You might remember that I’d previously promised a more in-depth look at the Houston Astros’ minor league system, one that is overflowing with uber-talented, can’t-miss studs.* And I’m one to make good on my promises.
*Gotcha: It’s opposite day.
Having already listed the team’s Top 10 prospects (per Baseball America) and pointed out how the move to the AL in 2013 will impact NL-only keeper owners immediately, let’s check into the org’s prospects who could make their debuts in 2012 — and maybe even make an impact — and those who are the best bets for future value once the franchise is in the American League.
1) 2012 Debuts?
Speaking of promising, the impact for 2012 won’t be. ETA-wise, of the Top 10 list unveiled last week at Baseball America, maybe three are candidates to make their debuts at some point in 2012 — Jarred Cosart, Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer — but again, we’re looking at mid- to late-season promotions in all three cases, so there won’t be much fantasy impact. Let’s break them down.
Incidentally, all three are pitchers who were acquired in the two big trades the Astros made last July, when they sent Hunter Pence to the Philadelphia Phillies (Cosart) and Michael Bourn to the Atlanta Braves (Clemens, Oberholtzer).
Of these three, Cosart, 21, is the top arm, but he’s also the furthest away, having made just seven starts at Double-A (all after coming to Houston). His season was a bit up-and-down, as he finished with a 4.12 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and a 6.3 K/9 rate across Hi-A and Double-A. Overall, though, it was more good than bad — the stats look worse because he was knocked around in a handful of outings, especially after being promoted — and the big thing is that he stayed healthy enough to make 26 starts after totaling just 19 in his first two pro seasons. He’ll begin 2012 in Double-A again, where he’ll need to prove he can get a few more whiffs with his mid-90s heat, if he is to reach his potential as a No. 2 starter. It would take a ridiculous half-season performance by Cosart for the Astros to even consider him for a call-up before September 2012, but the org did push Jordan Lyles, its previous top pitching prospect — albeit a much more polished arm — to the majors this past season.
As for Clemens and Oberholtzer, the former is slightly closer to the majors. A right-hander who will be 24 by the time next season starts, Clemens held his own (3.81 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 7.8 K/9) while pitching all but one outing at Double-A in 2011, with the other coming in Triple-A after the trade. After Clemens was jockeyed back and forth as a starter and reliever in his first three seasons, the Braves and Astros let him pitch exclusively out of the rotation last year. I would expect Clemens to fill that same role at Triple-A Oklahoma City to start 2012, thus giving him a chance to maximize his value to his new franchise. Depending on how he fares there early on, I could see him getting a shot at a handful of starts with the Astros, probably in the second half. But I wouldn’t count on any real fantasy value. Down the line, Clemens could be a back-of-the-rotation type, if he doesn’t wind up in the bullpen.
Oberholtzer, on the other hand, is a 22-year-old southpaw. He’s not too far behind Clemens in his career, having pitched the entirety of 2011 at Double-A. He showed his low-90s heater and solid changeup can get the job done when he’s on, posting a 4.01 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 7.0 K/9. If the Astros choose to take it slow with Oberholtzer — a smart move given that he’s still young — they’ll probably send him back to Double-A and give him the chance to pitch his way to Oklahoma City soon enough. A lot would have to go right for Oberholtzer — or wrong for the Astros big league pitchers — if he is going make his debut before September 2012. For an organization that is badly in need of arms, Oberholtzer is another rotation filler, with the upside to be a No. 3 if everything breaks right.
Moving outside of the org’s very top prospects and still focusing on 2012, here are a few youngins’ who could debut at some point next year, in rough order of fantasy impact…
Juan Abreu, RP: The 26-year-old Dominican was another part of the Bourn deal. He’s getting old to be considered a prospect, but his live arm will play as a reliever in mold of Juan Cruz or Fautino De Los Santos. After notching 12 Ks in first 6.2 IPs in majors in 2011, he’s in position to break camp with the team next spring. Plenty of whiffs (10.8/9 career) and walks (5.4 BB/9) should follow. A bullpen filler with some upside for deep NL-only play.
J.B. Shuck, OF: The 2008 sixth-rounder is 24, and at this point, he is what he is: No power and not much speed but a knack for putting bat on ball (.302 BA) and getting on base (190:217 K:BB in his four MiLB seasons). If he’s in the Astros’ outfield mix to start 2012, he could matter in 12-team NL leagues as an OF reserve.
Henry Villar, RP: Villar actually made his MLB debut with 6 IPs in 2010, but then failed to pitch in the majors last season. The 24-year-old Dominican is too hittable (8.6 H/9), and he’ll need his K rate to return to what it was at Double-A (7.8 K/9) last year rather than what it looked like at Triple-A (3.5) in 2011. Fantasy relevance? Practically zilch.
Dallas Keuchel, SP: A 2009 draftee, the 23-year-old lefty pitched well at Double-A (3.17 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) in 2011 but was overmatched upon a promotion to Oklahoma City. He sports a meager 6.1 K/9 in his career and has been hit harder as he’s climbed the ladder. Maybe a candidate for a few spot starts. Emphasis on “maybe.”
2) …And Beyond
Panning the scope out a bit, there’s not much in the way of prospects who are both exciting and have shown a lot in the minors so far. There are plenty of young, raw, toolsy types who are just as likely to bust up as they are to break out in 2012 — think: Jonathan Villar, Domingo Santana, Ariel Ovando, Telvin Nash, Delino DeShields — so it’s not really worth spending too much time looking at these next few prospects I like beyond 2012. For fantasy purposes, we need these guys to develop a bit more before figuring out just how and where they might contribute.
