Houston, we have problems (and fixes)

Astros system sees the ascension of Altuve, Paredes, Martinez

Jose Altuve batted .389 in 87 games in the Minors before his July 19 callup. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

By Andrew Pentis / Special to MLB.com | November 9, 2011 5:00 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.

A dozen-plus Houston Astros farmhands made their Major League debuts this year, a group that included infielders Jimmy Paredes (46 games) and Jose Altuve (57), the organization's Player of the Year, as well as outfielders J.D. Martinez (53) and J.B. Shuck (37).

For whatever reason, victories in player development didn't equate with wins on the field. From Triple-A Oklahoma City on down to the Gulf Coast and Dominican Summer League Astros, none of the organization's eight affiliated clubs achieved a .500 record or advanced into the postseason.

But that's not to say the system wasn't flush with strong individual seasons in 2011.

Astros Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Chris Wallace, Corpus Christi (36 games), Lancaster (66 games): The 16th-round draftee in 2010 no doubt impressed in his first full pro season: Wallace belted 20 home runs, 20 doubles and plated 78 runs in 102 total games. He didn't finish the season the way he started it -- he had 24 RBIs in 23 July games -- due to a lingering wrist injury.

Beyond noting his knack for plating runs, Hooks manager Tom Lawless said Wallace must work on his defense. "His catching needs to be refined," the skipper said. "He has to get in a better throwing position some times."

First base -- Kody Hinze, Corpus Christi (55 games), Lancaster (80 games): The righty-hitting Hinze batted .306 and smacked 29 home runs and tallied 98 RBIs, both system highs. His 1.083 OPS in the Cal League shrank to .781 in the Texas League, though it was his first taste of Double-A pitching. Hinze will go as far as his bat takes him, but the Astros would like to see him improve his foot speed around the bag on defense.

"He's got some pop; there's no doubt about that," Lawless said. "Middle-of-the-order guys are hard to find. There's a chance to turn a game around with one swing when you have one. That's a big plus for a team."

Hinze was particularly valuable for Lancaster in a June 13 game in Lake Elsinore: He homered twice and collected a career-high seven RBIs.

Astros director of player development Fred Nelson added that Hinze is a "step at a time" prospect, meaning Hinze should begin 2012 back in Double-A.

Second base -- Jose Altuve, Corpus Christi (35 games), Lancaster (52 games): Altuve batted a system-high .389, collected 42 extra-base hits (including 10 triples) and stole 24 bases in the Minors before making his name in the Majors. He was also selected to the Futures Game and named a Minor League All-Star by Baseball America.

Nelson said the organization's scouts had been concerned that the energetic Altuve's small frame -- he is listed at 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 170 pounds -- would hold up throughout a full season at the higher levels. Consider that concern dismissed. "It's pretty incredible what he did do," the exec said. "Nice little player.

"I'm trying to think of a guy in my recent memory that has made [that jump]. I'm hard-pressed to come up with a name."

Altuve batted .276 (61-for-221) during his first stint in the Majors, but his former Minor League manager was disappointed in his .297 on-base percentage there. "When he comes to the plate, he's not afraid to swing; he's a highly-aggressive swinger," Lawless said. "He may have to tone that down a bit at the big league level, because there they may not throw him many strikes if they know he's going to swing at everything else."

Third base -- Jonathan Meyer, Lancaster (130 games): "Jonny" to teammates, Meyer lifted 14 long balls and plated 72 RBIs. The third-round draftee batted .307 from Aug. 1 to the season's close, finishing with a .264 average.

Jimmy Paredes also deserves recognition, despite only playing 43 games at third. The Texas League Midseason All-Star, who moved from second base to accommodate Altuve at Corpus Christi, batted .270 and swiped 29 bags in 93 games for the Hooks prior to his big league promotion.

Between Meyer and Paredes, the latter is a better defender on the hot corner, given his greater range, but he also must improve the consistency of his throwing. "He's an exciting player, and he may be an exciting player in the big leagues," Nelson said of Paredes. "When we got him over to third, he looked more comfortable."

Shortstop -- Jonathan Villar, Corpus Christi (83 games), Lancaster (47 games): Rounding out the system's talent-laden middle-infield corps, Villar racked up 43 extra-base hits and stole 34 bases. The 20-year-old switch-hitter shortened his swing in 2011, but still finished with a suspect 156-to-54 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He is Houston's No. 3 prospect.

"The strides he made were outstanding," Lawless said. "He's got the tools. Now it's a matter of game experience."

Astros talent evaluators are convinced that Villar has the ability to stay at shortstop. "The thing that impressed me most with Jonathan, from the start of the season to the end, was how he was able to slow the game down a bit and become more stable and reliable on defense," Nelson said. "He had a tendency to, at times, press the issue and force plays that he didn't need to."


J.D. Martinez, Corpus Christi (88 games): At times slowed by a hamstring pull, Martinez, 24, batted .338 with 39 extra-base hits and 72 RBIs for the Hooks. He compiled a .959 OPS before his big league callup.

