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03/05/2007 10:00 AM ET
Pence nearly ripe for Minute Maid debut
Patton, Albers provide Astros with renewed pitching depth
Troy Patton had a 2.93 ERA in the Carolina League before a promotion to Double-A. (Shawn E. Davis/MLB.com)

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The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, MLB.com takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For several years, the strength of the Houston Astros' system has been its pitching. During the offseason, though, the Astros used that depth to bring in big-league talent, sending Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz to Colorado for established starter Jason Jennings. That, of course, left a gaping hole in the system, shifting the organizational depth from pitching to ... pitching.

That's right, there are still plenty of arms down on the farm, starting with Troy Patton and filtering all the way down. Many of the young pitchers at the upper levels are competing for jobs in Houston this spring. Those who don't make the club will create a trickle-down effect of depth at Triple-A, a cadre of arms for Phil Garner and Co. to choose from. At any given level in 2007, you can see some starters and relievers who have futures in the organization -- at least as trade bait.

The news on the position player front isn't quite as promising. They will get a very promising position player in Hunter Pence in Houston very soon, perhaps the best homegrown bat they've had in a long time. Beyond Pence, though, the bats are still a bit away. If the Astros have a strength, it would be behind the plate, with a couple of interesting bats who catch. At the very least, it gives the Astros some interesting options to catch all of those pitching prospects.

Climbing the Ladder

Triple-A Round Rock

Hunter Pence, OF
More likely than not, Pence will start the season in Round Rock. He undoubtedly will tease people with his talent in Spring Training, but the center field job is Chris Burke's, at least to start the year. But Pence should be ready to answer the call when needed. Once upon a time, the Astros had Pence play center field and figured they'd leave him there until he showed he couldn't play. He's made such big strides, it could be his long-term home, especially if Craig Biggio retires and Burke returns to second base in 2008. At the same time, Pence has the arm strength to play right field and certainly has the bat for a corner. He's a little unorthodox on both sides of the ball, but it's hard to argue with success: .302 career average and .556 slugging percentage. He's even got deceptive speed, having stolen 17 bases in 2006. There's no question Pence will be patrolling the Minute Maid outfield in due time. It's a question of when, not if.
Video: Pence clears the fence

Matt Albers, RHP
When the Astros signed Albers as a 2001 draft-and-follow, he was a little on the immature side and didn't really comprehend how much talent he had. Last year's taste has the super-competitive right-hander realizing he has a big-league future with some impressive stuff. Albers features a live fastball -- both a two- and four-seamer. He's been working on a two-seamer with sink down in the zone. His breaking stuff is greatly improved, with his curve being his best offering. He can mix a slider in as well. The stuff is there, the pitchability is coming. As long as he stays in shape, something he'll always have to work on, when those two things come together, watch out. He's got No. 2 or No. 3 starter potential. He'll need to work on a changeup -- perhaps in favor of the slider -- to fully reach his potential as a starter, though the Astros know that worst-case, he's got the kind of power stuff that could make for a very good closer.

2006 Organizational Record
LEVEL
AAA
AA
A (Adv)
A
SS
R
LEAGUE
PCL
TL
CAR
SAL
NYP
APP
TEAM
Round Rock
*Corpus Christi
Salem
Lexington
Tri-City
Greeneville

TOTAL:

W
85
76
76
75
43
34

389

L
59
63
61
63
31
33

310

PCT
.590
.547
.555
.543
.581
.507

.557

* Won Texas League championship

Others to watch: Basically, whichever pitchers don't make the big-league club will head to Round Rock to form a deep staff. That could mean Fernando Nieve or Chris Sampson. Juan Gutierrez also should be there. The Express will get offensive help from speedy outfielder Josh Anderson and perhaps Michael Rodriguez or Charlton Jimerson, who is out of options.
Video: Rodriguez hits a solo shot
Video: Jimerson is on the Rookie Career Development path

Double-A Corpus Christi

Troy Patton, LHP
Go see him in Corpus Christi, because he may not be there for long. The lefty, now the top pitching prospect in the system, showed he can compete at this level in spurts late last year. He's looked very strong in early workouts and has fit into big-league camp like he belongs. He's still learning how to pitch and has improved his changeup considerably over time. His breaking pitch has evolved into a hard slider he throws at 84-85 mph with a big break that lefties chase all day. He loves to challenge hitters at any level. Assuming he clicks at Double-A, the organization will keep an open mind after a month or two regarding a promotion.

2006 Organizational Leaders
Average
Home Runs
RBIs
Stolen Bases
ERA
Wins
Strikeouts
Saves
.345
28
105
43
2.10
14
142
17
J.R. House
Hunter Pence
J.R. House
Josh Anderson
Jason Hirsh
Tip Fairchild
Tip Fairchild
Rodrigo Escobar
Complete MiLB statistics

Lou Santangelo, C
Santangelo has come a long way since he was drafted in 2004, especially from a maturity standpoint. He used to fight himself but has carried himself as a true professional in big-league camp. He's made people notice him physically during BP sessions and has been showing some serious arm strength behind the plate. Of all the catchers the Astros have in the system, he's the closest to getting to the Majors. He's shortened his swing and has developed some decent straightaway power. He still needs to refine his strike zone, and once he does, he could be a good all-around catcher because the catch-and-throw skills are already there.
Video: Ed Randall's Q&A with Santangelo

Others to watch: There should be some more intersting arms here, starting with Jimmy Barthmaier. He could be joined by Felipe Paulino and Chad Reineke. All the pitchers will seem better with shortstop Edwin Maysonet behind them.

