The Houston Astros are rebuilding. There is no doubt about that. But if you’re looking for a source of optimism, look no further than the players that the Astros are sending to the Arizona Fall League. The way that the AFL is constructed per its official eligibility rules is that it is made up primarily of players who played at the Double-A and Triple-A players the previous season, right on the cusp of the big leagues, with talented players at lower levels mixed in. The Astros’ major league team may be hard to watch right now, but their prospects who are not too far away have shown considerable promise and look to continue their development over the course of the fall as members of the Mesa Solar Sox in the AFL. Without further ado, let’s break down the players that the Astros will be sending to the Arizona Fall League.
With a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, nothing could be standing between Jonathan Singleton and the Astros’ starting first base job in 2013. Singleton, who will turn 21 in September, is a big 6’2″, 235 lefty-swinging first baseman who the Astros acquired in the Hunter Pence deal at the 2011 Trade Deadline. In his first full season in the Astros organization, Singleton had a big season moving up to Double-A Corpus Christi, berating pitchers to a .284/.397/.501 line with 27 doubles, 21 homers, 79 RBI, 6 of 8 stolen bases, and 130 strikeouts but also 87 walks in 129 games and 544 plate appearances. Singleton stands out thanks to an explosive combination of power and pure hitting ability. Jonathan Singleton is not your average power-hitting first baseman. Singleton shows great bat speed and hits the ball hard to all fields with great power that Singleton is still learning to harness. Singleton swings and misses quite a bit but he has excellent plate discipline discipline and improving pitch recognition skills, Singleton projects to hit for a good average with 30+ homer power. Singleton will be a big part of the future for the Astros in coming seasons.
In the Arizona Fall League, Singleton will work hard improving his defense at first base and his hitting against left-handed pitching. Singleton managed just a .988 fielding percentage which is passable especially given his bat, but Singleton has the ability to be quite a bit better than that. Singleton is a big guy but extremely athletic for his size (even featuring a little speed). Part of the problem is that the Phillies tried to convert Singleton to left field because of the presence of Ryan Howard in Philadelphia and the experiment didn’t go too well and mostly ended after Singleton was traded to the Astros as Singleton played just 19 games in left field compared to 111 at first base in 2012. Singleton has quick feet and has the makings of a solid defensive first baseman but he needs more repetitions and to get his confidence back after his defensive struggles over the past couple of seasons. In terms of his hitting against lefties, Singleton had a big platoon split in 2012, posting a .300/.422/.520 line in 403 plate appearances against righties and just .238/.314/.426 in 107 PA’s versus lefties. But that is much improved over where he was in 2011, where he posted a .248 average and a .348 OBP versus lefties but didn’t hit for any power, managing just a .301 SLG. Singleton will look to continue getting better against same-side pitchers over the fall. Singleton has outstanding ability as a hitter and with some fine-tuning against lefties, his bat will be big league ready. His defense is a little farther back, but the Astros are confident that Singleton will be able to rectify whatever problems exist during his time in the AFL. Singleton will look to make the final adjustments that are holding him back from a big league opportunity some time in 2013. Singleton has the ability to tear up even the relatively advanced pitching of the AFL and the Astros are looking forward to seeing everything he can do.
RHP Jarred Cosart
The 2012 season did not go quite as well as the Astros would have hoped for Jarred Cosart, but he showed improvement in several aspects and the Astros hope a strong AFL performance springs him into a strong 2013 that ends in the big leagues. Cosart, 22, is a 6’3″, 180 right-handed pitcher who was acquired along with Singleton in the Pence trade. Cosart is an interesting case as he still has some projection remaining despite spending some time at Triple-A in 2012. Between Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City, Cosart went 6-7 with a 3.48 ERA, a 7.4 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 0.2 HR/9 in 19 starts, a relief appearance, and 108.2 IP. Minor League Central gives us an important stat that isn’t mentioned above: Cosart’s groundball rate was an outstanding 56.6%, a notable uptick from his 49.4% mark in 2011. Cosart features a tantalizing fastball-curveball-changeup arsenal. His fastball is consistently in the mid-90′s and hits as high as 98 MPH with run and late sink when Cosart is at his best. His curveball features tight 11-to-5 action and is a true swing-and-miss pitch. His changeup is his clear third offering, but he gets a nice arm slot on it and it looks like his fastball out of his hand with good sink. What about Cosart’s projection? It’s not that he’s really going to add any more velocity, but instead that adding some more muscle would add to his durability and also take some of the pressure off his arm in his delivery, which is regarded as high-effort.