Nelson said Martinez's underrated defensive capabilities caught his eye and that his offensive skills were up to par. "When I took over this job a year ago," Houston's director of player development said, "the word that kept coming out of people's mouths is that this guy can flat-out hit. He proved that he can do that."

In the Majors, Martinez batted .274 (57-for-208) and plated 35 runs in his 53 games. The right-handed swinger must do a better job of pulling pitches when the time is right, according to his Corpus Christi skipper.

"We worked a lot on hitting the ball to left field and getting the barrel [of the bat] out because, at the big league level, they're not going to allow him to keep raking the ball into right field," Lawless said. "There are times when he gets a hitter's count, 2-0/3-1, and he's still trying to hit to right field when he should be driving it to left field."

Adam Bailey, Corpus Christi (23 games), Lancaster (30 games), Lexington (79 games): The 23rd-round draftee in 2010 enjoyed a banner year in his first full pro season. Bailey batted .282 at Lexington and was offered a straight-forward challenge to keep hitting at the Class A Advanced level. He did. Bailey batted .289 at Lancaster, then because of a lack of depth on the Double-A roster, moved up another level and hit .323 there. Did we mention the power? The University of Nebraska product ended the season with 50 extra-base hits -- 24 of them deep flies -- and 95 RBIs.

"I'm not sure exactly what we have" in Bailey, said Nelson, "but he's at least put himself on our radar."

Bailey will likely begin the 2012 season at Corpus Christi.

Austin Wates, Lancaster (132 games): A late sign after being selected in the 2010 Draft's third round, the former Virginia Tech standout ... well, stood out. Wates batted an even .300, drove in 75 runs and swiped 26 bags. He also led the system in runs (85) and hits (158). Now Houston's No. 9 prospect, Wates will remain in center field, but can also play the corners.

"We expected him to be challenged and he handled it well," Nelson said. "He has positioned himself well to compete for a job at Double-A next year."

Designated hitter -- James Van Ostrand, Corpus Christi (104 games): One more hitter from those offensive-minded Hooks, Van Ostrand assumes the DH role. Complimented for his leadership skills, Van Ostrand was much more than a cheerleader in his third straight season playing at Corpus Christi: He hit .306 with 35 extra-base knocks and 48 RBIs while showing a strong comfort level with the bat, as evidenced by his 52-to-43 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Tri-City's Chase Davidson also could have landed here. The Appalachian League Postseason All-Star led his peers on the circuit in OPS (1.073) and also posted impressive totals in average (.335), homers (11) and RBIs (44) in 43 games with the ValleyCats.

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Jake Buchanan, Corpus Christi (one game), Lancaster (25 games): The three-pitch sinker-baller compiled a 5-10 record and a rather ordinary 3.80 ERA in his first full season as a pro. Houston's brass focused on his more peripheral stats -- his 1.21 WHIP was the second-best among Cal League pitchers -- when naming him the the organization's Pitcher of the Year.

"What stands out in his season, look beyond the win-loss record," Nelson said. "Not only is the Cal League an offensive league, Lancaster [has] one of the most offensive ballparks in the Cal League, if not the entire Minor Leagues."

The numbers bear that out: Compare his 2.17 ERA in 14 road starts vs. his 6.86 mark in 11 outings at home. Buchanan peaked in a May 1 game at Inland Empire, where he tossed a four-hit shutout, the first complete game of his brief career. The North Carolina State product is slated to start 2012 with Corpus Christi.

Nicholas Tropeano leads a contingent of other results-oriented right-handers. Pitching in the decidedly less hitter-friendly New York-Penn League, Tropeano won three of his five decisions and fashioned a 2.36 ERA in a dozen starts for the ValleyCats. A fifth-round draftee last June, he fanned 63 in 53 1/3 innings.

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Kyle Hallock, Tri-City (13 games): The southpaw with the most success, Hallock accumulated a 2.63 ERA in 13 starts. A 10th-round pick in last June's Draft, Hallock struck out 61 in 61 2/3 frames and was named a New York-Penn League Midseason All-Star.

Relief pitcher -- Dayan Diaz, Tri-City (19 games): Diaz won seven of his 10 decisions with the ValleyCats. He struck out 70 in 50 innings, held the opposition to a .158 batting average and recorded a 1.98 ERA.

The 5-foot-10, 156-pound pitcher gets the speed on his fastball from his powerful lower half, Nelson said. Diaz also featured a straight change-up and a power slider. That repertoire should also fare well with a full-season affiliate in 2012.

Oklahoma City's Wesley Wright was also a contender for this slot. Wright went 3-1 and sported a 2.01 ERA in 39 games for the RedHawks before emerging in the bigs. Used as a situational lefty out of Houston's 'pen, his ERA dropped to 1.50 in 12 innings spanning 21 appearances.

Andrew Pentis 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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