June 2011

Cooper and Cannan

New manager Stubby Clapp moved his family to Troy for the season, including his young sons Cooper and Cannan. They got a chance to swing the bat against their father’s pitching at ‘The Joe” after Thursday’s team workout.

Stubby pitches to Cooper: (click on the images for better quality)

And Cannan:

24.5 hours until the season starts.

2011 Roster released

Today’s big news was the announcement the 2011 ValleyCats roster. Here’s the press release, and the full list of players.

The construction of the roster is a bit different than last year’s. In 2010, the only American-born players with experience in the Houston organization had played in Tri-City the previous year. This year, five American players join the team after spending last season in Greeneville (or, in one case, the Gulf Coast League). They come largely at the expense of international players – whereas 11 foreign-born players suited up on Opening Day a year ago, only six are on this year’s roster.

The two youngest members of the team will be two of the most interesting pitchers to watch. Fifth-round draft pick Nick Tropeano and Venezuelan righty Juri Perez are the only 20-year-olds on the roster, and each currently seems likely to claim a spot in the starting rotation. Perez is not a prototypical pitching prospect, standing at just 5’11”, but 60 strikeouts in 51.2 innings as an 18-year-old at Greeneville in 2009 earned some attention. Perez missed most of 2010 due to Tommy John surgery, so it remains to be seen whether or not he can come back at full strength. Tropeano also does not fit the standard model – his fastball tops out around 90 mph from the right side – but he has excelled at Stony Brook and the Cape Cod League, thanks to advanced secondary pitches and command that could serve him well in the NY-Penn League.

Sixth-round pick Brandon Meredith headlines a group of experienced position players that includes just one foreign-born, infielder Hector Rodriguez. Meredith and first baseman Zach Johnson had two of the better bats in college, while tall center fielder Andrew Muren was throwing darts to home plate last night. Outfielder Kellen Killsgard, formerly a two-sport athlete at Stanford and once one of the nation’s top QB recruits, returns to action after missing the 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

I was a little surprised that reliever Travis Blankenship was assigned to Tri-City for a second season. Blankenship posted the second-lowest ERA for the ValleyCats last year in 30.2 innings of relief, and while he certainly doesn’t have the most powerful stuff, I’ve always thought he profiled well as a situational lefty – he throws from a low arm slot and relies heavily on offspeed stuff that breaks to the glove side. He had some command problems last season, but hitters did not make good contact off him, and I would have expected him to get a shot to test himself against tougher hitters. He could be one of the first players to be called up from Troy if an opening appears in the Lexington bullpen.

Joan Belliard and Adam Champion join Blankenship as returning players to the Tri-City pitching staff. Belliard always felt like a shaky option in relief – five homers in 36.1 innings will do that – but his performance was actually strong – a 3.72 ERA and a strikeout per inning. Though he had a rough July, allowing at least one run in every appearance, he gave up just two runs (one earned) in 17.2 innings in all other games. Belliard logged more innings than any other Tri-City reliever in 2010, just as he did at Greeneville in 2009.

Jacke Healey and Ryan McCurdy are the returning position players. McCurdy appears to be returning to a third-string catcher role behind Miles Hamblin and Bubby Williams, while Healey will see time as a powerful shortstop in a versatile infield.

Ebert Rosario, who will start his first full season on the mound, has taken the long road to Tri-City. Rosario was a third baseman in the Astros’ system for four and a half seasons but was converted to the bullpen in the middle of 2010. He struck out 12 batters against only two walks in 10.2 innings in the Gulf Coast League. Last year, the ValleyCats saw a similar project – converted shortstop Jorge De Leon – succeed in the bullpen. De Leon saved six games and led Tri-City with a 0.64 ERA; he is having success this year in Lexington, with seven saves, a 2.81 ERA and a reduced walk rate.

The ‘Cats arrived in Troy last night, and had their first workout at Joe Bruno Stadium. They will meet the press at Media Day tomorrow afternoon, and on Friday, the 78-game season begins against the Vermont Lake Monsters.

Fielding practice

Kevin Whitaker

More signings: Duffy, Wierzbicki ticketed for NYPL

Two more of Houston’s 2011 draftees will reportedly sign soon and debut with the ValleyCats this summer: 20th-round pick Matt Duffy and 24th-round pick Jesse Wierzbicki.

