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Houston Astros 2011 MLB Draft in Review

Houston 2011 Draft Selections

Houston went a little college heavy for my taste, but that’s forgivable considering the interesting collection of college prospects they rounded up. The early round pitching additions and handful of high upside college position players make it a slightly above-average class on balance. Connecticut OF George Springer (23rd ranked draft prospect) is a favorite of mine who I’ve seen up close multiple times, so forgive me for being super annoying and going with the long quote from my most recent viewing. The cliff notes: Springer shows four big league tools (strong arm, big raw power, good speed, and good CF defense/great RF defense), a hit tool/approach that has been the subject of debate going on two years now, and all the intangibles (work ethic, passion for the game, high aptitude to learn) you’d want in a potential franchise cornerstone. The gap between what Springer is and what he’ll eventually be is quite large by college first round hitter standards, but you don’t need an amateur hack like me to tell you his upside is immense.

Good pro coaching will do wonders for him, though it will be really interesting to see how much tinkering his future employer will really want to do after investing a hefty bonus in the college version of Springer’s swing. He looks a little bow-legged in the photo above, but it isn’t a great representation of his swing setup because it captures him just as he started his stride. I had great video of him swinging the bat, but it disappeared into the ether during a file conversion. As for Springer’s swing, again, I’m not a scout, but I was really impressed with his balance at the plate, both in his approach and follow through. I didn’t like his collapsed back elbow, but found many of his flaws to be those decidedly under the “Coach Him Up and He’ll Be Alright” umbrella. This may be a cop-out, but the rise of so many other prospects could really be a boon for Springer’s career. Taking him in the top ten scares the heck out of me, but if he slips closer to the middle or end of the round, watch out. Lowered expectations + more stable pro organization, especially at the big league level (less need to rush him) = transformation from overrated to underrated almost overnight.

Another quick note I’ll pass along without much comment: George Springer cares. I realize this is a dangerous game to play because, really, how can we ever know such a thing, but George Springer (his name just sounds better when you use the first and the last) cares, or, at worst, is one heck of an actor. I’d never get on a player for not reacting to a strikeout with anger (and, by extension, showing that they care) because, as a quiet guy myself, I know demonstrative displays of emotion shouldn’t be the standard by which we judge effort and dedication. But the way Springer reacted to an early strikeout — pacing back and forth in front of the bench seemingly in search of a tunnel to pop into and blow off some steam (soon enough, George) until finally settling to the far end of the dugout, just off to the side, where he took a knee, closed his eyes, and started pantomiming his swing — really stood out to me. Probably nothing, but there you go.

None of that changes my view of George Springer the prospect, by the way. Just thought it was a relatively interesting tidbit worth passing along. I have to admit that I do kind of love the idea of a player with a wOBA approaching .500 getting that worked up over a bad at bat. Or maybe I love the way a player who is is clearly pressing at the plate has still somehow managed to put up a league/park adjusted triple slash of .386/.482/.667 (as of mid-April).

Two pro comparisons for Springer came immediately to mind. The first is 100% physical and in no way any kind of projection of future pro value. Something about Springer’s body, swing, and overall on-field demeanor reminded me a great deal of Florida’s Mike Stanton. Again, the two are very different players, but the physical similarities were interesting. A comp like that is probably why most people don’t like comps, but they’ll live.

The second comparison is much, much better, I think. Springer’s upside and overall tools package remind me so much of Minnesota minor leaguer Joe Benson that it’s scary. File that one away…

And now we get the run on early round pitching additions. Locust Grove HS (OK) RHP Adrian Houser (174th ranked draft prospect) stood out in a crowded Oklahoma prep pitching class due to his plus fastball and advanced curveball. So much can happen with a prep arm developmentally that I’d be making stuff up if I gave you any definitive take on his future, but I can say with confidence that two quality pitches often makes for a good base to build a successful career on.

The Astros gambled on the signability of Vanderbilt RHP Jack Armstrong (49th ranked draft prospect) and came out big winners. He’s big, he’s athletic, and he has a big league ready fastball/curveball combo. If the change comes around, he’s a potential mid-rotation innings eater with the chance to put together. Out of all the excellent Vanderbilt draft prospects, I liked him second only to Sonny Gray.

