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Grizzlies prove Astros' plan for system works

Kemp, Appel among club's prospects familiar with winning in Minors
September 21, 2015

EL PASO, Texas -- When Tony Kemp was at Spring Training in March, he noticed something about his big league counterparts. It became clear to the 23-year-old that the Houston players were buying into the Astros' plan for developing the system. Though for Kemp, the concept of the replenishing organization on the rise has always been the norm.

"I wasn't here when the organization wasn't doing too hot. But now you see the big league level and in Spring Training, you really see that they believe in it and what [Houston manager A.J.] Hinch is doing up there," said the Astros' No. 11 prospect. "It's a fun time to be in this organization just because ... winners."

Kemp and his Triple-A Fresno teammates accounted for one of seven Astros affiliates to make the playoffs this season. The Grizzlies won the Pacific Coast League title and Rookie-level Greeneville took the Appalachian League crown.

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Winning at the lower levels is not new for the Astros prospects. Like Kemp, the club's second-ranked prospect Mark Appel has enjoyed success throughout his time in the Minors, winning a championship in each of his three professional seasons since being tapped as the first overall pick in the 2013 Draft out of Stanford. Additionally, some of the Astros players also had a hand in the Salt River Rafters snaring the Arizona Fall League crown last year.

"I think it says a lot, we know we have a lot of talent. Our organization is deep so the guys that I won with two years ago in [Class A] Quad Cities, maybe only a few of them are here now,"'s No. 45 overall prospect said. "But I think it speaks to our front office, putting together pieces through all levels of the Minor Leagues and we're starting to see a little bit of benefits in the big leagues this year. I think the future is going to be even deeper than it is right now."

Appel and the Grizzlies turned their early rings into Fresno's first-ever PCL title and the Astros' first Triple-A affiliate championship since sharing the crown with Tacoma while in New Orleans in 2001.

The growth and focus on success of the Astros, who are making their own playoff push in the Majors, has been evident, even to relief pitcher James Hoyt, who was just traded from the Braves in January. As the Grizzlies make a push toward the Triple-A National Championship Game against Columbus on Tuesday, the winning attitude is clear to the 28-year-old.

"From what I've noticed, it's a great group of guys and you can tell from the beginning that we really wanted to finish it out and win it. I think we realized once we started going through teams, like, 'Hey we have a shot here. If we're going to go to the playoffs, let's go all the way. Let's just not play for a week.' When you think of Minor League Baseball playoffs, guys really just want to go home," the right-hander said. "We want a ring for Fresno and the PCL. This is just another stepping stone to the highest accolade, so I think it's a huge game for us."

One of the biggest driving forces, if not the most inspiring, at the Triple-A level for the Astros has been Fresno manager Tony DeFrancesco. Eighteen months after battling cancer and only staying off the field for two months, the veteran skipper won a circuit title for the first time since he led Oakland's Triple-A affiliate Sacramento to the Bricktown Showdown in 2007.

"To be in the dugout again and winning the championship … In baseball, it doesn't matter who you are, but I was very emotional after the game [Sunday], I'll tell you that," DeFrancesco said. "I waited seven or eight years to get back to the championship round and win it. I'm thankful I have my family and my friends for what I went through and to be here again, I'm very lucky."

DeFrancesco served as interim Houston manager to close out the 2012 season. In his second campaign with the organization, he could tell general manager Jeff Luhnow was onto something, and three years later, he sees it paying off.

"I knew that Jeff has done a great job with trades and drafting the right players. Seven teams in the playoffs this year -- which I think is a record -- and a couple teams had over 85 wins, so we got some talent in the organization," the manager said. "It's going to be showcased [Tuesday] on national TV and hopefully the fans will realize the Astros are for real."

Fresno takes on Columbus -- Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate who won the Governors' Cup in the International League -- in a one-game showdown in El Paso on Tuesday for the overall championship at the Minors' highest level.

"It does mean a lot; it's a difference in your ring," the '07 champion skipper said. "It's going to say 'PCL Champ' or 'National Champs,' so we're hoping it says 'National Champs.'"

Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.