Duffy signed with the Astros last night, according to the Tennessee University athletics department, which tweeted this morning that he will likely play for the ValleyCats. If Duffy could follow in the footsteps of the last two 20th-round picks, he and the Astros would probably be very happy. In 2009, J.D. Martinez led the New York-Penn League with a .326 batting average and ranked second in slugging; he has continued to kill the ball at every level of the minors. Last year, Dan Adamson led the ‘Cats with nine homers and a .444 slugging percentage while stealing 11 bases.

A 6’3” third baseman, Duffy is no stranger to northeastern baseball. The native of Milton, Mass., spent two years at the University of Vermont, earning America East Player of the Year honors as a sophomore, before transferring to Tennessee when the Catamounts’ baseball program folded. Duffy hit over .300 in both seasons with the Vols, showing improved power numbers in 2011 despite the nationwide switch to less explosive bats.

Duffy seems a good bet to start at third base on Opening Day, one week from this evening.

Wierzbicki also indicated last night that he would sign and has been told that he will spend the summer in Troy. But his case is trickier – his North Carolina Tar Heels are still playing in the NCAA Tournament. Announced as a first baseman, Wierzbicki will reportedly spend some time in left field and at DH as the Astros try to find the best position for him; he may not be able to play first every day for Tri-City if 15th-round pick Zach Johnson signs and is assigned to the ‘Cats.

Of course, Wierzbicki cannot sign until his college season is over. That would be soon if the Tar Heels lose to Stanford this weekend, but if UNC wins the best-of-three series, it would advance to the College World Series. The eight-team, double-elimination championship tournament begins on June 18, one day after Opening Day for the ValleyCats, so Wierzbicki would have to miss the first week or two of the season.

You can watch the future ValleyCat play against Stanford today and tomorrow at 3 p.m. on ESPN3, and on Sunday afternoon if necessary.

Eighth-round pick Brandon Culbreath has signed; no official word has come out on where he has headed, but college pitchers picked in that range have almost always joined Tri-City in past years.

Sixth-round pick Brandon Meredith is still on track to be on the ValleyCats’ Opening Day roster.

Future ValleyCat John Hinson reportedly signed for much more than 13th-round money.

Kevin Whitaker

Draft notes: Hinson, Meredith headed to Troy

After three days and 50 rounds of drafting, the Houston Astros front office can now focus on signing the talent it just acquired and funneling those players into the minor-league system. We already have indications that two players will join the ValleyCats this summer.

13th-round pick John Hinson, an infielder out of Clemson, signed with the Astros last night; this morning, his dad told his hometown paper that Hinson will open the season with the ValleyCats. Hinson played both third base and second base in college, was announced at the latter position on draft day and seems a good bet to man the keystone sack at Joe Bruno Stadium on June 17.

Hinson was drafted in the same round by the Phillies last year but returned to school for another season. After missing all of 2009 to injury, Hinson hit .351 with 17 homers as a redshirt sophomore and batted .331 with nine longballs this year. The Tigers’ season ended on Monday evening, when UConn defeated Clemson in the regional finals.

Earlier this afternoon, sixth-round pick Brandon Meredith tweeted:

First meeting with the Astros last night went well… I should be getting a deal done early next week then off to the Tri City Valley Cats.

Meredith should hit in the middle of the ValleyCats’ order this year. A San Diego area native, he was the first high school player ever to hit a home run out of cavernous Petco Park, and he had two outstanding seasons for the San Diego State Aztecs, batting .383/.484/.542 as a sophomore, but struggled with blisters and less-powerful bats in 2011 and hit just .272. He should be fine defensively in left field, but from a hitter’s position, most of his value will have to come from his bat.

Fifth-round pick Nick Tropeano either has signed or will sign soon, as the Astros plan to fly him to their training complex on Sunday. There is an unconfirmed report that he signed already and will play for the ValleyCats, but the only source is, oddly enough, a basketball forum. A cursory Google search seems to indicate that this was originally posted on the Stony Brook Radio Sports blog but later removed. Even absent this rumor, it seemed likely that Tropeano would soon be a ValleyCat; he’s the type of advanced college pitcher who is likely to sign quickly, and college pitchers drafted in the top ten almost always debut in Troy.

