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Post-2006 Prospect Review: Houston
by Tim Polko

Today's Fantasy Rx

Houston's Top 15 Fantasy Prospects for 2007
Roster Filler and Long-Term Prospects
Team Overview and Organization Rankings

Houston's Top 15 Fantasy Prospects for 2007

1. Jason Hirsh, 24, RH Starter
3-4 on a 29:22 K:BB in 44.2 IP over 9 GS
with 48 H, 11 HR, a .55 G-F, and a 6.05 ERA.
13-2 on a 118:51 K:BB in 137.1 IP over 23 GS
with 94 H, 5 HR, a .84 G-F, and a 2.10 ERA for AAA Round Rock(PCL).

Mentioned in virtually every trade rumor involving the Astros this fall, Hirsh unfortunately struggled with Houston despite clearly having nothing to prove in the minors. Yes, his inconsistent control worries me, but his performance still demands a rotation spot in 2007, and GM Tim Purpura shouldn't dream of dealing his future ace in a package for a veteran starter when Hirsh alone appears far more valuable the purported acquisitions Jon Garland or Jason Jennings. Of course, I don't expect Hirsh to set down NL hitters next summer in similar fashion to the PCL patsies he dominated, but he could cruise to 200 IP with an ERA around 4.00. Talk up his ERA and try land Hirsh for about five bucks, only pushing to the upper single-digits if desperate to add a dozen wins.

2. Brooks Conrad, 26, 2B-S
142/532 for .267/.334/.534 with 24 HR, 94 RBI, 100 R, 15/21 SB%,
and a 54:135 BB:K for AAA Round Rock(TL).

Finally promoted to the 40-man roster this winter, Houston's AAAA super utilityman emerged as a PCL MVP candidate, concluding his year with a brief AFL stint that saw Conrad demolish less experience pitchers to the tune of a .359/.480/.692 performance with a 10:9 BB:K in 39 AB. A .80 G-F suggests plenty of power potential, and he even appeared above average at second base this year. While the Astros' bench currently appears full thanks to the presence of Chris Burke, Mike Lamb, Eric Bruntlett, Jason Lane, Orlando Palmeiro, and a backup catcher, any trade of someone like Lamb, Lane, or even Willy Taveras will open a spot for Conrad. If he opens the year in the majors, Conrad warrants serious consideration from owners looking for a high-risk, low-upside MIF for minimal cost, and if a Taveras deal results in Burke playing center, Conrad even could emerge as Craig Biggio's replacement in 2008 with a little luck. Spending a buck here should result in a return of no less than $5 given Conrad's potential across-the-board contributions regardless of role

3. Matt Albers, 23, RH Starter
0-2 on an 11:7 K:BB in 15 IP over 2 GS(4G)
with 17 H, 1 HR, a 1.43 G-F, and a 6.00 ERA.
2-1 on a 26:10 K:BB in 25 IP over 4 GS
with 24 H, 2 HR, a 1.29 G-F, and a 3.96 ERA for AAA Round Rock(PCL).
10-2 on a 95:47 K:BB in 116 IP over 19 GS
with 96 H, 4 HR, a 1.65 G-F, and a 2.17 ERA for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

A dark horse rotation candidate in 2007 far more likely to secure a spot in the majors as a reliever, Albers' continued control problems make him a bad bet on fantasy teams unless a move to the bullpen allows his promising strikeout and hit rates to overwhelm his inconsistency. Registering a 3.94 ERA on a 9:6 K:BB in 16 IP over 6 AFL starts similar bolsters my doubts. Despite his unexpected dominance of the Texas League, Albers appears a generally poorer bet than fellow prospects like Jason Hirsh, Juan Guttierez, and Troy Patton, so wait until he begin succeeding in the majors before rostering him anywhere.

4. Chris Sampson, 28, RH Starter
2-1 on a 15:5 K:BB in 34 IP over 3 GS(12G)
with 25 H, 3 HR, a 2.15 G-F, and a 2.12 ERA.
12-3 on a 68:14 K:BB in 125.2 IP over 18 GS(27G)
with 110 H, 12 HR, a 2.28 G-F, and a 2.51 ERA for AAA Round Rock(PCL).

