Hope on the horizon for Houston

Bevy of young stars look primed to brighten the Astros' future

By Zack Cox / Special to MLB.com | November 8, 2012 5:32 AM

This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

Though the Astros again finished at the bottom of the standings in the Majors in 2012, the club's farm system underwent a drastic transformation. Six of Houston's eight Minor League affiliates finished .500 or better this season, with three advancing to the postseason just one year after the organization didn't have a single winning record.

Class A Advanced Lancaster carried the torch, posting a 74-66 regular-season record and riding a punishing offensive attack to the franchise's first California League championship. Corpus Christi (81-59) and Tri-City (51-25) both won their respective divisions before being eliminated in the semifinals, with the short-season ValleyCats setting a single-season club record for wins. Oklahoma City (78-65) missed the playoffs in the Pacific Coast League by a mere 1 1/2 games and Class A Lexington -- which finished an even 69-69 -- played host to one of the best pitching performances of the year, with right-hander Chris Devenski striking out 16 Rome Braves en route to a no-hitter on Sept. 1.

Houston has also seen the emergence of a new crop of young talent in recent months. This season there was a total turnover in the Organization All-Stars -- a list that features five of the Astros' top 20 prospects.

Astros Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Tyler Heineman, Tri-City (55 games): Drafted in the eighth round out of UCLA in June, the switch-hitting backstop had no trouble adjusting to pro ball. Part of a potent ValleyCats lineup, Heineman led all New York-Penn League hitters in batting average (.358) and ranked second in on-base percentage (.452).

While his offensive production turned heads in his debut season, scouts feel that Heineman's greatest value lies in his skills behind the plate. The 21-year-old excelled in that department as well for Tri-City, throwing out 13 of 19 potential base stealers.

First base -- Jonathan Singleton, Corpus Christi (131 games): The Astros' No. 1 prospect lived up to his billing in his first full season with the organization, putting up solid power numbers while racking up numerous league and national accolades.

The top offensive performer on a Corpus Christi team that was the best-hitting squad in the Texas League, Singleton placed in the top five in the circuit in total bases (229), walks (88) and OPS (.893) while slugging 21 home runs with 79 RBIs -- all four were career highs. A Texas League All-Star and 2012 Futures Game participant, the 21-year-old also garnered Player of the Week honors in the Arizona Fall League, batting .292 with two homers and five RBIs in his first five games for the Mesa Solar Sox.

Honorable mention: Zachary Johnson

Second base -- Delino DeShields Jr., Lexington (111 games), Lancaster (24 games): Had it not been for Billy Hamilton's historic season on the basepaths, the Astros' Minor League Player of the Year would have been the Minors' stolen base king. The speedy leadoff man swiped 101 bases during the regular season but also showed that he brings much more to the table than just quick feet .

After tearing up the South Atlantic League (hitting .298 with 10 home runs, 52 RBIs and 83 steals in 111 games with Lexington), Houston's No. 5 prospect played a key role in Lancaster's run to the California League championship. DeShields' six hits, five runs and four stolen bases in the three-game championship series earned him Finals MVP honors as the JetHawks outscored Modesto, 21-8.

Honorable mention: Jimmy Paredes

Third base -- Matt Duffy, Lexington (134 games): After a strong debut season with Tri-City, the big third baseman found his power stroke in 2012. The Tennessee product blasted a team-high 16 home runs for Lexington (after hitting just two in 63 games with the ValleyCats) while hitting .280 and ranking second on the team with 70 RBIs.

The 23-year-old's finest performance of the season was overshadowed by an even more outstanding feat. Duffy went 3-for-5 with two home runs, five RBIs and three runs scored on Sept. 1 -- the same day his teammate Devenski threw a 16-strikeout no-hitter that earned the Fans' Choice MiLBY Award for Game of the Year.

Shortstop -- Angel Sanchez, Oklahoma City (107 games): After spending all of 2011 in the Majors, the 12-year veteran returned to Triple-A this season and proceeded to put up some of the best numbers of his career. Sanchez's .320 average -- good for third in the organization -- and .390 on-base percentage were career bests, as was his .797 OPS.


George Springer, Lancaster (106 games), Corpus Christi (22 games): Judging by his performance in 2012, it's surprising to realize Springer had played just eight professional games prior to this year. The Astros' No. 3 prospect and 11th overall pick in the 2011 Draft homered and drove in five runs on Opening Day for Lancaster. He went on to lead the JetHawks' high-powered offensive attack in his first full season, hitting .316 with 22 homers and 82 RBIs before earning a promotion to Double-A in August.

