This offseason, MiLB.com is 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.
This time last year, we were writing about how successfully general manager Jeff Luhnow and company had restocked the farm in Houston. Since taking over in December of 2011, Luhnow had been potting prospect seeds and watering them into budding plants. In 2014, some fruit began to blossom, with George Springer and Jon Singleton among those to graduate to the Majors.
Promotions thinned out the upper Minors some, but Triple-A Oklahoma City and Double-A Corpus Christi still boasted a few notable prospects each. The big watch for Astros fans in 2014, though, was Class A Advanced Lancaster, which won a California League title with support from eight Organization All-Stars at various points.
Featuring its first batch of anticipated graduates, the big league club won 70 games in 2014, climbing out of the basement by finishing three games ahead of Texas. More help is on the way. The Lancaster crew should hit Double-A in 2015 -- some were already there by year's end -- and could start leaking onto the Major League roster late next season.
Astros Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Roberto Pena, Lancaster (93 games): Pena's offensive numbers don't jump off the page, especially considering he spent the summer in one of the California League's most hitter-friendly parks. But Pena isn't really here for his offense. The backstop is a special defender who had a remarkable season behind the plate. The 22-year-old caught 52-of-92 basestealers (57 percent) while quarterbacking a rotation that include standouts like Josh Hader (2.70 ERA), Vincent Velasquez (3.74 ERA) and Kyle Westwood (4.23 ERA), despite the tough pitching environment.
"He's without question one of the best defensive catchers in the Minor Leagues," Astros director of professional scouting Kevin Goldstein said. "The guy is just crazy special back there. … He's a really heady catcher."
First base -- Conrad Gregor, Quad Cities (44 games), Lancaster (47 games), Corpus Christi (33 games): It took Gregor nearly two months to hit his first home run of the season -- a blast notable mostly because it was caught by his dad -- but once he got started, the hulking Vanderbilt product began tapping into his power with regularity. Two days after that first blast, Gregor was promoted to Lancaster, where he popped 12 homers with a .678 slugging percentage in 47 games. The outburst wasn't a California League mirage, either.
"Lancaster helps everybody -- let's be honest," Goldstein said. "But he was not hitting Lancaster home runs, if you will. He was hitting bombs there. Those homers would've been gone anywhere."
The power surge paired with his noteworthy on-base skills (.404 on-base percentage in 124 games) to make the 2013 fourth-rounder one of the best offensive performers in the system in 2014.
Honorable Mention: A.J. Reed earned the 2014 Golden Spikes Award at the University of Kentucky in the spring, then went on to club 12 homers with an .898 OPS in 68 games in his pro debut. Reed's supporters think he boasts the rare plus-hit, plus-power bat combination required to succeed as a bat-first first baseman.
Second base -- Tony Kemp, Lancaster (72 games), Corpus Christi (59 games): Kemp stood out in all three phases in his first full pro season, posting an .859 OPS, stealing 41 bases and winning a Minor League Gold Glove for his work at the keystone. The 2013 fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt showed a discerning eye at the plate (73 walks vs. 67 strikeouts) while even having success at the Double-A level. The performance lifted him from unranked to No. 18 among the Astros' top prospects.
"His fundamentals across the board, offensively and defensively, are just outstanding," Goldstein said. "He's a guy who, when you spend time watching him, he takes his work as seriously in the field as in the cage. That's a really important aspect to his game all around.
"This guy spent all 22, 23 years of his life proving everyone wrong, and he still does it by saying, 'I'm going to outwork you and play harder than everyone else.' He's not only a great performer but a great presence in the clubhouse as far as professionalism and work ethic."
Shortstop -- Carlos Correa, Lancaster (62 games): The top pick in the 2012 Draft had his season cut short in late June when he fractured his fibula but still managed to post remarkable numbers. Playing the season at 19, Correa hit .325 with a .926 OPS and 20 stolen bases in 62 games. His defense drew rave reviews, too, and he wowed yet another coaching staff with his leadership skills.
"It's all legit," Goldstein said about reports of Correa's makeup. "Last year, at Quad Cities, when they won the title, that clubhouse belonged to Carlos Correa. It was pretty interesting to see an 18-year-old run a clubhouse. This year, at 19 … he flew in for the final game at Lancaster. He's just a special kid. There's no other way to describe it."
Third base -- J.D. Davis, Tri-City (30 games), Quad Cities (43 games): It's not that surprising that the Cal State Fullerton product bashed in his pro debut -- the 2014 third-rounder was drafted with a solid offensive reputation. Still, his .293 average, .878 OPS and 13 homers in 73 games split between Tri-City and Quad Cities stood out.
More importantly from a development standpoint, the big-bodied Californian made a strong impression at third base, where he proved surprisingly nimble with an arm Goldstein described as, "easy plus, maybe more." There's still work to be done if Davis is going to make third base work, but Houston was encouraged by their first in-house look.
"He's a guy who created a lot of excitement with what he did when we got him up," Goldstein said. "Third base is interesting. It wasn't his primary position in college. So far, it's been a success story."