Shockingly successful both for the Astros and Express regardless of his role, Sampson emerged as the club's most valuable swingman in June by shutting out the Cubs for seven innings in his second big league start. Continued effectiveness as both a starter and reliever in September makes him a top candidate to spend much of 2007 with Houston, however his corresponding lack of dominance in either the rotation or bullpen conversely will lead the Astros to explore other options. Fortunately for Sampson, his continued success will insure his presence in the majors with some team, and I don't doubt his ability to remain effective given his work since moving to the mound in 2003. Feel free to employ the minor league veteran whenever you need roster filler, and if he snags a rotation spot, spending a couple bucks of FAAB here could net you a surprisingly valuable property.

5. Mike Rodriguez, 26, OF-L
121/439 for .276/.352/.385 with 6 HR, 38 RBI, 70 R, 28/34 SB%,
and a 51:55 BB:K for AAA Round Rock(PCL).

One of the few prospects added to the Astros' 40-man roster this winter, Rodriguez certainly merited the slot after posting virtually identical numbers to his previous AA stats. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, he enters camp somewhere around eighth on Houston's outfield depth chart. Given his limited offensive upside, he appears best suited to replace Orlando Palmeiro if the Astros' veteran reserve hits the DL. Otherwise expect Rodriguez to spend another summer at Round Rock, though hopefully he at least will reach the majors in September since he possesses similar speed and defensive skills to Charlton Jimerson while replacing sporadic power and strikeouts with rather exceptional plate discipline. Rodriguez will not hurt you if you need to employ him as roster filler at any point. He even might provide you a couple of steals from an otherwise wasted roster spot.

6. Hunter Pence, 23, OF-R
148/523 for .283/.357/.533 with 28 HR, 95 RBI, 97 R, 17/21 SB%,
and a 60:109 BB:K for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

Widely dismissed prior to the season as a top prospect and considered a college hitter merely preying on younger A-ball competition, Pence emerged as the top position player in the system this summer. He showed five-category upside and entered the AFL poised to join Houston's outfield, even posting a .339/.379/.565 performance in 62 at-bats in Arizona. Then the stunningly mentally inept Texan committed one of the most thoughtless acts of the season by any baseball player, culminating in his arrest on DUI Charges by Scottsdale police at 3:32 in the morning, ended his season on a horribly distasteful note. Despite decent MLE averages of .249/.308/.437 that suggest he could equal Carlos Lee's production by 2008, the Astros rebuked Pence by locking down Lee for the next six years at a cost of $100M, essentially leaving Pence in competition with Luke Scott, Willy Taveras, Jason Lane, and Josh Anderson for no more than two long-term starting jobs. Houston resident Vernon Wells appears quite likely to join Carlos Lee next winter, giving the Astros an outstanding heart-of-the-order centered on perennial All-Star first baseman Lance Berkman. Hopefully someone like Scott will develop into another masher, allowing Houston to deal Pence for a more worthy addition to the franchise, such as a second tractor for the Oswalts so Nicole and Roy can roam their ranch together, or perhaps a monogrammed toilet plunger for Drayton McLane's luxury box. We already dealt away Pence in the two leagues where we owned him, and I see no reason to roster anyone capable of such a terrible lapse of judgment.

7. Josh Anderson, 24, OF-L
173/561 for .308/.349/.385 with 3 HR, 50 RBI, 83 R, 43/56 SB%,
and a 27:73 BB:K for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

Probably the most intriguing position prospect in the system for fantasy owners, Anderson just might win a starting job if Houston deals Willy Taveras. However, he didn't exactly break out during a second tour o the Texas League, and despite impressive stolen base totals, Anderson's poor patience will lead to a poor OBP and the accompanying reduction in opportunities to steal. Only bid a few bucks even if he appears set to start by the time of your draft since posting an OPS below .700 likely will send the centerfield job to Chris Burke.