Jonathan Singleton, 1B/OF
The 20-year-old is the Astros’ top hitting prospect — and top overall prospect in some eyes — after rocketing up prospect charts following his strong 2010 in the South Atlantic League, where he slashed .290/.393/.479 and hit 14 HRs while walking (62 BBs) almost as much as he struck out (74 Ks). His 2011 wasn’t bad by any stretch, but he didn’t show the same sort of year-over-year improvement. (To be fair, though, that would’ve been asking for too much.) He moved to High-A and held his own (.833 OPS), which made him the other big get for Houston in the Pence trade. The big questions going forward are how much of Singleton’s raw power is going to translate to over-the-fence power — he’s hit 14 and 13 HRs, respectively, the past two years — and how much swing-and-miss could stall the lefty hitter’s development and impact his status as a big leaguer. After whiffing just 16% of the time in 2010, that figure jumped to 23% at the higher level. He should start off 2012 with a promotion to Double-A, which will be a big test — especially as he leaves behind the Lancaster launching pad — but if he passes, he could arrive in Houston midway through the team’s first year in the AL. Whether he shows up as poor man’s Carlos Delgado or James Loney v2.0 is up to him.
George Springer, OF
Springer, 22, was the No. 11 pick as a junior out of UConn last June. He’s an especially toolsy player for a college guy — and I mean that in the most respectful way — which is both exciting and slightly worrisome. On one hand, he’s got a combination of athleticism, pop and speed on his side, which could make Springer an all-around stud. On the other hand, if he doesn’t develop quickly or overcome what scouts see as some holes in his swing, he’ll start to lose some of his prospecty shine. He only got 28 ABs at Low-A after signing, so he could return to that level, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the org push him with a promotion to High-A pretty quickly, if he doesn’t start out there in 2012. He’ll be a high pick in keeper/dynasty leagues because of his potential and draft pedigree. Let’s hope he can start cashing in soon.
There’s a significant dropoff to the next three, so let’s turn to lightning-round style…
Kody Hinze, 1B: A 24-year-old righty bat, Hinze slashed .306/.420/.541 with 29 HRs and 98 RBIs across High- and Double-A in 2011. That got him noticed, but most of the production came at High-A Lancaster, one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the minors, as he mashed .323-22-70 at that level — for which he was also old. Mentioned as a possible DH candidate for 2013, he’ll need to prove he can conquer Double-A first. Keep an eye on how the org chooses to deploy Hinze at Corpus Christi, where Singleton will also be on the roster.
Jay Austin, OF: Houston’s second-rounder in 2008, Austin should get to Double-A in his age 21 season next year. He’s more enigmatic (.249 BA, .310 OBP) than dynamic (114 SBs in four years) at this point, but if he can put it all together, he could become a speedy centerfielder with a bit of pop. Or he could be a guy who never makes it.
Austin Wates, OF: The 23-year-old has shown so far — albeit in just one full season since going in 2010’s third round — that he can put bat on ball (9.6% K) and run a little (26 SBs). But his offensive numbers (.300 BA, .779 OPS) have to be taken with truckloads of salt since they came at — you guessed it — Lancaster. Unless he can prove to excel in at least on aspect, he’s probably a fourth outfielder in the end.
3) The Class of 2011
And just to finish up with a little housekeeping, the following players exceeded the rookie minimums (130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched or 30 games pitched) in 2011, so they no longer qualify for prospect status. I’ve listed them in rough order of their projected value for 2012, at least in my opinion:
Mark Melancon, RP: Yeah, a closer tops this list, which shows exactly how fantasy-unfriendly this org is. Melancon was actually quite solid once he took over the stopper reigns (20 saves, 2.78 ERA, 8.0 K/9), and the team plans to carry on as if he’s the guy next year, too, so he’ll be relevant in all mixed leagues as a sleeper closer. Unless the new regime chooses a different direction.
J.D. Martinez, OF: Pop is his best asset, but it doesn’t stand out. He could approach 15-18 HRs and top 60 in both runs and RBIs because he’ll play every day. That means he’s a possible OF4 in NL leagues — but not worth a look in mixed formats shallower than 12 teams.
Jose Altuve, 2B: His biggest problem is that most of his value is going to be tied to runs and swipes, but he doesn’t get on base enough to really help in either (2.1% BB) and his teammates aren’t going to drive him in when he does. Passable MI starter in 12-team NL-only.
Jordan Lyles, SP: He actually pitched better than his rookie stats indicate (5.36 ERA but a 4.13 xFIP). His strong walk rate will help limit the damage, but he’s too hittable, too homer-prone (107 hits and 14 HRs in 94 IPs) and might only win 8 games. NL spot starter.
Brian Bogusevic, OF: Intriguing bat who could reach double-digits in HRs and SBs if he gets 500 ABs — which no team should ever give him. Then again, you know what they say about beggars being choosers. Could be a solid NL-only reserve with an outside shot at becoming an OF5.
Jimmy Paredes, INF: Even if he beats out Chris Johnson — he shouldn’t — Paredes is not as good as he showed last year (.286 BA, .713 OPS), mainly because his plate discipline is atrocious: 5.0% BB vs. 26.3% K. He’d help his cause as a semi-valuable bench piece in NL formats if he showed some of his base-stealing chops and earned 2B-eligibility.
David Carpenter, RP: After showing decent stuff in his debut (2.93 ERA, 9.4 K/9), he should get some holds as a bullpen filler for NL-only owners. If Melancon falters, there’s a chance Carpenter backs into a handful of saves.
Aneury Rodriguez, SP/RP: Potential back-end starter who probably will wind up being a long man that splits his time in the pen and rotation. A bench option in deep NL play, at best.
Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11