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02/18/09 9:37 PM EST

Norris capitalizing on big league camp

Astros' top pitching prospect quietly observing, learning

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Bud Norris is well aware of where the Astros rank in organizational talent, at least according to a couple of publications that specialize in that area.

It's hard to ignore, really. Baseball America hasn't been kind to the Houston franchise in the last couple of years, ranking it somewhere in the bottom -- if not dead last -- for longer than the organization cares to remember.

Norris, however, views the Astros' farm system a bit differently, and that's quite understandable, given his status as the club's top pitching prospect.

"I think as a whole, each team has a lot of good players at each level," Norris said. "Maybe we don't win a lot of games, but the fact is there is a lot of talent. We have young guys that just need to learn."

That's what Norris will be doing for the next several weeks as a participant in his first big league Spring Training. All of the Astros' top prospects are starting the spring with the Major League club, including outfielder Brian Bogusevic, third baseman Chris Johnson, catcher Jason Castro and right-hander Sergio Perez.

Norris is probably the pitcher closest to reaching the big leagues, although his role is yet to be determined. For now, he's trying out for a spot in the bullpen, and while it's unlikely he'll make the team out of Spring Training, it may not be long before Norris gets his first true taste of the big leagues.

Norris has been a starter since he was drafted by the Astros as a sixth-round pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, but his performance as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago put him on the map. Making up for lost time after missing two months of 2008 with an elbow injury, he made 12 appearances in the AFL, pitched 19 innings and allowed four runs for a 1.89 ERA. He walked 13 and struck out 20.

His fastball clocks in at 96-97 mph, while his slider is thought to be well above average. Norris, according to observers, has "closer stuff," and he could be a good fit for the back end of the bullpen, possibly as a setup man.

Norris, who turns 24 on March 2, will work out of the 'pen while he's with the Astros, but when and if he's sent to Minor League camp this spring, it's likely he'll begin the process of getting stretched out to start. Norris, like most young pitchers, doesn't have a preference of starting or relieving -- it's all about whatever gets him to the big leagues the quickest.

"You get a lot more innings as a Minor Leaguer as a starter, and that's how you learn, by pitching more," Norris said. "That was understandable. But if they need me in the bullpen ... I went down to Arizona and I learned a lot. That's something I'd be glad to do."

For now, Norris is soaking up the environment. He's taking advantage of however long he has in big league camp, quietly observing and learning from the veterans.

"I think it's great that they're giving the young guys the opportunity, just to get a feel for it. We had the Elite camps [at Minute Maid Park], and you get a great feel for what a big league mentality is. Instead of being thrown in the fire after getting called up from Double-A or Triple-A and you don't know what you're getting into, you kind of get a feel here in Spring Training."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.