8. Juan Gutierrez, 23, RH Starter
8-4 on a 106:34 K:BB in 103.2 IP over 20 GS
with 94 H, 10 HR, a .93 G-F, and a 3.04 ERA for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

Arm fatigue sidelined Gutierrez from early July until mid-August, casting the only blemish on an otherwise impressive effort from the right-handed. While he spent two seasons with both the Astros' Venezuelan Summer League and Appalachian League affiliates, Gutierrez leapt from the Sally League to Double-A after only three appearances in the Carolina League in 2005. His success in the Texas League elevates him among the Astros' best prospects, and if he impresses in camp, Gutierrez just might spend 2007 in the Astros' rotation. He offers far more long-term upside than current rotation candidate Taylor Buchholz and Wandy Rodriguez and merits Dollar Days consideration if he opens the year in the majors.

9. Troy Patton, 21, LH Starter
2-5 on a 37:13 K:BB in 45.1 IP over 8 GS
with 48 H, 6 HR, a .67 G-F, and a 4.37 ERA for AA Corpus Christi(TL).
7-7 on a 102:37 K:BB in 101.1 IP over 19 GS
with 92 H, 4 HR, a .78 G-F, and a 2.93 ERA for A+ Salem(Car).

The biggest surprise here is not that Patton received a second straight mid-season promotion but his unexpected AFL appearance as a reliever, where he dominated hitters aside from again allowing too many walks. While I still see a lot to like here, Patton's strikeout and hit rates continue to decline as he ascends the minor league ladder, and with a bad groundball rate posed to create increasing problems as he hits AAA Round Rock and then Houston, he could struggle near the majors. Hopefully the Astros will give him a few more months of Double-A work, followed by another mid-season jump to Round Rock and then finishing the season in Houston before sending him back to Round Rock in 2008 until a rotation vacancy opens. Patton could demolish that timetable if he begins to echo his A-ball numbers, however I see little reason to expect him to pitch effectively in the majors at any point in 2007, leaving me little reason to recommend him in any fantasy league at this time.

10. Hector Gimenez, 24, C-S
0/2 for .000/.000/.000 with 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 R, 0/0 SB%,
and a 0:1 BB:K.
75/275 for .273/.331/.389 with 8 HR, 37 RBI, 31 R, 2/5 SB%,
and a 24:42 BB:K for AAA Round Rock(PCL).

Gimenez finally reached Houston this summer in his seventh year in the system. He at least walks at a decent pace now, however limited power potential prevents him from emerging as more than a solid backup. A good spring should lead to Gimenez displacing Humberto Quintero as Brad Ausmus's caddy, albeit not one worthy of employment as more than roster filler in any decent fantasy league.

11. Paul Estrada, 24, RH Reliever
8-5 on a 134:37 K:BB in 88.2 IP over 56 G
with 61 H, 10 HR, a 1.51 G-F, and a 3.05 ERA for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

Among the most intriguing players in the minors this summer, the Venezuelan nearly led the Texas League in strikeouts despite skipping High-A completely and spending all season in the bullpen. Instead Estrada finished second to Thomas Diamond's 145 Ks while establishing himself as the most dominant Houston pitching prospect. Although I anticipate some regression from Estrada, especially if he somehow wins a spot in the Astros' bullpen during camp, he appears among the likeliest pitchers in the system to succeed Brad Lidge once Tim Purpura deals the erratic veteran closer. Rostering Estrada with a late reserve pick in leagues that value middle relievers could pay welcome dividends.

12. Chad Reineke, 24, RH Starter
1-3 on a 45:26 K:BB in 44.1 IP over 4 GS(15G)
with 33 H, 3 HR, a 1.46 G-F, and a 3.05 ERA for AA Corpus Christi(TL).
6-5 on an 87:29 K:BB in 99.2 IP over 17 GS
with 82 H, 5 HR, a 1.34 G-F, and a 2.98 ERA for A+ Salem(Car).

While Reineke unexpectedly opened the year in Salem's rotation after spending 2005 as a swingman in the Sally League, he quickly returned to his old role at Double-A. He also spent the AFL in the bullpen, registering a 6.39 ERA on a 15:6 K:BB in 12.2 IP with 16 H and 0 HR. Reineke's consistently high strikeout rate suggests he could blossom if simply left in the bullpen, and a strong start in 2007 should result in a shot with the Astros sometime next summer.

