Now that all the projections are out for the Astros, it's time to get down to the business of thinking about the team and who will comprise it this season. As with most teams, the Astros head into spring training with most of its 25-man roster spots taken up by veteran players. The fifth outfielder's spot...maybe a bullpen position are up for grabs and that's about all.
Looking past the beginning of April and into the vast expanses of the 2010 season, a lot of different personnel scenarios will play out. Older players will see a decline in their play or will succumb to injury. The younger players may not be quite ready for the bright lights of the Juice Box. It happens, and the mark of a well-run franchise is how those holes are plugged at a moment's notice. Last season, a player like Chris Coste was expected to play fairly meaningful role at various points in the season. While it's entirely possible that similar free agent signings will be made midseason again this year, hopefully the Astros can look inward rather than outward for help.
I am about to play fortune teller and see what possible situations involving minor leaguers are most likely to happen, allowing a few surprising names to become Houston Astros. Surprising means not Jason Castro. Don't get me wrong, his time will come in 2010. That much is almost assured. My goal for this post is to try and fit the names below Castro on the prospect list into Houston uniform...multiple Houston uniforms. Maybe if Carlos Lee got hurt they could all fit into one uniform. (Please, Carlos. Don't get hurt.)
Situation: Bullpen issues galore arise. In case you hadn't noticed, there are a number of castaways in our 'pen including Tim Byrdak, Chris Sampson, Jeff Fulchino and Brian Moehler (assuming this is where he ends up). While Alberto Arias and Samuel Gervacio are young and don't struggle to miss bats, the rest of this crew is over thirty and not adept at accumulating strikeout rates that leave you breathing easy in the seventh inning.
Minor League Solutions: Chia Jen-Lo and Henry Villar
The first name is recognizable, one that has been on just about every prospect list this offseason. Lo made the transition to the American professional game with relative ease, excelling in his time in both Lancaster and Corpus Christi. This despite his high walk numbers, and his extremely low HR rates while on both teams. If he can master the control issues, Lo could find himself Houston bound at some point in 2010.
Villar is a longer shot, but someone who deserves to be mentioned. Making the jump from A ball in one year to the majors the following season isn't likely, but early returns on Villar indicate that he has a future with the Astros, rather than just minor league roster filler. As a member of the Lexington Legends in 2009, Villar impressed at least one neutral observer:
The best relief pitcher I had the opportunity to see this season, Villar's 89-91 MPH fastball had significant run away from right-handed hitters. In mixing locations, he also showed the ability to run the fastball in on the hands of righties to keep them honest. He also flashed a 2-seam fastball in the 85-86 range as a chance of pace. Villar's slider was also a weapon as the 81-83 MPH offering looked to have a foot or more of run away from right-handed hitters. At 22, Villar is no spring chicken, but his 6.06 K/BB ratio and 10.90 K/9 were both extremely impressive.
Interestingly enough, both his advanced age an his having inning total in 2009 (90 IP) lead me to believe that the team is eager to have him contribute sooner rather than later.
This is the type of scenario that plays out frequently with major league teams, and offers a relatively low risk proposition to front office decision makers. The difference between a Chris Sampson in July and a Chia Jen Lo, in terms of productivity, won't be that great. In fact, the upsides of Lo, Villar and even Matt Nevarez are high enough that they could all perform well enough in 2010 to at least be considered for promotion. Nevarez was talked about as a possible closer of the future last season when he the Astros traded for him from the Texas Rangers. While it will be a longer wait to see Jordan Lyles and Co. make their debuts in Houston, these guys shouldn't have to wait nearly as long.
Situation: One of the three main outfielders gets hurt. If Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, or Lee go down for an extended time, who makes the roster?
Collin DeLome. Yes, Brian Bogusevic is a name we all know from Round Rock. He doesn't have the range to play center field. With the outfield locked up for the next few seasons, it shouldn't matter outside of spot starts or temporary injury replacements. Bogusevic's transition from pitcher to hitter is progressing, and it's not like this is a common switch, so comparisons aren't easy. Something tells me that DeLome's somewhat surprising power numbers from last season may allow him to bypass Bogusevic. As much as Ed Wade likes his veteran players, it's not as if Jason Michaels and Cory Sullivan/Alex Romero/Jason Bourgeois are assured of making it through the season. DeLome was our highest draft pick in 2007 (in the fifth round, no less), and has displayed a promising amount of pop in his bat. That promise has been tempered by astronomically high strikeout percentages, however, and if Chris Johnson has showed us anything, cutting down on that rate will be Goal No. 1 heading into a 2010 season with either the Express or the Astros.
Situation: What if there's an injury to Geoff Blum and/or Pedro Feliz? Does Chris Johnson finally get the call to the majors?
Solution: I really can't see a situation where Johnson makes a leap to the majors this season for anything but a September call up. He is as undiscerning at the plate as a hitter can get, and while his defense will surely garner plenty of praise in the press, I don't know if it helps his case enough. There was a time when Johnson was talked about as our third baseman of the future. I can remember watching CJ play in a Spring Training game last year against Atlanta where he looked like everything you would hope for in a third baseman: big, strong, quick bat, moves his feet well. Sadly, it takes more than that to play on this level, and Johnson hasn't yet been able to cobble together enough strengths to outweigh his weaknesses.
Situation: Will any Astros make the "Dontrelle Willis" leap from Double-A to the majors in 2010?
Solution: Further down the totem pole, players like TJ Steele, Jay Austin, Jordan Lyles, Jonathan Gaston, Tanner Bushue, Ross Seaton and Jiovanni Mier have longer to wait until their marks can be made on the Astros, it's almost certainly true that from this crop of young players that the next generation of Astros will be born. My take on Mier, Lyles and Seaton:
Mier stands as the unquestioned shortstop of the future after being drafted in the first round last year. A more detailed (and better written) scouting report than I could ever muster can be found here. After some second guessing of his selection, Mier silenced many critics with a promising start to his professional career. His next stop in Low A Lexington and the opportunity to create even more hype for himself with a strong showing in his first full season in our organization. Consistent effort defensively will go a long way to ensuring his place at the top of the prospect-heap.
As for Lyles and Seaton, young arms are the most precious commodities for an organization. Jordan Lyles is the more touted of this pair of 2008 draftees, but he still has strides to make. Developing a third pitch behind his fastball and changeup is the next step in his development. Not to mention surviving Lancaster. With praise often comes criticism, however. In Low A ball, the hitting can sometimes lag behind the pitching and some say Lyles is a direct benefactor of this.
Ross Seaton's fastball velocity hasn't touched the 94-95 MPH he hit in high school. Whether this is due to the fatigue of pitching more innings, or perhaps something more serious, another season facing professional hitters will flush out the situation one way or another. It's true that for many minor league players, Double-A is the make it or break it level. I think for someone like Seaton, who was drafted out of high school with a great deal of promise he has yet to fulfill, the breezy venues of the California League will test his mettle and go a long ways in determining whether or not he will be big league bound.
As the season wears on, and some of these situations come to pass, the most important strides will be made in the lower realms of the minor leagues, as well as in the front office with Bobby Heck and his staff. Continuing to supply the talent pipeline with players that have the wherewithal and talent to survive life as a baseball prospect is tough. No team hits a home run every draft, but the good organizations manage to snag at least one player who someday will play a role for their major league club. As Heck tries for successful draft No. 3, many of his draftees, and some who came before his time in Houston should begin to show the promise that led many to believe better days are near for the Astros farm system.