Vanderbilt JR RHP Jack Armstrong: 91-93 FB sitting, 94-97 peak; 80-82 flashes plus CU; 81-82 CB with promise but slow to develop due to injuries; clean mechanics; finally healthy, CB better than ever; 6-7, 230 pounds

Sometimes it really is as simple as throwing away the performance aspect and looking at raw stuff. Armstrong’s track record on the mound doesn’t make him a top 100 pick (or a top 50 prospect on my pre-draft list), but his raw stuff ranks up there with almost anybody’s. Injury concerns could have Houston looking at Armstrong as a future reliever, but I’d love to see the big guy get a chance to start.

Santa Fe CC (FL) LHP Chris Lee is a lefty with good present velocity and the body to grow into even more. He signed quickly and, though his control left something to be desire, he showed impressive strikeout and groundball numbers.

If you can’t love Stony Brook RHP Nick Tropeano (108th ranked draft prospect), then we can’t be friends. How can you not fall for a big righthander that throws much slower than his frame suggests, but gets incredible results due to movement, great secondaries, and a big league veteran feel for pitching? Tropeano’s upside is a solid big league starting pitcher; his stuff (FB/CU/SL) reminds me a little bit of what Kyle Lohse brings to the mound. To keep this from being too positive – who would ever want to read positive thoughts on the internet? – there is some concern that, without a proper fastball, Tropeano’s future is starting pitcher or bust (i.e. he lacks the safety net of becoming a reliever).

Stony Brook JR RHP Nick Tropeano: 87-88, tops out at 90-91 with FB; velocity up a tick this year; better sink on FB; very good CU; very good SL with plus upside; advanced feel for pitching; relies very heavily on CU; 6-4, 205 pounds

I really liked what Houston did when it came time to pick college outfielders. Bringing in three toolsy, athletic, and physically gifted prospects gives the organizational depth chart a nice boost as they attempt to remake their outfield at the big league level. San Diego State OF Brandon Meredith is, well, toolsy, athletic, and physically gifted. He also works deep counts and flashes enough power/speed/arm to make him a potential regular right fielder down the line. With most non-elite college prospects, his most realistic path to landing a big league opportunity is to put up unignorable (note: not a real word) numbers year after year in the minors until he finally gets the chance to contribute either after a trade leaves a hole in the lineup or he is needed to bolster the big league bench. From there, who knows?

San Diego State JR OF Brandon Meredith: good arm; plus bat speed; good raw power; solid speed; RF professionally; (388/490/547 – 29 BB/39 K – 9/13 SB – 201 AB)

King HS (FL) OF Javaris Reynolds is a lottery ticket who was taken at the right time (7th round) you’d like to see your team gamble on high upside/low probability type players. Forsyth Country Day HS (NC) RHP Brandon Culbreth is the pitching equivalent to Reynolds; raw, but with a pro frame and enough flashes of quality stuff that you can start your daydreaming. Baseball players at least five years away from the big leagues are what people daydream about, right?

Creighton RHP Jonas Dufek is a watered down version of Nick Tropeano. He’s big, has below-average fastball velocity, and reliant on his offspeed and command to keep himself in ballgames. As a senior sign, he also only cost one-fourth the price of Tropeano; I’d be pleasantly surprised if he can achieve one-fourth the success I think Tropeano will have in the pros.

I know certain allowances are made for lefthanders, but you have to admit that the selection of Kent State LHP Kyle Hallock officially marks an early round trend for Houston. Between Tropeano, Dufek, and now Hallock, that’s three college arms with fastballs that stay below the 90 MPH barrier more often than not. As a three-pitch lefty with a little bit of projection left, Hallock is my kind of senior sign.

Minnesota OF Justin Gominsky (Round 11) is a really, really nice addition this late in the draft. He fits the toolsy, athletic, and physically gifted prospect mold mentioned earlier. The arm, speed, and center field defense are all big league quality; the difference between getting a shot playing every day or being pigeon holed into a fourth/fifth outfielder role comes down to his hit tool, plate discipline, and ability to tap into his considerable raw power. I tend to believe in elite athletes figuring out the baseball side of things more often than I probably should, so take my hearty endorsement of Gominsky as a prospect with a grain of salt.

Minnesota JR CF Justin Gominsky (2011): good arm; very good defender; plus athlete; good speed; interesting hit tool; 6-4, 185

Mississippi C Miles Hamblin (Round 12) serves as a harsh reminder of why I shouldn’t get too excited about prospects based predominantly on their junior college production. That’s not to say Hamblin’s numbers at Howard JC were the only thing that drew me to him (his scouting reports have been fairly positive going on three years now), but it was the incredible statistics that had me touting him as a potential top five round pick (whoops) back in 2009. His so-so showing in the SEC and slightly less optimistic defensive projection has me a little nervous, but I’ll stubbornly cling to the idea that his plus arm/plus raw power combo gives him a shot to make it as a backup in the pros.