In 2012, Jarred Cosart fell short of a 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio at 89-48. Cosart’s walk rate was the worst of his pro career in 2012. That’s annoying, but it hides a much more positive development. Cosart’s command has become much less of a problem than it was before. Cosart has learned to keep all his pitches down much better than he did before and force tons of weak contact on the ground. Cosart wasn’t focusing on strikeouts and walks in 2012- he was working on pitching to contact and he did so quite well. Now in the Arizona Fall League, Cosart will try to start putting everything together. He’ll do his best to keep pitching down in the zone but now he’ll get back to attacking hitters like he did in the lower minors. He worked on locating his curveball a lot more this season than ever before and he’ll continue to do that but now he’ll get back to burying it down in the zone for swings-and-misses. He has used his fastball a little more often at 93-94 MPH as opposed to harder as he has wanted the hitter to put the ball in play, but now he’ll start mixing back in the 96-98 MPH fastball with late bite to blow away hitters. Cosart’s 2012 season was not great. But he made a key improvement in his groundball rate and in the Arizona Fall League he has a chance to prove that the work he did in 2012 was the last step in Cosart’s breakthrough as a pitcher. A good performance with plenty of K’s in the AFL, and Cosart may find himself starting games in Houston in the summer of 2013. Enigmatic results, and Cosart may end up in the bullpen in the big leagues. Just as important as the AFL will be Cosart’s work to bulk up this offseason. But this fall, Cosart has a chance to prove that he has the ability to go out there, dominate hitters, and prove that he’s turned the corner and well on his way to becoming a topflight pitcher that will help lead the Astros towards the future.
The Astros’ top pick in 2011, Springer, who turns 23 in September, has the most exciting package of tools in the system and looks to continue his progress at turning those raw abilities into ridiculous results. The Astros had to be excited looking at Springer’s 2012 numbers as he showcased his dynamic power-speed combination. Between High-A Lancaster and Corpus Christi, Springer posted a .300/.381/.522 line with 21 doubles, 10 triples, 23 homers, 83 RBI, and 32 of 40 stolen bases in 125 games and 569 plate appearances. Granted, Lancaster is one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the minors, but those numbers are awfully impressive. The big problem, though, was strikeouts. Springer struck out 153 times, 26.8% of his PA’s, versus just 61 walks. Springer will look to improve that in the AFL.
Springer can do it all. When the scouts describe him as a five-tool player, they’re completely serious. Springer shows outstanding bat speed and the ability to hit for a good average if he makes more contact. He shows above-average power, especially for a centerfielder. And his great speed is put into full use on the basepaths between stealing bases and turning doubles into triples. His speed is also an asset in centerfield, and he brings along a right fielder’s arm that is well above-average in centerfield. Springer could profile absolutely fine in right field as well. The big question for Springer is contact and pitch recognition. Without it, Springer becomes a four-tool player with the hit tool going out of focus, and with the hit tool not as good, you never know what can happen with the power- he could become a Curtis Granderson-esque player or simply flame out. Springer has the makings of a good hitter of average thanks to quick hands that punish fastballs. But he has to find a way to recognize and put the bat on breaking balls if he’s ever going to go off like he did this season in the major leagues. Springer is going to work hard on that in the AFL. It’s the one big thing holding him back, and if he can lower his strikeout rate to reasonable levels, his upside is huge. The Astros won’t be looking for homers and stolen bases from Springer in the AFL. They’ll look for him getting the bat on the ball, putting the ball in play and drawing his walks, on his way to a 2013 season even more impressive than his 2012.
A new organization, a fresh start, the same problems. Bobby Borchering, who turns 22 in October, was the 16th overall pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2009 MLB Draft with his raw power being his calling card. The raw power is still there and has even started materializing, but the question has always been whether Borchering could make enough contact. Traded to the Astros in the Chris Johnson trade, Borchering will continue to work at putting bat to ball.
In 2012, Borchering has posted just a .238/.305/.457 line between High-A Visalia and Double-A Mobile in the D-Backs organization and Double-A Corpus Christi in the Astros system. He did slam 24 homers and 28 doubles and drive in 86, but he struck out 156 times while walking just 41 times. His batting line was much better at High-A before he got promoted, .227/.340/.534 in 344 PA’s compared to just .167/.243/.315 in 187 Double-A plate appearances. To be fair, quite all his Double-A time after the trade came as he was being converted back to third base after playing left field for the D-Backs’ affiliates in 2012 prior to the trade. But High-A to Double-A is considered by many to be the biggest jump from one level to another other than Triple-A to the big leagues and much of his struggles came from more advanced pitchers exposing Borchering for his impatience and his penchant for the swing-and-miss. The problem for Borchering is that he’s a one-dimensional player. We talked about Springer above having problems making contact. But if Springer just can never learn to hit a curveball, do you know what he’ll do? He’ll learn to bunt and use his speed to get on base more often. Borchering? That isn’t happening. Borchering is a below-average runner who barely has the speed to handle third base. He arm is solid but nothing special. He’s a switch-hitter who hits for power but can’t make contact from either side. That has to change. Borchering isn’t even a guy who drills everything when he makes contact. He’s an extreme flyball hitter who doesn’t even hit that many line drives. In the Arizona Fall League, don’t be surprised if Borchering’s power completely disappears. Will that be a good thing or a bad thing? That’s up to Borchering. Either he’s going to keep swinging for the fences and watch pitchers overpower him with all sorts of breaking pitches or he’s going to start using the bat speed he has almost thrown out the window as he has sacrificed everything in the name of power and begin smacking some line drives and drawing some walks. Borchering has three things to work on in the AFL: pitch recognition, patience, and his defense at third base. If Borchering doesn’t show the motivation to overhaul his game, he’s a lost cause.
