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Hirsh may not be far from Houston
03/03/2006 7:00 PM ET
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Not only are the Houston Astros conservative when it comes to rushing players to the big leagues, they're also cautious about becoming too giddy about a player through the media.

But it's hard not to get a little excited about Jason Hirsh, the Astros' top pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft. While Hirsch is projected to begin the year in Triple-A Round Rock's rotation, he is certain to get a nice long look from manager Phil Garner and general manager Tim Purpura this spring.

And with two rotation spots up for grabs, anything can happen between now and April 3. Hirsh is one of three potential rookies, along with Taylor Buchholz and Fernando Nieve, who could crack the rotation before camp breaks. Even if Hirsh doesn't make the team out of Spring Training, it's likely that we'll see the 6-foot-8 right-hander at some point during the season.

So for now, label Hirsch the Astros' Top Prospect. Of course, that's what Roy Oswalt was in April 2001. By May, he had progressed just a bit, to No. 3 Starter. In other words, things can change quickly in this game.

"He'll get some innings under his belt [and] pitch in some big-league games," assistant general manager Ricky Bennett said. "Our thought process is to send him to Triple-A, put him in the rotation and have him to continue to develop. If he continues to do well, there's a chance realistically [that] we'll see him in Houston at some point during the season. We don't expect that to happen out of Spring Training. We're going to keep an open mind about it, but realistically, we see him gong to Triple-A."

Hirsh, tabbed by Baseball America as owning the best control of all Astros prospects, had a breakout season in 2005 at Double-A Corpus Christi, posting a 13-8 record and a 2.87 ERA over 29 starts. The Astros considered moving him to Triple-A halfway through the year, but they decided to keep him in Corpus for the duration.

"We felt like, with the success that he had at Double-A, [it was best] just leave him there and let him complete a solid year at Double-A, " Bennett said. "And I think he benefited from that."

The reward for the 24-year-old Hirsh, who struck out 165 batters over 172 1/3 innings while walking only 42, was earning Texas League Pitcher of the Year honors.

When the Astros didn't offer Roger Clemens arbitration in December, it was clear that at least two spots would be available this year. Prior to the Clemens announcement, Hirsh had it in his mind that he was headed for Triple-A. Afterward, he let himself -- briefly -- ponder the notion of making the rotation out of Spring Training.

"I don't want to say it raised my hopes, because losing a guy like Roger is obviously a big blow to this staff," Hirsh said. "But to have an opportunity like I have now, because of that situation, that makes my Spring Training a little more important to me."

The Astros like Hirsh's talent, but they're also impressed with the other elements that factor into a player's success. Maturity, humility and coachability are also taken into account, and the Astros like what Hirsh brings to a clubhouse.

"He's a very mature kid," Bennett said. "He keeps everything in perspective. He's not looking too far down the road. He understands he still has to do some things before he gets to the big leagues. He's good with the media, he's a good teammate and he's going to be big part of our future."

Garner hasn't watched Hirsh long enough to make a definitive call on the young right-hander, but the skipper will be watching closely this spring. The Astros invited only five non-roster pitchers to camp this year, and they'll be without the services of three pitchers during the World Baseball Classic.

This means that the club probably won't have to make as many cuts after the first week of games, which will give the young pitchers more time to impress the boss. It's likely that Hirsh won't be shipped out anytime soon.

"He looks to me like he maintains good concentration," Garner said. "Whatever he's doing, he looks like he focuses at it. He looks like he throws the ball down in zone well, which is really good for as big as he is. And his stuff's good.

"He looks like he has some of the other ingredients that you've got to have to go along with having good stuff. He's a good athlete. He swings the bat pretty good and he moves on the mound well."

The next few weeks will be critical for Hirsh, who will try to block out the raised expectations that began sometime last season. He, like the Astros, is determined not to get ahead of himself.

"They told me going into Spring Training, 'Just be normal -- don't try to show up anybody. Just be yourself and things will fall into place,' " Hirsh said. "They know what I can do. They obviously saw last year [that] I had a pretty good season. Hopefully, I can carry it into spring."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.