Hamblin has above-average power potential and a live bat, plus he has the added advantage of being close to a sure bet of sticking behind the plate as a professional. His outstanding performance this season for a dominant junior college team has scouts buzzing. Lefty power, a great catcher’s frame, strong throwing arm (mid-80s fastball in high school), and a mature approach at the plate…don’t let the lack of pedigree bother you, Hamblin is a good prospect;

Clemson 2B John Hinson (Round 13) turned down the Phillies twice including last year after talks got rather acrimonious when money couldn’t be agreed on after Philadelphia drafted him in the 13th round. He went back to school, had a nice season, and came out the other side as a signed 13th round selection of the Houston Astros. I think the pre-draft report on Hinson holds up pretty well: good athlete, good speed, good hit tool, raw defensively, most likely a versatile big league utility guy with the chance of being an above-average regular (with the bat) at second. That’s some serious value in the 13th round.

A plus hit tool combined with above-average speed and power will get you far professionally, but people smarter than myself have told me some teams question Hinson’s ability to play any one particular spot in the infield with the consistency needed of a regular. Based on my limited looks of him, I can’t say that I necessarily agree with that assessment, but his defensive skillset (good athlete, iffy arm) may make him better suited for second base than third. At either spot, he’s got the bat to make him a potential regular with a couple breaks along the way. He’s got a relatively high floor (easy to see him as a big league utility guy with pop) with the upside of a league average third baseman.

The Astros broke out of their college streak (3 of 13 including 5 in a row) by taking Lufkin HS (TX) RHP Gandy Stubblefield (Round 14). There really isn’t a ton of talent that separates Stubblefield from Houston’s second round pick Adrian Houser. Both pitchers have projectable frames, good fastballs, curveballs with upside, and the need for a reliable third pitch. The fact that one guy was selected in the second round and the other in the fourteenth just goes to show how messed up the current system (signability is king!) really is. Stubblefield is off to join an absolutely stacked (my early count has them with at least ten draftable 2012s) Texas A&M team.

RHP Gandy Stubblefield (Lufkin HS, Texas): 6-4, 190; 88-92 FB, 94-95 peak; CB with upside

The little scouting report below on Arizona State LHP Mitchell Lambson (Round 19) says it all. I make it a rule to always start with notes on the fastball because a) I think it is the most important pitch in baseball, and b) it helps keeps my notes organized and easier to peruse quickly. That said, Lambson’s change is so good and he relies on it so heavily, there really is no other way to talk about him without first mentioning the pitch. The Josh Spence isn’t really meant to be taken literally – guys as weird and awesome as Spence can’t be compared to mere mortals – but more of a funky lefthander with the chance to put up surprising results in an unconventional manner. In other words, don’t sleep on Lambson.

Arizona State JR LHP Mitchell Lambson: outstanding 72-74 CU with outstanding arm action that sometimes dips into upper-60s; uses the CU a ton; 85-87 FB, 88-90 peak; plus command; plus control; maybe a little Josh Spence in him; 6-1, 200 pounds

I have an irrational like of Tennessee 3B Matt Duffy (Round 20) that I can only attempt to explain in terms of relevant baseball skills by talking about his excellent defense at third and patient approach at the plate. Beyond that, I just plain have a good feeling about his pro prospects. If given the chance, I think he could have a season not unlike the one Jack Hannahan is currently having: slightly below league average with the bat, well above-average in the field. That might not sound super sexy, but, again, that’s value for a 20th rounder.

Duffy was a deep sleeper top five rounds candidate of mine heading into the 2010 season, so you know I’ve been irrationally high on his talent for a long time now. The Vermont transfer and current Tennessee standout has all of the defensive tools to play a decent shortstop professionally, but profiles better as a potential plus defender at the hot corner. For Duffy, a Jack Hannahan (with more raw power) or Andy LaRoche (with less raw power) type of career is possible.

Much like Miles Hamblin, North Carolina 1B Jesse Wierzbicki (Round 24) has been on the radar dating back to his days catching at junior college. The scouting blurb below was written back in 2010 when I thought Wierzbicki could play behind the plate as a pro. I still think he’s got the athleticism and enough catch-and-throw ability to play back there, but it appears I’m now in the minority. As a first baseman I don’t see how his bat will work at the pro level. Hopefully the Astros will be creative and try him in a utility role going forward. I can’t explain how he went higher in the draft than college teammates Patrick Johnson and Jacob Stallings.

