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02/23/11 6:53 PM ET

Top prospect Lyles has shot to win starting job

Competition for No. 5 spot could push youngster into spotlight

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Jordan Lyles sits quietly at his locker each morning, staring mostly straight ahead so he's sure not to make a misstep. He's the youngest player in the room and wants to make sure he's seen but not heard, at least in a domain where the veterans rule the roost.

Lyles is much freer to be himself on the field, a place where age doesn't matter if you have the kind of tools he possesses. At barely 20 years of age, the right-hander is the team's top prospect and is in the mix for the final available spot in the starting rotation this season.

The Astros wouldn't mind if Lyles -- who appeared in only six games at Triple-A last year after spending most of the season at Double-A Corpus Christi -- began the season in the rotation at Oklahoma City, but they're not going to hold him back if he wins a job this spring.

"His performance and the level of competition around him will dictate the timetable as to when he gets here or if he stays here," said Astros general manager Ed Wade. "If we're only focusing on the fifth spot, we do have competition and we do have some experienced guys there who conceivably could put Jordan in a position where he's back at Triple-A getting more experience."

Lyles has shot through the system since the Astros drafted him with the No. 38 overall pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft out of Hartsville, S.C., where he was a three-sport athlete who could have played college football. They gave him $930,000 and have been pleased with the investment.

He's gone 17-26 with a 3.54 ERA in 68 games (67 starts) in the Minor Leagues, striking out 372 batters in 358 2/3 innings because of his terrific ability to throw strikes. Lyles is ranked as the 31st overall prospect by MLB.com entering this year, which is the highest of any Astros player.

Lyles says he hasn't put any extra pressure on himself to live up to the expectations of being labeled the No. 1 prospect.

"I've never tried to prove anything to myself or anyone," he said. "I just want to come out and get better every day, try to get ready for the season and get my arm in shape."

Wade said this spring is more about Lyles getting a chance to soak up the atmosphere of a Major League clubhouse and take advantage of each opportunity to throw before the staff.

"I've said all along, in a perfect world, he gets more time [in the Minor Leagues]," Wade said. "His performance could dictate otherwise, and he could be here sooner rather than later. We're not closed-minded about it, but at the same time, he shouldn't be putting added pressure on himself."

Lyles is one of five candidates for the final spot in the Astros' rotation, with veterans Nelson Figueroa and Ryan Rowland-Smith and Rule 5 Draft picks Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton. The middle of five brothers, Lyles knows all about the kind of competition he'll face this spring.

"I just try to come out here and compete," he said. "Last year, my goal was to come in and help our team out, and I felt like I did that. This year, I'm going to continue to do that, and when it's my time, I'll be ready."

Lyles went a combined 7-12 with a 3.57 ERA in 21 games at Corpus Christi and Round Rock last season, skipping Class A Lancaster after spending the entire 2009 season at low Class A Lexington. He struck out 115 batters and walked 35 in 127 innings at Corpus Christi, earning a late-season promotion.

"I don't think you can expect to see a kid come out of that Draft and dominate Double-A the way he did last year, get Triple-A experience and then realistically be on the radar screen in a big league camp before he's even eligible to be placed on a 40-man roster," Wade said. "The ascent has been pretty rapid and there's been very few setbacks along the way. Does he have more to learn? Sure, he has more to learn. Are there rough edges to smooth out? Sure there are.

"His demeanor and his approach to things allow him to move at a more rapid pace. We talk about trying to put guys on the express lane when not only the ability dictates whether they have the capability to handle it, but also the mental aspect of it. Both physically and mentally, Jordan's capable of handling that extra push where he moves through a level more rapidly, he's exposed to a big league camp and hopefully isn't in awe of his surroundings."

Among Lyles' top priorities this spring is fine-tuning his curveball. He changed the grip last year and is still trying to establish the pitch, which is harder and has a sharper break than he had before.

"I liked it and I want to stick with it," Lyles said.

The premier pitch in Lyles' four-pitch arsenal is a fastball that sits in the low 90s, and he also has good command with his changeup and slider. Add in a 6-foot-4 frame and classic delivery, and Lyles has the chance to be in the Astros' rotation for years to come.

Whether he begins that journey in five weeks or five months, Lyles promises he'll be ready.

"A lot of people haven't experienced what I've experienced early on, as quickly as I have," he said. "So if I go to Triple-A, that's fine. I'm still going to continue to get better and work hard, and I'll be more than ready to capitalize on my opportunity."

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