(Edit: Scouting director Bobby Heck confirmed that Tropeano signed, though his minor-league assignment is not yet official.)

We’ll keep you posted as more players sign and learn where they are headed over the weekend. The 2011 ValleyCats Opening Day roster will likely be released on Monday, and the players come to troy on Tuesday to begin preparing for the season.

***

Astros Director of Scouting Bobby Heck on the first two days of his team’s draft:

We accomplished our goal in taking the best talent and just stayed true to our board as much as we could throughout the day. We feel good about what we were able to add to our stable here.

General Manager Ed Wade:

We’ve got more pitching depth in the system now and have continued to build that pitching depth through the draft.  Our philosophy is to take the best athlete available at that point in time … So far, as things have gone, we’re pleased.

***

Some links:

The Astros’ 40th-round pick will not be playing for Tri-City this year, nor any other professional team. Buddy Lamonthe, a top reliever at San Jacinto Community College, was paralyzed in a swimming accident one month ago, and the Astros drafted him as a symbolic gesture. His full story can be found on The Buddy Project Website.

Houston was not the only Texas team to draft a player for emotional reasons on Wednesday; in the 33rd round, the Rangers selected Johnathan Taylor, who was paralyzed after an outfield collision with Texas second-round pick Zach Cone this spring.

George Springer might want to check out former first-round pick Doug Glanville’s advice.

The Crawfish Boxes has scouting reports of Meredith and Tropeano, with more to come.

Kevin Whitaker

Springer, pitchers taken early

Zachary Levine, Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle, tweeted this yesterday afternoon:

Six straight college picks for Astros after a run of five earlier in the round. @ValleyCats probably having a party.

Indeed, from the ValleyCats’ standpoint, the 2011 MLB Draft could hardly have gone better. As we mentioned on Monday, we were watching for college players in particular, since many of them will be future ValleyCats. Houston certainly kept us interested, taking 23 college players (three from junior college) with its first 30 picks.

If history is any indication, most of them will spend at least part of their summer in Troy – of the 20 college players drafted on the first two days last season, 15 played for the ValleyCats. Tri-City could almost field a complete team just from the ’11 draftees, as Houston’s selections covered every position.

On Monday evening, Houston took UConn outfielder George Springer with the 11th overall pick, eschewing some talented pitchers in favor of the best position player available. Springer was seen as a top-five talent entering 2011 but fell due to some struggles with his swing this spring; he still hit .350/.458/.624 this season and was named the Big East Player of the Year.

With good power and good speed, Springer is a potential 20-20 candidate in the major leagues; he’ll get every chance to play center field, but Houston scouting director Bobby Heck said there is a chance he’ll eventually move to a corner.

Springer would be a good bet to spend the summer in Troy if he signed quickly – the last two college players drafted on the first day, Mike Kvasnicka (33rd in 2010) and Jason Castro (10th in 2008) made their pro debuts with the ValleyCats. However, Springer has other things on his mind right now – his Huskies won their NCAA regional on Monday and will face South Carolina this weekend for the right to advance to the College World Series. If Connecticut wins, Springer’s college season may not end until the end of June.

The junior says that he wants to play professional ball, and he should sign with Houston eventually, but it may not be a simple negotiation; while he has not demanded a particularly large bonus, industry sources expect him to receive a deal slightly above slot money. It seems likely that Springer may follow the same path as Castro did three years ago – the catcher signed in July and debuted a month into the ValleyCats’ season, eventually appearing in 39 games.

The Astros went for pitching with most of their high-end picks on Tuesday, taking hurlers with their first four second-day selections and seven in the first ten rounds. Second-round pick Adrian Houser, a high school pitcher from Oklahoma, and fourth-round pick Christopher Lee, a very young juco lefty from Florida, will likely go to lower levels, but the other two highly-drafted starters could make an impact in Troy.

Vanderbilt righty Jack Armstrong was Houston’s third-round pick. A terrific athlete, Armstrong can be seen doing backflips or making diving plays into first base, and had first-round talent but fell due to injury concerns. He says he plans to play in the Cape Cod League this summer to prove that he is healthy, and if Houston likes what it sees, it could sign him at the mid-August deadline. He could make an impact for the ValleyCats down the stretch, although Houston could also decide to hold him out of game action until the spring to limit his workload.