Joining Borchering is another former 2009 first round pick, Jiovanni Mier. Mier, who turned 22 in August, could not be any more different than Borchering, slamming just 3 home runs in 2012 and less homers in 1515 minor league plate appearances than Borchering did just this season. Overall, Mier posted a .302/.400/.426 line at the hitter’s haven Lancaster with 9 doubles, 3 homers, 23 RBI, 5 of 8 stolen bases, and 32 strikeouts versus 26 walks in just 44 games and 192 plate appearances. Mier missed most of 2012 with a hamstring injury. Mier has always stood out first and foremost for his shortstop defense. Mier has never been fast but has good quick-twitch athleticism that leads to nice range and he combines that with smooth actions and an accurate arm to be a plus defender. But the question is whether he’ll ever hit enough to hold down the shortstop position. The good news was that Mier made good progress in 2012, albeit in a shortened stint thanks in his injury. In 2010 and 2011, Mier found his swing getting long too often, which is absolutely horrific given that Mier has no power. In 2012, Mier shortened his swing and showed better bat speed to hit more line drives and hit for a nice average. Without much speed and no power, Mier is going to have a tough time surviving as a hitter moving forward and he’s really going to have to get everything he can out of his bat speed and his patience. In the AFL, Mier will look to prove that his improvements at the dish were no fluke as he goes up against more advanced pitching and that he has the ability to be a defense-first starting shortstop in the big leagues someday. Mier will be on the taxi squad, meaning that he’ll only be eligible to play on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but he’ll be able to make up some of the time he lost this season and the Astros hope he can continue swinging a solid bat.
LHP Alex Sogard
Alex Sogard, who turned 25 in July, was an organizational arm for the past couple years but his 2012 performance intrigued the Astros enough to send him to the AFL. Sogard began the season at Lancaster but was quickly moved up to Corpus Christi after just 6 relief appearances. On the year, Sogard went 3-3 with a 3.59 ERA, a 6.9 K/9, a 4.4 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 38 appearances spanning 67.2 IP. His groundball rate, though, was an outstanding 63.0%. Sogard throws a low-90′s sinker, a curveball with good depth that’s much more of a groundball offering than a strikeout pitch, and a solid changeup. Sogard, who is 6’3″, 215, gets a good downward plane on his pitches and managed to force a lot of groundballs in 2012. He commands his pitches well down in the zone, although his control could use improvement. Sogard isn’t overpowering or anything, but he’s a lefty who can get both righties and lefties out, force groundballs, and throw multiple relief innings. The Astros will see in the AFL whether that is something Sogard has a chance to do at the big league level.
RHP Chia-Jen Lo
We close out the Astros’ AFL roster with Chia-Jen Lo, a 5’11″, 185 right-hander but with big-time stuff. Lo was signed as a professional out of Taiwan for $250,000 back in 2010 as a 23 year old. Lo, now 26, made just 2 appearances in 2011 but came back strong in 2011, obliterating Rookie ball but continuing his dominance after moving up to Lancaster, posting a to a 1.42 ERA, a 9.5 K/9, a 1.9 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 11 appearances spaning 19 IP. Lo attacks hitters with a mid-90′s fastball along with a sharp curveball. He struggles to command his pitches at times but both his pitches miss bats and he still has a chance to be an effective big league middle reliever. Lo will try to make up some of the time he lost as he faces advanced hitters for the first time in two years and the Astros will see if he still has a chance to be a part of their big league bullpen someday.
The Astros are sending as talented a group of players to the Arizona Fall League as anyone. They’re sending arguably their top three prospects, two other former first round picks, and a couple for intriguing relief arms. These players are extremely talented and with strong AFL performances the big leagues won’t be far away. The Astros hope to come away from the AFL with plenty of reason for their fans to be excited about the future and these prospects have the ability to deliver.