Springer also showed a prowess on the basepaths, ranking fourth among Astros Minor Leaguers with 32 stolen bases across two levels. The Cal League All-Star joined Singleton in this year's Arizona Fall League, where he has hit .400 through 15 games with an OPS of .804.

Domingo Santana, Lancaster (119 games): Patrolling the outfields of the Cal League with Springer, Santana introduced himself with authority in his first full year in the Astros organization. The 20-year-old discovered his power potential, ranking in the system's top five in home runs (24), RBIs (97) and triples (six) -- all career highs.

Houston acquired the 6-foot-5 right fielder from the Phillies last July in the trade that also brought in Singleton and top pitching prospect Jarred Cosart in exchange for two-time All-Star Hunter Pence.

Brandon Barnes, Corpus Christi (44 games), Oklahoma City (62 games): Barnes had a disappointing campaign last year after earning an Organization All-Star nod in 2010. But the eight-year veteran rebounded to have the best season of his career, hitting .321 between Double-A and Triple-A and earning his first September callup.

Spending the bulk of his time in center field, Barnes began his season with a torrid April, earning two consecutive Texas League Player of the Week honors. He went 11-for-18 with seven RBIs and six runs scored over a four-game span from April 10-14, then 8-for-14 with three homers, nine RBIs and six runs scored over another four-game stretch just a week later. The 26-year-old did not miss a beat after his promotion to Oklahoma City, hitting .323 with 10 multi-RBI games -- including a season-best five-RBI performance on July 18.

Barnes is spending his offseason in the Venezuela Winter League, where he's hit .291 with three home runs and 13 RBIs in his first 20 games.

Designated hitter -- Erik Castro, Lancaster (128 games): Along with the Singleton, the best pure power hitter in the Astros farm system is probably the 24-year-old Castro, who put up career highs in every major offensive category in his third professional season. Castro's 27 homers and 108 RBIs ranked third and first respectively among players in the system. These numbers also put the San Diego State product in the top three in both categories in the California League -- a notoriously hitter-friendly circuit.

Castro was among the league leaders in walks as well with 78, but he's still looking to cut down on his strikeouts. His 168 K's were second-most in the organization.

A 10th-round Draft pick in 2009, Castro started 66 games at first base this season but is not known for his defensive prowess. Fortunately for him, the Astros' impending move to the American League means they will require the services of a designated hitter beginning in 2013.

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Mike Foltynewicz, Lexington (27 games): Houston's third-ranked pitching prospect came into his own in his second stroll through the Sally League, posting a 14-4 record with a 3.14 ERA that earned him the circuit's Most Outstanding Pitcher honors as well as recognition as the Minor League Pitcher of the Year within the organization. The Astros selected Foltynewicz out of high school in 2009 (19th overall), and the 21-year-old showed great improvement in his third professional season, lowering his ERA by nearly two runs (from 4.97 in 2011) and racking up a career-high 125 strikeouts.

The gem of his season came on June 3, when the right-hander allowed one run on one hit over a season-high eight innings in a win over Rome.

Honorable mention: Nick Tropeano, Aaron West

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Brian Holmes, Tri-City (13 games): Tri-City boasted the best pitching staff in the system with four starters posting sub-3.00 ERAs. Holmes was the top southpaw in the ValleyCats rotation, finishing 7-4 with a 2.57 ERA in his first season in the Minors. Opponents hit just .165 against the 6-foot-4 Wake Forest product, who was chosen in the 13th round of June's Draft.

Holmes nearly etched his name in the New York-Penn League record books on July 27 when, in his seventh pro start, he retired the first 18 Hudson Valley batters he faced before allowing a single to open the seventh -- the only blemish in a one-hit shutout.

Relief pitcher -- Jason Stoffel, Corpus Christi (56 games): Stoffel was dominant out of the bullpen for the Hooks, converting a Texas League-best 27 of 29 save opportunities while also leading the circuit in batting average against (.196) and baserunners per nine innings (9.16). After two seasons with an ERA above 4.50, the right-hander lowered his mark to 2.33 in 2012 and did not allow a run in his final nine appearances, scattering two hits over nine innings while picking up five saves and a win.

Zack Cox is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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