Fifth-round pick Nick Tropeano also has strong connections to the Cape Cod League – he earned the victory for Cotuit in the deciding game of the 2010 CCBL championship series, throwing 6.2 innings without allowing a hit. Tropeano is no stranger to the northeast, pitching for Stony Brook, and seems a good bet to headline the ValleyCats’ rotation this year. He projects to potentially be one of the best pitchers in the NYPL – while many worry that the righty’s upper-80s fastball won’t be able to get hitters out at higher levels, his advanced approach and superb changeup should keep short-season hitters off-balance.

San Diego State outfielder Brandon Meredith kicked off a delayed run on college position players, as Houston took 12 of his kind on Day Two, including six in a row in rounds 20-25. The full positional breakdown:

HS hitters: 3

HS pitchers: 4

College hitters: 13

College pitchers: 10

Three of the college pitchers were taken from the junior college ranks, as Houston looks to possibly find another Roy Oswalt, who the Astros drafted in the 23rd round out of Holmes Community College.

According to Alyson Footer, Lee has already signed a pro contract, as has second baseman John Hinson out of Clemson. Hinson could very well man the keystone sack for the ValleyCats this summer.

We will have more coverage of the Astros’ draft picks later this week. In the meantime, the Ultimate Astros blog has some bios of the top 30 picks.

Kevin Whitaker

MLB Draft Chat, Day Two

Join us again at noon for Day Two of the 2011 MLB Draft, featuring rounds 2-30. Last year, 16 of Houston’s second-day selections played for the ValleyCats, and many of this year’s picks will also end up in Troy.

We can’t embed CoverItLive on WordPress, so come join our chat on tcvalleycats.com!

If you’re here early, read through our Day 1 chat, check out our recap and read about what to watch for.

MLB Draft Chat, Day One

Welcome to our MLB Draft chat! We can’t embed CoverItLive on WordPress, so come join our chat on tcvalleycats.com!

VCN Draft Coverage

The 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft begins tonight at 7 p.m., the first of three days of selections. For fans of the ValleyCats and other short-season minor league teams, this is a big event, because many of the players drafted this week will play in the New York-Penn League this summer. Of the 30 players on the 2010 NYPL Champion ValleyCats’ postseason roster, exactly half were selected in that year’s draft.

The ValleyCats will provide extensive coverage of this year’s draft, much as we did last year. We will host a live chat tonight for Day One, the first and supplemental rounds (Houston has one selection, #11), beginning at 7 p.m. And we will chat again throughout the afternoon on Tuesday, when many future ValleyCats are selected in rounds 2-30. ‘Cats Corner and tcvalleycats.com will feature recaps and analysis of the Astros’ selections and previews of who might be joining the 2011 ValleyCats.

Live Blog: MLB Draft Day One

What to watch for:

If you’re a fan of the Astros organization in general, you want Houston to pick up as much talent as possible, especially young amateurs with high ceilings. But if you’re rooting for next year’s ValleyCats, root for Houston to take a lot of college players. High school draftees usually take longer to sign, open the season at a lower level (Greeneville or the Gulf Coast League) and often jump to Lexington the following season, bypassing Tri-City entirely. College players, on the other hand, often make their debut in the New York-Penn League, as many did for the ValleyCats last season.

Here’s the breakdown of the players that the Astros selected on the first two days (30 rounds) of the 2010 draft:

High school position players: 5

High school pitchers: 7

College position players: 11

College pitchers: 9

Eight of the 11 college position players, as well as seven of the nine pitchers, played for Tri-City last year. Additionally, relievers Travis Blankenship and Mike Ness were drafted in the 31st and 33rd rounds, while Ryan Cole and Brian Streilein (who joined Tri-City for the postseason) were selected soon after.

Of the five exceptions last year, two did not sign with the Astros, choosing to complete their scholastic careers instead. 18of the first 21 college players that Houston drafted and signed wore a ValleyCats uniform at some point during the season.

The takeaway: most of the college players drafted on the first two days will spend some time in Troy this season.

After having three first-day selections in 2010, Houston will pick only once on Monday evening. After the 11th pick, the Astros will wait until #69, which falls in Tuesday’s second round, and draft once every 30 picks thereafter.

