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Astros Minor League Review 2014: Tommy Shirley's Breakout Year

Formerly an afterthought in the Astros' deep system of starting pitchers, Tommy Shirley thrived in the tandem rotation and seems to have a future with the big league club.

When the Hooks' season started, their rotation was stacked, consisting of pitchers such as Brady Rodgers, Aaron West, Luis Cruz, Colton Cain, and David Rollins. If one was asked who would win the pitcher of the year for the club, it would have been a difficult choice. All of the above would make sense. Possible call-ups such as Mark Appel and Lance McCullers might also have been named. But Tommy Shirley? Could the 25-year-old, injury-plagued lefty actually outperform the glitzy names who formed the backbone of the Hooks' pitching staff?

Surely you must be joking.

In April, Shirley struck out 34 over 28.1 innings while walking just 4 batters and posting an excellent 2.06 GO/AO. He continued that dominance through May, June, and July, finally getting called up to AAA two weeks after participating in the Texas League All-Star Game. His ERA of 1.88 in Corpus led the team, and he allowed no more than two earned runs in all but one of his appearances with the Hooks.

Still, Shirley is 25, and will turn 26 less than a month from now. He is no longer young enough to be considered a true prospect, and to make matters worse, he seemed to struggle (small-sample size warning) in OKC, posting a 4.35 ERA and walking 15 batters in just 31 innings (in comparison to him issuing 17 walks in 86.1 innings in Corpus). He seems to need to adjust to AAA, which won't exactly be easy in Fresno this year. Plus, he is Rule-5 eligible, and with the season he had, back-of-the-pack teams may take a flyer on him if he isn't protected. The Astros would obviously love to add him to their 40-man, but might be better served protecting a few of their higher-end prospects. As a starter, it would be hard to see him cracking Houston's rotation.

However, Shirley may still have a spot on the 40-man roster. His last ten appearances of the season were all as a reliever, in which he allowed just two earned runs, both in his last appearance. He'll need more time in Fresno, to be sure, but with Houston's bullpen woes, he just might beat out someone like Paul Clemens, who doesn't appear to have a future with the team. If he can revert to his AA ways in Fresno, expect to see him called up sooner rather than later. Houston may even have it's future closer. No, I'm not joking.

You can call him Shirley.