13. Charlton Jimerson, 27, OF-R
2/6 for .333/.333/.833 with 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 R, 2/2 SB%,
and a 0:3 BB:K.
116/470 for .247/.287/.445 with 18 HR, 45 RBI, 56 R, 28/36 SB%,
and a 23:183 BB:K for AAA Round Rock(PCL).

While I don't blame the Astros for employing Jimerson this September for baserunning and defensive purposes, his continued presence on the 40-man roster stands as an affront to good players throughout the league. This summer Jimerson exceeded 150 strikeouts for the third straight season and now only owns 162 walks in his entire six-season professional career. Yes, he possesses plenty of power and speed, but his complete cluelessness at the plate makes his production remarkably unpredictable. Do not risk owning him unless violently desperate for steals during the 2007 stretch run.

14. Jimmy Barthmaier, 22, RH Starter
11-8 on a 134:67 K:BB in 146.2 IP over 27 GS
with 137 H, 6 HR, a 1.70 G-F, and a 3.62 ERA for A+ Salem(Car).

Although an elevated walk rate continues to cause problems for Barthmaier, he also excelled after a slow start, compiling a 7-1 record and 1.82 ERA on a 63:26 K:BB in 69.1 IP over 12 GS with 54 H, 2 HR, and a 1.42 G-F, numbers which certainly demand a promotion to Double-A in the spring. Of course, his slow, consistent development should keep him on track to join the Astros in 2009 unless a potential move to the bullpen allows him to echo Brad Lidge's previous rise to the majors. Right now I don't view Barthmaier as anything more than potential in-season roster filler during the second half of 2007.

15. Chance Douglass, 22, RH Starter
7-8 on a 102:56 K:BB in 161 IP over 26 GS
with 144 H, 13 HR, a 1.38 G-F, and a 3.52 ERA for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

Houston saved Douglass from Rice University's arm-slagging machine and helped him to develop into a solid starting prospect. Unfortunately, a mediocre strikeout rate gives him little chance to emerge as a big league starter, so if Douglass wants to depart the upper minors at some point, a move to the bullpen makes the most sense. The expected problems he should encounter at Triple-A Round Rock hopefully will expedite his transition.

Roster Filler and Long-Term Prospects

Johnny Ash, 24, 2B-L
123/392 for .314/.370/.403 with 1 HR, 28 RBI, 40 R, 5/13 SB%,
and a 25:36 BB:K for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

Ash unfortunately possesses neither the plate discipline nor defensive acumen to succeed in the majors with his limited tool box. Even if the Stanford product echoes these stats at AAA Round Rock, he appears far more likely to spend a couple of years as AAAA roster filler before departing in minor league free agency than actually winning a regular job on a big league bench.

Chris Baker, 29, RH Reliever
9-4 on a 41:29 K:BB in 86 IP over 6 GS(27G)
with 78 H, 5 HR, a 1.03 G-F, and a 2.62 ERA
between AAA Oklahoma(PCL) and AAA Round Rock(PCL).

Shifting to Round Rock after just a single appearance for Oklahoma, the former Jays' prospect at least improved his ineffectiveness following a move to the bullpen. The problem for Baker is his significant lack of dominance gives clubs no reason to promote him, so don't expect to see him receive more than a token big league appearance.

Phil Barzilla, 27, LH Starter
0-0 on a 0:0 K:BB in .1 IP over 1 G
with 1 H, 0 HR, a 1-1 G-F, and a 0.00 ERA.
8-5 on an 80:48 K:BB in 112.1 IP over 14 GS(25G)
with 114 H, 5 HR, a 1.60 G-F, and a 3.85 ERA for AAA Round Rock(PCL).

Marginally effective as a starter but quite solid in eleven games out of the bullpen, compiling a 3.19 ERA on a 26:13 K:BB in 36.2 IP with 32 H and 2 HR, the latter role offers Barzilla his quickest route to the majors. Of course, the former fourth rounder no longer owns a 40-man slot in Houston, but if he impresses in the spring, Barzilla easily could break camp as the Astros' second southpaw reliever. Otherwise he'll spend a fourth season in the upper minors, likely pitching sufficiently well to maintain his roster space without offering Houston any incentives to promote him during the year.

