The lack of talent in the Astros system has been well-documented. However, one source of hope at least for this season is the AAA pitching corps.
Heading out of Spring Training in 2008, the Astros had basically no chance of receiving any help by calling a young arm up from their AAA affiliate, Round Rock. By season's end, call-ups Jack Cassel and Fernando Nieve combined for only one win, pitching 41 innings in 20 appearances between them.
In contrast to last year's minimal production by call-ups and the bleak picture painted by most concerning the Astros minor league system in general, there is hope for improvement in the area of young arms at the highest minor league level this Spring.
The improvement begins with Bud Norris, who spent last season in Corpus Christi. He also participated in the Arizona Fall League. His 2008 was good enough that he received a major league training camp invite and has a chance to leave Florida with the big club most likely as a reliever.
After Norris, Felipe Paulino and Fernando Nieve are next in line. Both pitchers struggled with injuries in 2008. However, if they are healthy, they could contribute to the big club.
Another arm to look for getting a few starts in 2009 is Polin Trinidad. Trinidad, a lefty, split 2008 between Salem and Corpus Christi. It will be interesting to see if he starts at Corpus or Round Rock. My guess is Corpus. If the big league rotation struggles or is injured, Trinidad could get a chance to contribute. From all I've read, he is not overpowering, but he is crafty enough to get outs.
Chris Blazek and Sammy Gervacio look to be ticketed for the Round Rock bullpen this Spring. However, the lefty and righty have high K/BB numbers and could fill in the Astros bullpen as the year progresses. This is more likely for Gervacio since he is on the 40-man roster and the Astros already have two lefties in the bullpen in Wesley Wright and Tim Byrdak, not to mention Rule 5 draftee Gilbert de La Vara.
Longshots to contribute at the top level include Brad James and Josh Muecke. James pitched in Corpus in '08 missing some time to injury. Muecke was the most reliable starter at Round Rock. However, he faded as the season wore on. I have heard him mentioned as a possible bullpen candidate, although he has been mainly a starter in the minors.
With as many as eight candidates, the traffic of pitchers on Highway 71 between Houston and Austin this baseball season looks to be more active and productive than last.