Honorable Mention: Seemingly every aspect of Rio Ruiz's game improved in 2014, except for his power -- his slugging percentage rose from .430 to .436 from last season with a bump up to the California League. But on can forgive the lack of production for a player who began the year at just 19. Otherwise, Ruiz improved his average (.293), on-base percentage (.387) and defense while playing in 131 games.
Brett Phillips, Quad Cities (103 games), Lancaster (27 games): MLB.com left Phillips off its final Astros Top 20 prospects list, but he ranks much higher on the Astros internal evaluations. Phillips quietly had one of the best seasons in all of the Minors, posting strong power and on-base numbers in the Midwest League despite miserable weather conditions that hampered offensive production league wide.
The 20-year-old finished the season with 60 extra-base hits and 23 stolen bases. He also made an impact in the outfield, where he played center and right and showcased the strongest arm in the Astros system -- "I have no trouble putting a 70 on it. It's a howitzer," said Goldstein, referencing the 20-to-80 scouting scale. He also stood out for his outstanding makeup.
"He's fantastic with the development staff," Goldstein said. "All the things you hear about his makeup, it's true. He's just an outstanding kid and he had a great year. Everything started to play. We've always loved the tools, and it all started to show up on the stat sheet this year."
Teoscar Hernandez, Lancaster (96 games), Corpus Christi (23 games): When it came to leadership, Correa grabbed most of the ink in Lancaster this year, but the Lancaster coaches are quick to heap praise on Hernandez for his maturity and makeup in much the same way. Beyond the off-field contributions, Hernandez hit .292 with 21 homers and 33 steals, and the Astros were also pleased with the strides he made defensively in center field, too.
"He's always had power," Goldstein said. "You can't teach height in basketball, and in baseball, you can't teach bat speed. He has bat speed."
Domingo Santana, Oklahoma City (120 games), Houston (six games): Santana was the youngest qualified hitter in the Pacific Coast League and also one of the best. He hit .296 with 16 homers and an .858 OPS despite not turning 22 until August. The 6-foot-5 slugger has power potential, a track record of success and a killer arm that could fit perfectly in right field in the Majors, although Houston's outfield depth could make it tough for Santana to find playing time.
"[Oklahoma City] was a tough place to hit home runs this year, but he hit 16 and had a bunch of doubles," Goldstein said. "You can look at the stat line and see, obviously, the swing-and-miss issue [149 strikeouts in 443 at-bats], but he also walks a lot. It's a big, physical outfield profile with a classic right-field arm."
Utility player -- Preston Tucker, Corpus Christi (65 games), Oklahoma City (73 games): This year, Tucker proved that his 2013 power surge was more than just a California League aberration. The 24-year-old bashed 24 home runs, including 17 in 65 Double-A games to begin the season. The University of Florida product took a little time adjusting to Triple-A, but dominated in 28 August games with a .317 average and .903 OPS.
"He's built like an NFL linebacker," Goldstein said. "He's got some serious pop, but more importantly, he just hits. I think he'll hit at every level."
Right-handed starter -- Kyle Westwood, Lancaster (27 games): As a 2013 13th-rounder out of North Florida, Westwood opened some eyes in the Astros' organization with his pitchability as a rock in Lancaster's rotation. The 23-year-old groundball pitcher finished third among Astros Minor Leaguers with 132 innings while managing a 4.23 ERA and 3.88 FIP despite the environment.
"He really knows how to pitch," Goldstein said. "He locates his stuff well, gets good sink on his fastball and will throw his stuff at any point in the count. He keeps guys off balanced. Has outstanding poise, a fearless approach to pitching."
Left-handed starter -- Josh Hader, Lancaster (22 games), Corpus Christi (five games): Acquired from Baltimore in the Bud Norris trade in 2013, Hader had an outstanding first full season in the Astros system. The 20-year-old posted a 2.70 ERA with Lancaster, striking out 112 batters in 103 1/3 innings behind a fastball that ticks into the mid-90s and a delivery that draws Chris Sale comparisons for its funk and deception. The real key for Hader in 2014, though, was that both his slider and changeup took steps forward in their development.
"When he gets his arm fully extended on the slider, it's a really nasty pitch," Goldstein said. "It's something we've been working on, is getting more consistent with it. We saw enough to get more excited about it, though. The change became a pitch, it was a distant third in his arsenal, but it became a pitch he can use with confidence at various points in the count."
Relief pitcher -- Jason Stoffel, Oklahoma City (54 games): Triple-A bullpens rarely look the same at the end of a season as they did at the start, both because of injuries and needs at the Major League level. With the shuttle busy between Oklahoma City and Houston, Stoffel was a linchpin in the RedHawks' bullpen with a 3.20 ERA and 11 saves over 64 2/3 innings.
"The big story with him is he has a good fastball and a better slider," Goldstein said. "The term anchor is a good one for him. He was a guy who got the job done more often than not. He cut down on the walks a bit and got some more strikeouts. That slider is a big league quality pitch."