Jorge Cortes, 26, OF-L
134/457 for .293/.366/.427 with 8 HR, 51 RBI, 58 R, 4/11 SB%,
and a 50:63 BB:K for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

The former Pirates' prospect nicely rebounded from a downturn in 2005 to post his first solid season in the upper minors. Of course, Cortes still suffers from a lack of quantitative upside. His return to minor league free agency this winter also indicates a general lack of potential. He'll need an outstanding spring one of these years to emerge as more than a potential AAAA option.

Roberto Giron, 30, RH Reliever
2-5 and 13 Saves on a 66:32 K:BB in 86.2 IP over 6 GS(47G)
with 93 H, 11 HR, a 1.04 G-F, and a 4.78 ERA for AAA Round Rock(PCL).

Another respectable AAA performance from Giron unsurprisingly didn't result in a shot in the majors as most of his skill rates remain largely unimpressive. Rather than remaining with an organization possessing as much bullpen depth as Houston, Giron wisely moved to the Royals in minor league free agency, where he stands a good chance of finally reaching the majors for the first time.

Jared Gothreaux, 26, RH Starter
9-9 on an 89:40 K:BB in 143 IP over 27 GS(29G)
with 164 H, 19 HR, a 1.24 G-F, and a 4.34 ERA for AAA Round Rock(PCL).

A perfectly capable minor league starter who continued to improve in his third year at Round Rock and second AAA campaign, Gothreaux's lack of dominance makes him particularly ill-suited for Minute Maid Park. He likely needs a change of scenery since even a move to the bullpen appears unlikely to expedite a move to Houston.

Lincoln Holdzkom, 24, RH Reliever
2-3 on a 27:10 K:BB in 32.1 IP over 18 G
with 25 H, 0 HR, a 3.18 G-F, and a 1.95 ERA for AA West Tenn(SL).
0-0 on a 6:2 K:BB in 5 IP over 2 G
with 3 H, 0 HR, a 2.00 G-F, and a 0.00 ERA for A+ Daytona(FSL).
0-0 on a 10:3 K:BB in 8.2 IP over 1 GS(5G)
with 11 H, 0 HR, an 8.50 ERA, and a 2.08 ERA for R Cubs(AZL).

Selected from the Cubs in yesterday's Rule 5 draft, Holdzkom only returned to full strength this fall after spending most of the last two years recovering from Tommy John surgery. He joined the Cubs in a March trade for Todd Wellemeyer, emerged as a dominant Double-A reliever in the second half, and then wowed scouts in the AFL despite a seemingly unimpressive 7.08 ERA on a 21:13 K:BB in 20.1 IP with 20 H and 3 HR allowed in 13 games. The former seventh rounder might emerge as an asset for the Astros, but with Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, Trever Miller, Dave Borkowski, and Fernando Nieve all ahead of Holdzkom in Houston's bullpen, I don't see him sticking in the majors barring a trade to clear a spot. He likely won't post positive fantasy value even if he remains with the Astros.

J.R. House, 27, C-R
0/9 for .000/.000/.000 with 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 R, 0/0 SB%,
and a 0:2 BB:K.
47/114 for .412/.445/.675 with 0 HR 5 RBI, 25 R, 0/0 SB%,
and a 9:15 BB:K for AAA Round Rock(PCL).
123/379 for .325/.376/.475 with 10 HR, 69 RBI, 58 R, 2/4 SB%,
and a 32:44 BB:K for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

After suffering through a litany of injuries during his tenure as the Pirates' top catching prospect, House departed Pittsburgh in 2005 in an attempt to resume a football career at West Virginia, where he nearly headed in 1999 before signing with the Pirates. Failing to win regular playing time led him back to baseball this year, and while he simply destroyed minor league pitching at both Double-A and Triple-A, he only spent a week in the majors as the Astros preferred Humberto Quintero and Hector Gimenez on the bench. Last month he signed with Baltimore, and even though he shouldn't beat out Paul Bako or Rule 5 pick Adam Donachie for a big league job in camp, House at least should enjoy spending the season as the club's AAAA catcher at Norfolk. His renaissance at the plate also could lead to a DH job if he impresses during spring training, making House a sleeper fantasy candidate as a possible offensive asset who qualifies behind the plate.