Wierzbicki’s tools grade out as solid across the board, especially if you’re like me and willing to grade a catcher’s running speed on a curve. I tend to think of backup catchers falling into one of three general archetypes. The first group of backups are the sluggers (big raw power, capable of popping an extra base hit or two in that one start a week), the second are the defensive aces (nothing mesmerizes big league coaching staffs more than a catching with a plus arm), and the third are the players that do everything pretty well, but nothing great. Wierzbicki falls squarely in with that last category of player. He’s known for having power to the gaps, a consistent line drive generating swing, and a solid arm. He’s also a tireless worker who knows his own athletic limitations, two of those tricky intangible qualities that either mean a lot to a team or nothing at all.

For what it’s worth, I talked to one scout who preferred Central Catholic HS (CA) OF Billy Flamion (Round 25) to New York first round pick Brandon Nimmo. Flamion’s bat is universally praised, but his other tools (speed, arm, and defense) are met with skepticism. I think he gets a bad rap considering his football background and lack of experience on the diamond. He’s a better athlete than given credit for with enough foot speed and arm strength to become at least an average left fielder in time. If he hits as expected, you can live with that. I think the most interesting thing to watch as he heads to school will be whether or not his aggressive approach can be reined in enough to make him as prolific a slugger as he could be.

[plus bat speed; special sound; plus lefthanded pull power; above-average arm; average speed; average range in corner, likely LF; good athlete; lots of swing and miss]

Not signing Flamion hurts, obviously, but the consolation prize of signing Bishop Amat HS (CA) OF Wallace Gonzalez (Round 29) isn’t half bad. I’ve talked about this before, but sometimes teams will draft two questionable signs within a few rounds of each other with the intention of offering similar money and seeing if they can get one to bite. In this case, we know Flamion’s asking price was really high (first round money, reportedly) and Gonzalez “only” got six figures, so maybe my theory is off. Either way, Flamion is off to Oregon and Gonzalez is an Astro, so let’s focus on the new pro and leave the college guy until 2014. Wallace Gonzalez has tools you’d never expect to see out of guy a few pounds short of Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. His raw power, plus arm, and great athleticism are major strong points. Like the Lambson/Spence comp from before, here’s another comparison not meant to be taken too literally: Gonzalez and Astros 2009 third round 1B/OF Telvin Nash. Both Gonzalez and Nash are righthanded hitting first baseman/outfielders with enough upside to hit in the middle of a big league lineup someday.

We’re issuing a major upside alert with Wallace Gonzalez, a rare first base prospect that can lay claim to legit five-tool upside. Those tools run the gamut from “wow” (plus raw power and a bazooka – not literally, that would be a “WOW!” tool – attached to his shoulder) to “hmm, didn’t expect that” (watching a 6-5, 220 pound man with 45 speed is cognitive dissonance personified). With great upside often comes great rawness, however. Gonzalez is better known as a football star with intriguing upside as a tight end capable of developing into a dangerous downfield threat. His commitment to the gridiron makes his signability just murky enough that some teams could shy away on draft day. Years of football experience also means less time honing his baseball skills, so the onus will be on his drafting team to really coach him up. At this point in the rankings, a boom or bust prospect like Gonzalez makes a lot of sense.

Penn State 3B Jordan Steranka (Round 30) heads back to Happy Valley hoping to boost his stock leading up to the 2012 Draft. He’s a little bit like Matt Duffy, though probably not as strong as a defender.

Steranka gives just about what you’d expect from a player this far down the ranking: a strong arm and some power upside. He also has the advantage of being a steady glove at third, though there are some rumblings that he could be tried behind the plate as a pro.

Arkansas OF Jarrod McKinney (Round 31) is the last of our toolsy, athletic, and physically gifted college outfield prospects taken by Houston. He is similar to Meredith from a tools standpoint (power/speed/arm enough for right field), but an ugly pro debut (.182/.233/.231 in 121 at bats) is a reflection on his rawness as a prospect. McKinney has never been super productive at the plate and injuries have kept his overall at bats down. His talent, however, exceeds that of a typical late round pick.

