If pitching wins ballgames, the 2016 Corpus Christi Hooks might be well-poised to match or even exceed their franchise-record 89 game win total from a year ago.
Second year manager Rodney Linares will have a bevy of high-powered, talented arms at his disposal this season...at least to start the year. After facing thirteen promotions to Triple-A (including Carlos Correa, Tyler White, and Tony Kemp, who was absolutely annihilating the baseball at the Double-A level before his promotion) while seeing notable young talent like Brett "Maverick" Phillips, Adrian Houser, and Josh Hader all traded and watching the trio of Lance McCullers, Vincent Velasquez, and Michael Feliz each get called up to the Major Leagues directly from Corpus, Rodney persevered and led his team to their aforementioned 89 win season, taking home the Texas League Manager of the Year trophy in 2015 and drawing rave reviews from his players for his managerial style.
Gone (to Triple-A) to start this season are such successful players as Colin Moran, Jon Kemmer, A.J. Reed, Roberto Pena, Jandel Gustave, and others. In are a motley (or Mott-ley? I'll see myself out...) crew of young men, some much-ballyhooed prospects lighting up national rankings and some mostly unknown outside of the 5th floor of Union Station. Here, we will take a look at the Opening Day roster and examine some of the positions...giving more time to the lesser known players when possible to help introduce those who are unfamiliar.
Despite losing a ton of firepower in the last twelve months, there are still several very significant position players in Corpus Christi. The most well-known of these is clearly Alex Bregman, number two overall pick less than a year ago and fresh off his first Major League Spring Training invitation. Not much needs to be said about such a thoroughly-canvassed and high profile member of the Hooks - he's good. Very good. Outside of the Dustin Pedroia comparisons hung on him frequently, he was named the Astros' best defensive infielder in the Minor Leagues in the annual "tools survey" released by Baseball America.
Beyond Bregman, there are several other notable and intriguing players to watch. Teoscar Hernandez, also fresh off a non-roster invitation to Kissimmee, will return to Corpus following a very disappointing 2015 season looking to build on a solid spring showing with the parent club in Florida. Despite the poor showing last year, he remains firmly ensconced right in the middle (number 15) of MLB.com's list of Top 30 Astros prospects thanks to a still-intriguing blend of speed (33 steals in 2015), power, and excellent defense - he's listed as the owner of the best outfield arm in the Astros' system in the same Baseball America tools survey, and his seven outfield assists led the team last year.
J.D. Davis will likely be the everyday third baseman, and he's coming off a season in which he posted a 140 wRC+, a .387 wOBA, and a .231 ISO at the launching pad with High-A Lancaster. There are serious concerns about his swing, and his defense, but he'll be looking to prove the doubters wrong in the upper minors starting this season. Danry Vasquez will also be looking for a bounce back season in his first full year with the Hooks, while Derek Fisher looks to continue to build his name as a top flight prospect following his own solid (if unspectacular) spring debut with the parent club. Rounding out the infield will be Jack Mayfield, Mott Hyde, Chan Moon, and Chase McDonald, while the outfield will be completed by Ronnie Mitchell and switch-hitting catcher Trent Woodward will join Pena. Each offers their own distinct version of intrigue to the Double-A season.
The true strength of this team, at least on paper early, appears to be its pitching. Dave Borkowsky will have quite the task, managing such stalwart prospects as Francis Martes, Joe Musgrove, David Paulino, newcomers (via trade with the Athletics and Brewers, respectively) Brendan McCurry and Cy Sneed, waiver claim fireballers Danny Reynolds and Reymin Guduan, funky and talented lefty Michael Freeman, and other less notable but still talented hurlers Edison Frias, Brian Holmes, Albert Minnis, Kyle Smith, and Aaron West.
Francis Martes is rapidly becoming a household name amongst Minor League-philes, and with good reason. The 6'1", 225 pound righty had quite the breakout campaign in 2015, posting an 8-3 record in 19 games across three levels. He rattled off 98 strikeouts to just 28 walks in 101.2 innings pitched with a 2.04 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. He was remarkably dominant in the notoriously hitter-friendly environment of Lancaster before struggling slightly in his three game debut at Corpus before the season ended, and will be looking to build upon his huge overall season by showing he's ready to compete and dominate at the higher levels of the minors.
Joe Musgrove, pictured for this article, also had a great 2015 season and cemented himself as one of the top two or three arms in the Astros' Minor League system. He posted a gaudy 99 strikeouts to just eight walks across three levels in 2015 with a 12-1 record and a 1.88 ERA in 19 games, eight of which came at Corpus to close the season. It has been noted that Musgrove might still have a bit to prove at AA after his FIP of over four belied his 2.20 ERA, but his WHIP was still a solid indicator for him (0.91 at Corpus, versus a 0.92 overall on the season) to give Astros fans plenty of hope for another big season from him.
The 2016 Hooks will likely graduate several players, some of which could even once again go straight to the Major Leagues, but that is the status quo in a system as deep and rich as the Astros system is. Even considering the potential graduations, and maybe a trade or two, the season looks bright for the Hooks. See you at Whataburger Field!