Ronnie Martinez, 23, RH Starter
3-1 on a 45:18 K:BB in 49 IP over 9 GS(10G)
with 56 H, 6 HR, a .62 G-F, and a 5.51 ERA for AA Corpus Christi(TL).
3-4 on a 44:17 K:BB in 56 IP over 10 GS
with 52 H, 2 HR, a 1.61 G-F, and a 1.93 ERA for A+ Salem(Car)
0-0 on a 7:2 K:BB in 5.2 IP over 2 GS
with 3 H, 0 HR, a 1.00 G-F, and a 4.76 ERA for A Lexington(SAL).

Promoted to the Texas League ahead of schedule after clearly surpassing his High-A opponents, Martinez struggled against higher-level hitters, allowing an inordinate number of flyballs and simply failing to get outs. Seeing how he handles a return to Corpus Christi in 2007 will give us an idea if his future involves an extended big league career.

Mark McLemore, 26, LH Reliever
2-3 on a 52:38 K:BB in 57.2 IP over 9 GS(21G)
with 48 H, 5 HR, a .89 G-F, and a 2.91 ERA for AAA Round Rock(PCL).

Although managing a 4.76 ERA on a 16:8 K:BB in 17 IP with 13 H and 3 HR over 1 GS(10G) in the AFL seemingly positions McLemore to join Trever Miller in Houston's bullpen, continued control problems present an obvious obstacle to success. Nothing here demands that McLemore spend next summer as more than the Astros' tertiary southpaw, summoned only in time of need while facing particularly lefty-leaning opponents. Given his limited upside and significant downside under the best of circumstances, McLemore doesn't belong on any fantasy roster in 2007.

Jailen Peguero, 25, RH Reliever
1-2 and 1 Save on a 30:18 K:BB in 36.1 IP over 21 G
with 34 H, 3 HR, a 1.13 G-F, and a 3.47 ERA for AAA Round Rock(PCL).
2-0 and 14 Saves on a 48:16 K:BB in 38.2 IP over 27 G
with 18 H, 0 HR, a .82 G-F, and a 0.70 ERA for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

While the Astros allowed Peguero to head into minor league free agency after seven seasons in the system, his performance in the upper minors this summer should result in an NRI and a long look during camp. Only improved consistency seemingly stands between Peguero and a big league job, and although he merits little fantasy attention now, he could emerge as a decent middle reliever at any time.

Brian Peterson, 28, C-R
30/114 for .263/.306/.456 with 4 HR, 13 RBI, 13 R, 0/1 SB%,
and a 7:32 BB:K for AAA Toledo(IL).
26/79 for .329/.369/.481 with 3 HR, 6 RBI, 11 R, 2/3 SB%,
and a 4:14 BB:K for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

Signing with Detroit last winter didn't work out for Peterson, who shifted to the Astros and finished the season in impressive fashion at Corpus Christi. We liked Peterson a lot with the Reds, and if he manages to land another AAA job somewhere, he could join a big league bench by next fall.

J.R. Towles, 22, C-R
90/284 for .317/.382/.525 with 12 HR, 55 RBI, 39 R, 13/18 SB%,
and a 21:46 BB:K for A Lexington(SAL).

Essentially the only serious catching prospect in the entire organization capable of contributing both in front of and behind the plate, Towles unnecessarily toured the Sally League for a second year due to the presence of Louis Santangelo at High-A. The delayed development track worries me, preventing me from recommending Towles in any league right now, but I see sufficient reason to monitor the youngster's development given the upside of any decently gifted hitter in Houston.

Walter Young, 26, 1B-L
7/35 for .200/.262/.486 with 3 HR, 6 RBI, 4 R, 0/0 SB%,
and a 3:5 BB:K for AAA Portland(PCL) 96/346 for .277/.309/.410 with 10 HR, 60 RBI, 32 R, 4/10 SB%,
and a 12:44 BB:K for AA Corpus Christi(TL).

Unexpectedly waived by Baltimore last winter, Young initially landed with the Padres, but his weak production at Portland resulted in him spending the majority of the year back at Double-A in the Texas League. The portly slugger remains a powerful young man, however given his limited plate discipline, Young may never see any regular playing time in the majors. A trip overseas might provide Young the best route to baseball fame and fortune since few teams need a minor league free agent with his limited offensive profile.

