Three of Corpus Christi's most reliable 2013 relievers have proven to be just as effective early in the Arizona Fall League calendar for the Peoria Javelinas. Right-handers Jonas Dufek and Andrew Robinson and southpaw Alex Sogard have combined to allow four earned runs in 15 1/3 innings over 11 appearances.
Dufek, who pitched in 14 games for the Hooks from July 25 until the end of the season, has allowed one run and struck out seven in five innings of work.
"He just needs to continue what he did in Corpus and develop his changeup as a third pitch," Peoria pitching coach Dave Borkowski said. "He is a big kid, strong, durable. He takes the ball at all times. He needs to angle his fastball downhill to the bottom of the zone, but his slider is devastating with two strikes."
Borkowski, who served as pitching coach at Houston's Class-A affiliate Quad-Cities last summer, said Robinson's strength is consistency, as Hooks fans will note. The righty was the longest tenured member of Corpus Christi's bullpen in 2013 and has allowed one run in three games.
Sogard posted a 2.88 ERA in 16 appearances with the Hooks, but struggled at Triple-A Oklahoma City.
"He's inconsistent one day and lights out the next," Borkowski said. "He really needs to work on fastball command, but he's a power arm from the left side with a breaking ball and good changeup."
Starter Matt Heidenreich, who was on and off the disabled list throughout last season, has not allowed a run in two starts. Borkowski said regaining confidence in the fastball and pitching to contact are top priorities for Heidenreich.
Jonathan Meyer is the only former Hooks position player the Astros sent to the AFL. He is on the taxi squad, which means he plays only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but he is 4-for-14 and has showcased stellar glove work.
The biggest storylines for the Astros, though, feature prospects who have not suited up for Corpus Christi. Yet.
The 305-pound Mexican first baseman Japhet Amador won't ever wear a Hooks uniform if he has an impressive spring training, but Houston's first round pick in 2010, Delino DeShields, is a candidate to patrol centerfield for Corpus Christi in 2014.
Houston signed Amador, along with outfielder Leo Heras, out of the Mexican League in mid-August and sent him straight to Triple-A where he went 13-for-43. For the Mexico City Red Devils last summer Amador hit .368 with 36 home runs and 121 runs batted in.
"He's pretty light on his feet for a big man," Borkowski said. "He's got a chance to be impressive. When he does run into (a pitch), it has a different sound coming off his bat."
The 21-year-old DeShields is working on a transition back to center, where he played in high school, after the Astros tried him at second base in his first three professional seasons.
"I'm still learning along the way," DeShields told MLB.com. "I'm comfortable, but there's a lot of stuff I didn't learn in high school that I probably would've learned in pro ball if I stayed out there."
With 198 stolen bases in 383 career games, speed is DeShields' top tool. He reached base 40 percent of the time for Lancaster last summer, but he's struggled at times to reach in the AFL. Borkowski thinks DeShields, who hasn't played above Advanced-A, will improve.
"He'll get on enough," Borkowski said. "He's struck out a little bit, facing some guys with Double-A, Triple-A and even Major League service time. They're more polished than what he's used to."
And even if DeShields does not get on, another potential Hook certainly will. Shortstop Nolan Fontana, a 2012 second-round pick out of the University of Florida, posted a .415 on-base percentage for Lancaster in 2013. Hitting second, he gives DeShields the ability to swing away from the leadoff spot.
"With anybody else who I might not be as comfortable with hitting behind me, I might see a couple more pitches to give them some looks. I (know) I have Fontana behind me," DeShields told MLB.com.
The Arizona Fall League is comprised of six teams that play at spring training facilities in the Phoenix Area. Every October through early November, each major league club sends six prospects to the Arizona Fall League to fill out a 30-man roster. Teams can also send additional players to be on the "taxi squad."