majors just yet. Maybe in 2007.
77. Jason Hirsh - RHP Astros - DOB: 02/20/82 - ETA: July 2006
Previous rankings: none
13-8, 2.87 ERA, 137 H, 165/42 K/BB in 172 1/3 IP for Double-A Corpus Christi
The 6-foot-8, 250-pound Hirsh was an even bigger success story than Patton for the Astros last season. Coming off a season in which had a 4.01 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 130 1/3 IP, Hirsh broke through with the second-best ERA and the strikeout title in the Texas League. He was most certainly aided by his ballpark, but he flashed third-starter potential. Hirsh uses a mid-90s fastball, a hard slider and a below average changeup. He'll be a candidate for the fifth spot in the Houston rotation this year.
96. Hunter Pence - OF Astros - DOB: 04/13/82 - ETA: Aug. 2007
Previous rankings: mid-2005 #90
.338/.413/.652, 25 HR, 60 RBI, 53/38 K/BB, 8 SB in 302 AB for low Single-A Lexington
.305/.374/.490, 6 HR, 30 RBI, 37/18 K/BB, 1 SB in 151 AB for Single-A Salem
Pence was the Astros' first pick in 2004, going 64th overall. Considering that the University of Texas-Arlington product was 23 during his big 2005 season, he could have been moved up to Salem earlier. However, he wasn't as productive following the promotion, with his slugging percentage dropping and his strikeout rate increasing. Since there's no hope that Pence will play center field in the majors, he'll need to keep hitting for average and power. He should spend most of this year in Double-A and then maybe arrive in the majors in 2007. There's probably not star potential here.