Minor Leagues: State of the farm
Team hopeful that 2008 Draft will provide new blood
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Burning question: What is the state of the Houston farm system heading into this season?
The fact that the Astros stuck to the mandated slot bonus last season, spending less on the Draft than the Yankees did for one of Alex Rodriguez's bats, has been a huge talking point when discussing the club's farm system. But there's more to the demise of Houston's system than what was or was not spent last season.
For starters, the club didn't have its first two picks because of free-agent signings last winter. Then, by adhering to mandated slot standards, the Astros were unable to sign third-rounder Derek Dietrich and fourth-rounder Brett Eibner. Throw in the inability to sign eighth-rounder Chad Bettis and, well, there was a problem.
Add the deal that sent five youngsters to Baltimore in the Miguel Tejada trade -- a deal that may come back to haunt Houston big time -- and suddenly, the club has a farm system that is mighty unimposing.
"It's certainly been a topic of discussion," assistant general manager Ricky Bennett said. "We've made a number of different trades over the winter and given up a lot of prospects in the Tejada deal and the [Jose] Valverde deal [with Arizona]. We've made a lot of other moves, though, and brought in about 30 players to the organization.
"That said, your system is never really where you want it to be. Your goal is always to replenish through [Minor League] free agency, waivers and trades. But right now there's a little bit of a gap in terms of overall talent that we feel can be impact players in Houston over the next few years. We have some good players, but we don't have All-Star impact players in the system. When you don't sign your first four picks in the Draft, that hurts, there's no doubt about it, and it takes time to recover."
The Astros are hopeful that this year's Draft will provide the new blood that the system is currently lacking. Houston has the 10th pick, and it will be interesting to see if the new front office will continue to adhere to the slot -- a practice that appears to have contributed to the previous regime's downfall -- or spend what it takes to get the pick signed.
"Our philosophy hasn't changed," Bennett said. "We want to draft and sign the best player available. We're going to draft and develop the best players we possibly can, sign [them] and get [them] to the big leagues. That's our goal.
"We have six chances [through the first four rounds] to get a good player. But we hope they all reach the big leagues. It was frustrating last year to see players go off the board, knowing we didn't have a chance to pick them."
All signs point to the Astros not having that problem this season, leaving the club and its fans in a state of anticipation as the Draft approaches.
Other news: Infielder Tommy Manzella is back in Minor League camp after his first official stint in Major League Spring Training. The Tulane product has opened many eyes this spring, drawing comparisons with Adam Everett.
"He's taken advantage of the opportunity," Bennett said. "He's played well defensively, and he's started to swing the bat. He looked more comfortable in that environment this year as compared to how he fared there in the past. The speed of the game is starting to slow down for him, and that's going to help in his development."
Manzella has been re-assigned to Triple-A Round Rock, but that doesn't mean he'll start the season there. Bennett said that depends on how the Major League roster shakes out.
Catcher Joe Melton went undrafted last June after finishing out his career at Crichton, a NAIA school in Tennessee. Then, after appearing in only eight games for Reno of the independent Golden League, he was sidelined with a sprained left wrist, an injury that cost him the remainder of the 2007 season.
So how did he wind up with the Astros, with whom he signed a deal only last month? Well, it didn't hurt that his Brighton High School coach back in Memphis is Brian Oswalt, brother of Houston ace Roy Oswalt.
"I think he might have said something," said Melton, who expects to begin this season in Lexington.
Melton said that he "did OK" in Reno, though he was only there for a month and a half last season, going 5-for-18 before sustaining the injury.
"I played hurt," he said. "I played, sat out four games, went back. They haven't said too much to me here, though. I've been working on my timing here and making sure my hands are right. My hands have a tendency to drop a lot, so I'm trying to keep them up there. It's a love-hate game, and I'm loving it. My swing is getting better. I spent a lot of time working on it with my coaches back home."
Melton expects to begin the season at Class A Lexington.
Five questions with Jordan Parraz: MiLB.com chose Parraz as its preseason Organizational Player of the Year in its preview last month.
MiLB.com: If you could have dinner with anyone in history, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be and why?
Parraz: That would be Ted Williams. He [understood] the concept of baseball. And just because of his whole life experience. I'm an overall baseball fan, and how could you not be a Ted Williams fan?
MiLB.com: Are you working on anything in particular at the plate this spring?
Parraz: I'm trying to stay back a little better and be softer on my front side. I want to see my weight stay back and get my hands quicker to the ball. It's been a slow Spring Training. I want to take my time to start getting my swing back; I want to feel the groove. I figure in about another four or five days, I should have it back.
MiLB.com: What's your greatest accomplishment, on or off the field, and why?
Parraz:: When I got Player of the Year in the New York-Penn League in 2006. It was a good experience playing in that league. I was consistent all year and put up some pretty good numbers. It was really a fun league to play in. There is a lot of diversity and some pretty nice fields with a lot of history behind them.
MiLB.com: If you could be anyone in baseball right now, who would you be and why?
Parraz: Probably Aaron Rowand. I know him a little bit, and he's a good player and a good guy. He signed a good contract, too [with San Francisco]. He also works real hard at what he does.
MiLB.com: If you weren't playing baseball, what occupation would you have?
Parraz: I'd probably be in school, either at UNLV or wherever my girlfriend was. I'm living in Fort Worth now, so maybe there. I'd probably be majoring in history. I've always been a history fan. I have a knack for it.
Lasting Impression: Bud Norris, a right-hander chosen in the sixth round out of Cal Poly in 2006, is hopeful of following up what could best be described as a perplexing 2007 season. Norris spent the bulk of the year in Lexington, going 2-8 with a 4.75 ERA in 22 starts. He held the opposition to a .233 batting average and had a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, numbers that would suggest he should have fared better. Yet he had only one standout period, an 11-inning stretch in May that saw him post a 2.45 ERA.
But after a positive experience in the Hawaiian Baseball League, Norris successfully participated in Houston's mini-camp before Spring Training began. And he's been on a bit of a roll since, impressing the front office with his effort as camp winds down. Is it enough to start the season at Double-A Corpus Christi, or will he begin the year back in the Carolina League, where he made one start last year?
"We're kicking around the idea of where he's going to start," Bennett said. "When he came into Spring Training, we felt he needed some time. But the way he's been throwing the ball, we still have to evaluate him. We'll make that decision over the next seven days, but we like to see how well he's throwing the ball.
"He ended the  season on a high note for us. He pitched in the Carolina League playoffs [no-decision, three runs in 5 1/3 innings] and did a nice job. So we decided to send him to Hawaii, and he did a nice job there. He's got a lot of talent and ability, and he's taken a step forward now and started to show some consistency. He's been given some time with the staff, and he's taken that extra information and is applying it."
Parting shot: OK, so the Astros aren't as deep as some other clubs are or as deep as they would like to be. It happens. What they need is to have a few players, such as Norris, step up and soften the blow the farm system took by making the aforementioned trades. If that happens, the future will be brighter sooner than later for Houston.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.