Arkansas JR OF Jarrod McKinney (2011): line drive swing; power potential; good speed; great range; good arm; strong; missed most of 2010 with knee injury; catcher in HS; (190/346/270 – 9 BB/13 K – 2/5 SB – 63 AB)

Oklahoma State RHP Brad Propst (Round 38) doesn’t throw hard (topped out at 88 when I saw him), but has a dynamite changeup and the athleticism you’d expect from a former middle infielder. His time spent at shortstop has me wondering if there could be some hidden velocity that could be unearthed with 100% focus on pitching as a pro.

Oklahoma State SR RHP/SS Brad Propst (2011): 86-88 FB; plus 79-80 CU; SF CU developing

Georgia 1B Chase Davidson (Round 41) was once a symbol for all that was wrong with Houston’s cheap approach to the draft. Well, maybe Davidson himself wasn’t a symbol; he was more of the cherry on top of the disappointing draft sundae that was the 2007 MLBDraft. That was the year Houston couldn’t agree to deals with their top two picks (Derek Dietrich and Brett Eibner), as well as eighth round pick Chad Bettis. To go a year without bringing in a top four round pick (free agent compensation took care of the rest) puts a serious strain on the farm system. In 2008, the Astros signed their first rounder, comp rounder, and second rounder. Things were looking up, despite the fact they badly reached on Jason Castro with the tenth pick of the draft; I mean, at least they signed him, right? Then the third round came around and the Astros swung and missed with inking big-time slugging high school prospect Chase Davidson. The few Houston fans I knew were understandably apoplectic. I’m in no way defending Houston’s cheapness at the time, but it is fun to flash forward three drafts to the Astros drafting and signing Davidson as a 41st rounder in 2011. I don’t hold out a ton of hope for Davidson, but I also don’t see a ton of differences between him and last year’s fourth round pick of Milwaukee, Auburn 1B Hunter Morris. That alone makes Davidson a pretty huge steal this late in the draft. The bar is set so low for 41st rounders that even a career as a minor league slugger would count as a success story. Anything more is a bonus.

Davidson is all power all the time but with a hack at all costs attitude. Been a long time (three years to be exact) since we heard those Jim Thome comparisons…

Clemson OF Chris Epps (Round 45) gets a mention because it feels like he has been at Clemson for the better part of the last decade. Consider this his college hitter lifetime achievement award. Epps is a talented guy who gets hurt by his tweener status: probably not enough pop to carry him in a corner, but not a good enough defender for center. His approach to hitting is professional quality, but, much like Davidson the 41st rounder, I’d say a long career as a 4A star would be an impressive outcome for this 45th round pick.

Clemson SR OF Chris Epps (2011): leadoff hitter profile; average gap-style power; above-average speed; below-average arm; not a CF; 6-1, 195 pounds; (237/420/365 – 48 BB/49 K – 156 AB – 15/21 SB)

Westfield HS (NJ) C AJ Murray (Round 48) had a strong commitment to Georgia Tech that no doubt scared teams off, but I suspect they’ll be plenty of organizations kicking themselves once they realize the kind of player they let slip away. Murray is a great athlete with good speed and plenty of raw power. There is some concern he won’t be able to stick behind the plate long-term, but I’ve heard differently. I’m excited about following Murray’s development over the next few years, starting from his time at Georgia Tech all the way through draft day 2014.

Fast-rising prospect poised to make me look stupid for having him this low. Area scouts rave about his athleticism and sheer physical strength.

Quick Statistical Look at 2011 MLB Draft Pitching Prospects

In absolutely no particular order, 2011 draft prospects that finished last season with over 10 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched, minimum 50 total innings pitched. For reference’s sake, prospects expected to go in the top three rounds are in bold…

Kentucky JR RHP Alex Meyer

Missouri State JR RHP Dan Kickham

Cal State Fullerton JR RHP Noe Ramirez

Virginia SR RHP Tyler Wilson

Maryland SR RHP Brett Harman

Vanderbilt JR RHP Sonny Gray

Texas A&M JR RHP John Stilson

Texas JR RHP Taylor Jungmann

Baylor JR RHP Logan Verrett

UCLA JR RHP Gerrit Cole

UCLA JR RHP Trevor Bauer

Washington JR RHP Andrew Kittredge

Georgia Tech JR LHP Jed Bradley

Virginia JR LHP/1B Danny Hultzen

Mississippi JR LHP Matt Crouse

Stanford JR LHP Brett Mooneyham

Arizona State JR LHP Mitchell Lambson

TCU SO LHP Matt Purke

Northeastern JR LHP Andrew Leenhouts

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