Faces in the Crowd: Tracking Prospects

8 teams in the Astros' minor league system. So many box scores, so many prospects, so little time. Which ones are worth keeping an eye on? There are plenty of decent Grant Hogue types out there that will likely never make a splash in the major leagues. How can you identify a prospect that might matter some day?

I am no propect expert. I never made it past T-ball as a player myself. But I like the Astros, and I like following the minor leagues. Here are a few criteria I use to determine which prospect to keep an eye on day in and day out, a few players who fit the category, and what I look for as a next step in that category of player. I'll focus on position players, since they are a bit easier to evaluate without expert knowledge. The criteria are in no particular order.

1st Indicator: Do the Astros believe in him? I watch for playing time and promotions on this one. The Astros have more info than I do as a fan. If they play Player A more than Player B, that suggests that Player A is more of a prospect than Player B. And if Player A is promoted when I don't expect it, that means he has attracted the notice of people who matter. The one exception is "filler" players who are shuffled around to meet an organizational need (for example, some of the Astros' AAA catchers).

Examples: Jonathan Villar (promotion), Rene Garcia and Roberto Pena (lots of playing time at catcher), along with more obvious examples such as Altuve, Wallace, Hinze, Mier, and Goebbert (promotions).

Next steps: For promotions, how does the player adjust to the next level? Watch especially BB/K ratios here - is he overwhelmed by pitching at the new level? Does he adjust over time?

2nd Indicator: Is the player young for his level? This reveals a player ahead of the curve. He is playing against opponents who have had more development time. He has the luxury of more time to figure things out. The Astros might be targeting him as an organizational priority.

Examples: Ovando (17 years old in Greeneville), Jose Fernandez (18 years old, second year for GCL Astros), Deshields (18 at Lexington), Roberto Pena (just turned 19, at Lexington), Villar (20 at CC), Altuve (21 at CC).

Next steps: slow improvement over time. There needs to be some trend towards progress (and not just treading water, like Jay Austin).

3rd Indicator: Was he a high draft pick? This shows that, at least at the time, the player was recognized as a strong talent. The Astros (and often other organizations) saw him as a potential future contributor. The more recent the draft, the more useful, since after significant minor league playing time, the player's own minor league performance becomes a more useful indicator.

Examples: Deshields (1st round, 2010), Mier (1st round, 2009), Kvasnicka (1st round suppl., 2010), Wates (3rd round, 2010), Nash (3rd round, 2009), J Meyer (3rd round, 2009).

Next steps: confirmation of talent through results in the minor leagues.

4th Indicator: defensive reputation at a skills position. This is a difficult one, since you can't see this in the stats and box scores. I keep an ear open for good reports from scouts or national minor league writers.

Examples (I'm hesitant to list these, since my knowledge is limited and this is based just on my recollection of what I have heard): Mier (SS), Pena (C), Gominsky (CF), Meyer (3B), Altuve (?) (2B).

Next steps: Can he develop enough offensively to supplement the defense?

5th Indicator: RESULTS. Does the player outperform his league, offensively? I think that this is the most important indicator, since eventually any future successful major league player will need to succeed at the lower levels. The stat I use to measure outperfoming the league is runs created compared to the rest of the league (RC+ - available at fangraphs and other places). I like the stat because it takes into account hitting and baserunning. A number above 100 indicates that the player is better than average, and the higher, the better. Beware of the dreaded "small sample size" with this indicator.

Examples: Hinze, J.D. Martinez, Altuve, Wallace and to a lesser extent, Adamson, Bailey, Wikoff. Also throw in Juan Santana (DSL league) and Chase Davidson (but small sample size alert here).

Next steps: Does the player sustain the strong performance over time? Do the Astros believe in him enough to promote him? Is his defense defensible?

This system isn't perfect, but it helps me sort through box score info quickly to look for the results that are most significant. I hope that some of these names will be familiar names to Astros fans over the years to come.

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