In a talented starting rotation full of top arms, Lancaster left-hander Josh Hader has emerged as the most consistent of them all in 2014.
The lanky 20-year-old checks in as the No. 13 prospect in the Astros organization, while his 9-1 record, 2.46 ERA and 1.07 WHIP are all tops on a JetHawks club that also features the team's No. 2 prospect and 2013 No. 1 overall pick, Mark Appel (1-5, 10.80 ERA), No. 3 prospect Lance McCullers (3-3, 4.59 ERA) and No. 7 prospect Vincent Velasquez (4-1, 2.89 ERA).
"It's control, but also it's developing my changeup and my slider," Hader said of his season-long success. "Being able to throw that changeup behind in the count to get me back into counts, get swings and misses, ground balls. That's a big part of what's going on this year -- mixing a lot of pitches."
Since being drafted out of high school in Maryland in 2012 by his hometown Baltimore Orioles, Hader's fastball has matured and developed into his go-to pitch. It usually sits in the mid-90s, but Lancaster manager Rodney Linares said Hader has the ability to run it up to 96 mph and move it all over the zone.
Hader is filling out his 6-foot-3 frame, going from a bony 160 pounds to 175 and growing -- something that's helped him maintain his velocity throughout the year.
"I don't think [my body has] fully matured yet," Hader said. "From what I've gained, it's definitely helped me out a lot -- just getting strength and using my whole body."
With an active delivery that features a lot of moving parts and provides some late movement on his fastball, Hader also has an element of deception to his pitching style. In 95 innings of work this year, Hader has 105 strikeouts and 33 walks.
"Earlier this year I went behind the cage during BP," Linares recalled, "and I'm like, 'Man, this is what the right-handed hitters see?' If the righties have a tough time picking up, how about the lefties -- it looks like he's going to throw it at your head."
Going forward, Linares said the focus will be to refine Hader's secondary pitches while trying to control his arm slot, which can be inconsistent at times.
Hader has become a key piece in Houston's highly regarded farm system since being acquired in last year's deadline deal that sent Bud Norris to Baltimore. Though Hader sounds somewhat homesick at times, the change of scenery doesn't seem to have slowed down his path to bigs.
"Being that close to my home and my family and friends being able to watch me, I think about that all the time," Hader said. "Being 3,000 miles from home, you don't get the kind of support that you would back home. But the way I look at it, I have an opportunity to get to the big leagues, and whatever way I can get there, I'm going to get there."
More gains for Gregor: First baseman Conrad Gregor is enjoying a meteoric rise through the Astros' farm system this year. The 2013 fourth-round pick started the season with Class A Quad Cities before spending 47 games with Lancaster. After batting .367/.449/.678 with 12 homers and 45 RBIs with the JetHawks, Gregor was promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi on Monday.
"Conrad's an interesting kid," Linares said. "He came up here profiling as a line-drive guy who was having trouble at the lower levels pulling the ball. Coming here and seeing what he could do, he started buying into what we're trying to preach."
Despite hitting just five homers in 118 previous Minor League contests combined, Gregor's prolific display of power was enough to earn him a second call-up in less than two months.
"He's a strong a kid," Linares said. "He's tapped into his power again, and coming here kind of boosted his confidence, watching his balls travel. In [batting practice] he would hit balls, like, 500 feet. That's helped his confidence in knowing he can do it."
Guerrero gets going: Infielder Alex Guerrero has been assigned to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes as he returns from an ear injury suffered while being bit by teammate Miguel Olivo in Triple-A Albuquerque on May 20. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed the 27-year-old to a four-year, $28 million contract this offseason but he's yet to take a Major League at-bat.
Seager sent up: Top Dodgers prospect Corey Seager has hit himself out of the Cal League. The shortstop batted .352/.411/.633 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs in 80 games for the Quakes before going to Minnesota to take part in the All-Star Futures Game and then making his debut for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts on Saturday.