Young talent praised in Astros camp
Six standouts with big league futures impressed Cooper, Wade
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- With less than two weeks remaining until the start of the regular season, a once jam-packed clubhouse has cleared out considerably as prospects have slowly made their way to the Minor League facility on the other side of the Astros' Spring Training complex.
The Astros are in the process of whittling their roster down to 25, but that doesn't mean the players who were demoted recently won't be heard from again.
The Minor League system has received its share of criticism in recent years, as has been well-documented. While it's true the quantity of true prospects may be low, the quality suggests the team's immediate future, while it waits for the lower levels of talent to develop, is not in the dire straits some have suggested. After making a round of cuts last week, manager Cecil Cooper lauded the efforts of several young players, including six specifically: third baseman Chris Johnson, shortstop Tommy Manzella, outfielder Brian Bogusevic, right-hander Bud Norris and catchers Lou Santangelo and Jason Castro.
"All these guys have a chance to be good Major League players," Cooper said. "For people to say our system is dry ... now, there's a big gap between those guys now and the guys we drafted last year. It's a big gap, but we were hoping these players can fill that gap and be here until we can get the other players going, the ones we drafted last year and the ones we'll draft this year."
Of the group, Johnson and Norris are still with the Major League club. It's unlikely either will make the team out of Spring Training, although Johnson has come up in conversation as a possible replacement for Aaron Boone at third base. Realistically, Johnson will probably start the season with Triple-A Round Rock, where he'll be the everyday starter and a top option for the Astros should a need arise.
Norris could be a starter in the future, but for now, the club has him pegged as a relief candidate. Someday, he might fit the mold of a seventh- or eighth-inning option, a la Chad Qualls. For now, the club is still evaluating Norris, who appears to have a chance to stay with the team until the very last round of cuts. As it stands, there appear to be no jobs available in the bullpen.
"Bud's moved in a straight line from the Arizona Fall League experience to here," Wade said. "I still believe he's got a future as a big league starter, but now we're evaluating himself to try to win a spot in the bullpen and he hasn't done anything to eliminate himself."
The most pleasant surprise this spring may have been Santangelo, who wasn't a top candidate to win a catching this spring, but impressed nonetheless.
The Astros have Ivan Rodriguez slated as their front-line catcher with Humberto Quintero as the backup, but should a need arise this season, Santangelo could get a call.
The 26-year-old catcher's progress was delayed in 2007 when he was suspended 50 games for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy, which allowed for J.R. Towles to leapfrog him and end up in the big leagues as a September callup. Nearly two years later, Santangelo appears to have reinserted himself on the club's catching depth chart.
"I made a point three weeks ago to go to him and tell him how well he's conducted himself in camp," general manager Ed Wade said. "He's going to be evaluated on everything he does going forward. I think he's really put himself in a position to contribute at some point in time. At some point down the road, if we think we have a need there, I think Lou is capable of filling it."
That has not changed the club's mind about Castro, however, whose standing in the organization remains on solid footing. Last year's first-round Draft pick is considered the catcher of the future, but whether he's knocking on the door this time next year or will need more time to develop remains to be seen.
"I've seen a lot of guys come into camp under those circumstances -- where it was a precondition of their signing that they get invited to Spring Training -- and it seems like, invariably, those are the guys that try to impress too many people and do too many things," Wade said. "No matter how many times you explain why they're in camp and what it all entails, they still try to make the club and they're still disappointed when they go out. Jason was a real exception to that rule.
"He just came in and quietly did his work and allowed the staff to become familiar with him. Before very long we're going to see him in the big leagues for a very long time."
The shortstop position will likely have to be addressed after 2009, assuming the Astros move on from Miguel Tejada. Manzella will be at the top of the list, and the club expects the 26-year-old to make strides offensively this year to better complement his stellar defense.
And Bogusevic's short time in camp left the decision-makers with few doubts that the center fielder will be a successful hitter at this level, when his time arrives.
"I thought all of the guys that came over for the first time really conducted themselves well," Wade said. "They fit in the program, they weren't in awe. They weren't trying to do too many things and press. They went about their business the right way and gave us a chance to evaluate. The evaluation is we've got greater depth than we've even given ourselves credit for."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.