Today's Fantasy Rx: While Chris Sampson, Mike Rodriguez, and Matt Albers all offer some fantasy potential in limited roles and Hunter Pence still will net you a nice return if you deal him now, only Jason Hirsh merits serious attention among Astros' prospect in most spring drafts. Pitchers generally don't watch their dominance and overall effectiveness improve upon reaching a higher minor league level, and despite his problems in the majors, everything else in Hirsh's history to date suggests he should enjoy and a lengthy, successful big league career.

Team Overview and Organization Rankings

Once again held hostage by the whims of Roger Clemens, Houston spent three months shuffling inexperienced youngsters through the back end of the rotation after Brandon Backe's injury left a gaping hole behind Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte. Speaking of Pettitte, the veteran southpaw also struggled for the first half until Clemens' arrival apparently helped him focus. Significant downturns from Brad Lidge, Morgan Ensberg, and Jason Lane, coupled with the disastrous Preston Wilson, left both the bullpen and run production in disarray, a situation only remedied by the mid-season additions of Aubrey Huff from Tampa and Luke Scott from Triple-A. Now, with Carlos Lee under contract at $100M for six years, Pettitte lost to the Yankees and replace by Woody Williams, and Tim Purpura supposedly willing to include Jason Hirsh in a deal for a veteran starter, the Astros appear on the edge of sinking down the divisional standings. Failing to edge the Cardinals this summer cost the club another great shot at the World Series, and with the pitching staff one significant injury from completely collapsing, Craig Biggio's quest for 3,000 hits should rank as the club's 2007 highlight. With only Chris Burke a likely long-term internal solution at any up-the-middle position, an apparent lack of faith in any young outfielder in the organization, and little offensive talent in the minors, the franchise soon could resemble the Rockies from earlier this decade, spending well over half of the payroll on only a few players but lacking the system depth necessary to sustain such a payroll alignment. Barring a shockingly astute trade for another young pitcher to complement Hirsh, not replace him, Houston's current window of contention will close upon the final departures of franchise keystones Biggio and Clemens, potentially leaving only Oswalt, thankfully signed to a $75M/5 extension over the summer, as well as the post-peak Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, to carry the entire city's hopes of another Series run.

Current ranking of potentially helpful fantasy depth for teams discussed thus far in 2006, based on both the quality and quantity of players ready to contribute in the majors, as well as consideration of the trade value of low-level minor leaguers from each system:

1. Arizona Diamondbacks(C.Young, M.Montero, Callaspo, C.Gonzalez, J.Upton)
2. Tampa Bay Devil Rays(Delm.Young, Dukes, Riggans, Brignac, Longoria)
3. Colorado Rockies(Iannetta, Tulowitzki, J.Baker, I.Stewart, D.Fowler)
4. Kansas City Royals(A.Gordon, B.Butler, Ju.Huber, Lubanski)
5. Cleveland Indians(K.Kouzmanoff, T.Crowe, B.Barton)
6. Los Angeles Angels(Willits, B.Wood, J.Mathis)
7. Chicago White Sox(Fields, R.Sweeney, J.Owens)
8. Chicago Cubs(F.Pie, Er.Patterson, D.Veal)
9. Houston Astros(J.Hirsh, B.Conrad, M.Albers)
10. Cincinnati Reds(J.Votto, H.Bailey, J.Bruce)
11. Texas Rangers(Fr.Guzman, Botts, Ed.Volquez)
12. Boston Red Sox(Pedroia, Ellsbury, Kottaras)
13. Minnesota Twins(Garza, G.Perkins, A.Casilla)
14. New York Yankees(P.Hughes, K.Thompson, J.Tabata)
15. Toronto Blue Jays(A.Lind, T.Snider)
16. Seattle Mariners(Ad.Jones, LaHair)
17. Oakland Athletics(Barton, Windsor)
18. Detroit Tigers(Maybin, An.Miller)
19. Atlanta Braves(Gr.Blanco, J.Saltalamacchia)
20. Florida Marlins(He.Owens, J.Stokes)
21. Baltimore Orioles(Fiorentino)

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