Prior to 2008 which was Ed Wade and Bobby Heck’s first stab at the draft for the Astros, the previous regime had several bad draft classes strung together. This resulted in a farm system that was consistently ranked among the worst in the majors. While the Astros system suffered across the board during this time, one if it’s most glaring weaknesses was the lack of starting pitching prospects. Because of this the 2010 triple-A starting rotation was littered with AAAA players and minor league fillers that were not viewed as a part of the Astros long term plans. Fast forward one year and the hard work that Wade and Heck has put into the draft is starting to pay off. The 2011 Oklahoma City starting rotation could be one of the most prospect-laden rotations that the Astros have had at that level in several years. The rotation is projected to be much younger, and have higher ceiling candidates than last year’s Express rotation that consisted of Josh Banks, Shane Loux, Andy Van Hekken, and Wesley Wright. In this post we will discuss the potential candidates for the starting rotation for Oklahoma City. The first pitcher up is Jordan Lyles.
Jordan is one of five potential candidates that are strongly being considered for the final spot on the big league clubs rotation. If he loses out on the competition then he would land in Oklahoma City which could be a blessing in disguise. At just 20 years old Jordan has already racked up a total of 372 strikeouts in 358 innings over his minor league career. If you compare strikeout totals of Lyles first two years in the minors to another top prospect Jeremy Hellickson’s first two years in the minors you will find that Lyles struck out 304 batters in 291 innings pitched while Hellickson struck out 268 batters in 262 innings pitched. Lyles profiles as a 4-pitch control pitcher with average velocity, and a changeup that is his strongest pitch. Lyles could benefit from another year in the minors to build up his innings count, and also further develop his curveball which seems to be his weakest pitch. If he does not win the fifth spot in the rotation for the Astros then look for him to anchor the Oklahoma City rotation until his services are needed in Houston.
While Arguello’s age, 26, doesn’t scream prospect status, he did have a very impressive year at Corpus Christi in 2010 before an injury cut his season short. Another factor that may work in his favor is that many left handed pitchers develop later in their respective careers when being compared to right handed pitchers. See our very own Wandy Rodriguez and Cliff Lee for two successful late blooming lefties. Arguello has had an up and down career in his previous 4 seasons in the minors before seemingly putting it all together in 2010 where he posted a 2.55 ERA in 127 innings while striking out 100 batters. It is, however, imperative to mention that at the age of 25 all of the usual caveats about age relative to league exist when discussing his 2010 season. This year could be viewed as a very important year for Arguello. If he is able to build on last year’s success then the Astros may be forced to consider opening up a spot in the rotation for him. On the other hand if he struggles at the triple-A level then he may slip even further away from prospect status and ever so closer to AAAA purgatory.
Keuchel split time last year between high A and double A ball throwing a total of 53 innings for Corpus Christi last year. Keuchel’s numbers at the double A level were respectable with a 4.70 ERA, but more importantly posting a 3.01 FIP. While a case could be made to start him at the double A level again and promote him mid-season similar to his promotion last year, it would be much more interesting to see him promoted aggressively to Oklahoma City. Keuchel typically flies under the radar as many soft tossing lefties usually do, as he was not included in any top 10 prospect lists of the Astros system this year. His repertoire includes a four-seam fastball that sits in the upper 80’s to 90 mph range, a two-seam fastball with sinking action, a strong curveball, and a changeup. Keuchel profiles somewhat similarly to Wandy Rodriguez, and could be a player to watch if he starts the year at Oklahoma City.
The final two spots in the triple-A rotation are somewhat hard to predict, but one potential candidate could be Henry Villar who pitched as a starter at Corpus last year, and also pitched briefly with the Astros in relief. He is competing for a bullpen spot this spring and it is unclear whether the Astros view him as a starting pitcher or a reliever, but if he is in Oklahoma City as a starter this year then he would only add to the starting rotations allure of providing younger talent. Another intriguing candidate for one of the final two spots could be Fernando Abad. Wade has said recently that they are not considering him for a spot in the rotation this year due to the fact that they feel he is valued more as a lefty in the pen on the big league club. That being said, it is doubtful that he starts the season in the minors as a starter, but depending on how the other left handed relievers perform he could be sent to the minors at some point in the year to work on converting to a starter. The biggest hurdles in converting him into a starter seem to be finding a lefty replacement in the pen of equal value first, and then also building up his total innings pitched in a year. His performance this year in winter ball opened several people’s eyes within the organization, and it will be interesting to see what the Astros long-term plan with Abad will be. Outside of Villar and Abad, the other pitchers that would be competing for the Astros final two spots in the Oklahoma City rotation would include Cesar Carillo, a former first round pick of the Padres, and then several organizational depth type candidates. While the Astros minor league pitching depth does not compare to the Rays or the Yankees, it is hard to deny that Ed Wade and Bobby Heck are on the right path to righting the ship.