Class A Advanced Salem

J.R. Towles, C
Towles is an extremely athletic catcher who moves very well behind the plate and runs the bases well for a backstop. He has some power, though the Astros aren't sure how much. He has the chance to possess average Major League power down the road, though he may be more of a gap-power guy. He's got an advanced approach and makes hard, consistent contact. Behind the plate, he's got good catch-and-throw skills and calls a good game. He has more upside than Santangelo but hasn't been consistent.

Brian Bogusevic, LHP
Most of 2006 was frustrating for Bogusevic, the former two-way college star. Injuries set him back for much of the season and he had trouble finding any rhythm. He had a high arm angle, forcing his fastball, despite sitting at 93-94 mph, to be very hittable up in the zone. The last month or so of the season was encouraging as he had a 2.76 ERA over his final six starts. A little raw coming out of college because he never got to focus on pitching only, he's a strong and durable left-hander. His fastball and slider are above-average offerings and he's learning to change speeds now. He'll stay in the rotation for now, learning the nuances of pitching while getting enough innings. Once he figures it out, he could move pretty fast.

Others to watch: 1B Ole Sheldon finished the season in Salem and should start there again, looking to build on his .313 average and .430 on-base percentage. ... He should be in a lineup that also includes outfielder Josh Flores and shortstop Tommy Manzella.

Class A Lexington

Koby Clemens, 3B
There is a chance Clemens will start the season up in Salem, but it wouldn't hurt him to go back to Lexington because he lost a chunk of playing time due to injuries in 2006. Roger's eldest son played winter ball in Hawaii and made big strides, both defensively and in terms of plate discipline. He'll be evaluated in Spring Training and a decision will be made then in terms of his starting assignment. Even if he begins the year in Lexington, there's a very good chance he'll see Salem before the year is over. He's a prime candidate for a breakout season soon, and there's no better time than the present.
Video: Koby and his dad chat with Billy Sample

Sergio Perez, RHP
After helping Tampa win the Division II World Series, Perez joined the Astros as their second-round pick in 2006. After the long college season, Houston took it slow with him last summer, having him come out of Lexington's bullpen to get his feet wet. He's got a lively fastball that sits at least in the low 90s to go with a good slider. He'll likely head to Lexington to work on being a professional starter, including developing a usuable changeup. If that starts to click, he won't stay with the Legends for long.

Others to watch: The Astros will have to be creative in playing time for a pair of catchers at this level. First-round pick Max Sapp will be there, as will Ralphie Henriquez. They'll be able to develop both while making sure neither young backstop gets worn out behind the plate. ... 3B Chris Johnson, Ron's son, is an excellent defensive third baseman who adds depth at the hot corner at the lower levels of the system.

Under the Radar

Chris Salamida, LHP
A 13th-rounder out of Oneonta State, Salamida was a New York-Penn League All-Star and led the short-season circuit in wins (10) and ERA (1.06). He's got a deceptive arm slot that makes his fastball seem faster and also helps him keep hitters off-balance with a plus changeup. He's working on bringing his breaking pitch, a slider, up to snuff with his other two offerings. There aren't many expectations for a later pick from a small school, but Salamida certainly raised the bar last summer. The Astros could challenge him by pushing him up to Salem, and it shouldn't be shocking if the extremely competitive southpaw rises to the occasion.

Chris Johnson, 3B
Johnson's father, Ron, is the Red Sox's Triple-A manager, and he was drafted by the Sox before deciding to attend Stetson University. He played mostly first base in college but opened a lot of eyes with his defense at the hot corner last summer. Couple that with some serious raw power and he may have moved past Koby Clemens as the top third base prospect in the system.

Lincoln Holdzkom, RHP
Not long ago, Holdzkom was a pretty hot pitching prospect in the Marlins system. But he missed all of the 2004 season following Tommy John surgery, then threw just 13 1/3 innings out of the bullpen in 2005 and 46 a year ago. The Astros took him in the Rule 5 Draft, so he'll be given every opportunity this spring to show he belongs on the radar ... and on the 25-man roster.

2006 Draft Recap

RHP Sergio Perez (second round) was used sparingly after a long college season but showed a plus fastball in relief for Lexington. He had a 2.20 ERA and allowed just six hits while striking out 21 in 16 1/3 innings. ... RHP Bud Norris (sixth round) cranked up his fastball in the mid-90s for Tri-City, finishing with a 3.79 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 38 IP. ... No one had a better debut than LHP Chris Salamida. He went 10-1 with a 1.06 ERA and .189 opponents' batting average in the NY-Penn League.

Predictions

Organizational Player of the Year -- Max Sapp
The Astros showed faith in their first-rounder's maturity by pushing the teenager to the short-season New York-Penn League. While his numbers weren't good, he handled the adversity well and showed offseason commitment to catching. With a move to Lexington, Sapp's offensive potential will start to come out big-time in 2007.

Organizational Pitcher of the Year -- Troy Patton
The only thing that would keep this from happening is if he's so good early on, he spends too much time in the big leagues to qualify. If that's the case, Chris Salamida's a good call. If not, Patton should lead the organization in just about every pitching category.

Quotable

"That certainly is our recognizable depth. We were able to trade from a position of strength with kids in the system. The next wave? The players will show you their timetable. I personally think they are within a year to year and a half away, when the next core comes through. It depends. If you ask our manager, Phil Garner, he didn't want to let Troy (Patton) out of Spring Training last year, so it depends on who you talk to." -- Astros senior director of player personnel Paul Ricciarini, on the organization's pitching depth.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.