Growing on Houston Time Takes Texas-Sized Patience
When the Astros were forced into the American League as a condition of their ownership change, more than just Houston area fans groaned. All of baseball had the same reaction, public or not: this is not a team ready to compete in the AL West, full of big bats and deep pockets. If the team contributes anything to AL baseball in the next few years, it'll be making the Seattle Mariners look mighty in comparison.
Thanks to bad management, poor drafts and some awful trades, the team inherited by new owner Jim Crane isn't close to contention by any stretch of the imagination, which means that fans will have to take respite in future Astros and what they might do in the years to come. Unfortunately, there's not much there, either. It's going to be a long road back for the Astros, who have already reached the playoffs and fallen short of a title more than any other team in baseball history.
To get there, Crane made a savvy choice in securing GM Jeff Luhnow, a low-profile but well-respected sabermetric strategist who had spent the previous decade as VP of Scouting and Player Development for the always-brilliant St Louis Cardinals organization. If Luhnow can bring even a portion of that team's magic drafting, trading and development to the Houston franchise, this team has a chance of competing again before the decade closes.
He's got a few good pieces to start with, headlined by franchise prospect Carlos Correa, the first overall pick of the 2012 Amateur Draft. Playing rookie ball as a 17 year old, Correa slashed a respectable .258/.305/.400 line in fifty games. He's expected to play most of 2013 in low-A ball, which tells you the track he's on: he should be the Astros starting shortstop by 2017, with a taste of MLB life a year or two before that.
That gives Luhnow a few years to build a team around Correa, and we expect he'll be focusing on pitching in the next couple of drafts to do so: the Astros are almost certain to have high draft picks for the next couple of seasons, and the team sorely needs pitching in a system bereft of much promise.
Granted, the Astros do feature ex-Blue Jay Asher Wojciechowski and ex-Phillie Jarred Cosart, both of whom looked very good in the minors last season (especially late in the year), and both could indeed provide an injection of pitching power very soon. Of course, it might be almost too soon to matter, since there's little team to support them. As things play out, Astro fans might best hope for breakouts and quick trades here: if either of these pitchers displays the same facility at dealing with MLB batters as they did in the minors, they could bring back a boatload of more-distant prospects that would help the system more, long-term.
Other pitchers on the Astro farm look promising, if not eye-popping, with names like Lance McCullers, Mike Foltynewicz and Nick Tropeano likely to appear on Minute Maid scorecards in the next year or three. None look to be game-changers, but all should provide some low-cost home cooking that will help the team get by during some lean times.
On the offensive side of the scorecard, the short term injections look like a similar mix of 'not bad', with Jonathan Singleton looking to prove he can be a big, strong DH-type first baseman who can handle big-league pressure without the chemical assistance, PED or otherwise. If he stumbles, there's always Marc Krauss lurking down in AAA, and he can certainly bring the same lumbering thunder when called upon, even if it comes at the cost of a whole lot of strikeouts. Longer-term, management's fingers are crossed on young phenom Rio Ruiz, a high-upside third-baseman with all-around sizzle who could be great in a similar timeframe to Correa's.
In the outfield, it looks like George Springer and Robbie Grossman are most likely to get a shot at corner outfield duties soon, while in the infield, fans can look forward to a possible keystone combination featuring Jonathan Villar and DeLino DeShields, two middle infielders who have already shown more than acceptable offensive pop. While Villar looks closer to the Show, DeShields has higher upside, and both of these two could be in their primes right at the onset of an Astro awakening.
In all, this isn't an empty farm, but it's a bit too full of B-list prospects and too empty of possible stars, making it far from the system the Astros need if they're going to deliver on any sort of five-year promise. Look for the team to continue an emphasis on managing payroll, rejecting expensive veterans in favor of high-upside youngsters and gambles for at least another year or two, while Luhnow and company try hard to get some stars aligned for a roughly-simultaneous breakout, somewhere around 2017-18.
Here's a quick look at some of the talent that's coming-soon to the Astros roster.
The usual disclaimer: Scouting Book's Prospect Rankings change very often, to reflect the latest and most promising prospects and situations. These listings recalculate every day as we include new input, correct errors (thanks for letting us know, helpful readers) and adjust to evolving MLB situations. For more information on our system, read this blog posting.
Next Up: Los Angeles Angels