Projecting any rounds past the first is foolhardy, but several experts have released mock drafts of the opening round, including Houston’s first selection. Last year, rumors converged on Delino DeShields, Jr., as the Astros’ target at #8, leaving little suspense when Houston did indeed nab the speedy youngster. This year, there is no such consensus.

According to ESPN’s Keith Law, Houston’s preferred choice among players with a chance to be on the board is Archie Bradley, a high school pitcher from Oklahoma. Bradley has a scholarship to play quarterback for the Sooners but will almost certainly sign a pro contract to play baseball instead. Once thought to be a likely double-digit selection, Bradley has been rising up draft boards over the weekend and could go as high as #4, making it likely that Houston will be forced to look at other options.

One of those options is Francisco Lindor, a shortstop from Monteverde Academy (Fla.). A well-rounded middle infielder, scouts are almost certain that he will be able to play shortstop in the pros, making his bat the only potential concern. If Houston took either Lindor or Bradley, it would be the third consecutive year they took a high school position player with their first pick (DeShields; Jiovanni Mier in ’09), but they would likely have to pay a bonus over slot to sign either, which the Astros have been reluctant to do with top picks in the past. Many teams in the top ten also like Lindor.

The Astros have not tabbed a pitcher with their first-round pick since 2003. But most of the front-end talent in this year’s draft is on the mound, so if there was a time for scouting director Bobby Heck to break this pattern, it would seem to be now. The most-rumored name to fit this bill is Taylor Jungmann, a homegrown righty from University of Texas. Jungmann appears to be a top-20 talent in the draft (even after allowing seven earned runs in a shocking NCAA Tournament loss to Kent St.) and is a geographic fit, making him an easy name to pen into a draft, but Houston doesn’t appear to have any special affinity for him beyond what most teams see. Jungmann is the type of player that could play for the ValleyCats this season.

Finally, a wild card name to watch is Stanford southpaw Chris Reed. Frankie Piliere reported on Saturday that Houston was trying to make a deal with Reed, though the organization reached out to him to deny the rumor a couple of hours later. Reed is seen by most as a supplemental or second-round talent, not worthy of the #11 pick, so this would be a surprising move from the Astros. The rumor gained credibility largely because Piliere was first to report the Astros’ deal with DeShields last year, which was also a reach for a player that few thought was deserving of such a high selection.

Other players rumored to be in Houston’s mix are Georgia Tech lefty Jed Bradley, Connecticut righty Matt Barnes, high school righty Taylor Guerreri and Vanderbilt righty Sonny Gray.

Most other teams also have complicated draft boards even now, less than eight hours before the event begins, as nobody seems to have much of a feel for this draft after the first five or six selections. Tune in to MLB Network at 7 p.m. and follow our live blog to watch it unfold.

Kevin Whitaker

‘Cat Watch: Catching up with former champions

In this week’s final installment of ‘Cat Watch, we look at the members of the 2010 NY-Penn League Champion ValleyCats that have moved on to higher levels of the Astros’ farm system.

2010 ValleyCats MVP Ben Orloff was the toughest player in the league to strike out last year, fanning once every 15 plate appearances. He’s up to his old tricks in the Sally League, with only three strikeouts in nearly 100 times to the plate. Orloff, who led the ‘Cats in hitting, is batting .341 with a .419 on-base percentage, though as usual, he has not provided much pop. The versatile fielder has split his time almost evenly between second base and shortstop.

Though he had tremendous power, right fielder Adam Bailey was a streaky hitter in his debut pro season; his play down the stretch of the regular season was critical for the ValleyCats to reach the playoffs, but he struggled to a .235 batting average for the full season. He has been hot for the first two full months of 2011, hitting .307 through 52 games. Anyone who watched a Bailey BP session knows that he has outstanding raw power, which he has put to good use this season, blasting a team-high 12 home runs. Bailey, who also possesses a strong arm, has already thrown out seven runners on the basepaths this year.

Catcher Chris Wallace, who was called up to Tri-City in August after two fantastic months at Greeneville and quickly became the Cats’ starting catcher, is becoming one of the hotter names in the Astros’ farm system. A 16th-round draft pick out of local University of Houston, Wallace leads the Lexington Legends with 37 RBI and has 24 extra-base hits in 50 games, including 10 longballs.

Mike Kvasnicka struggled in his transition to pro ball, bothered by occasional injuries in 2010, but he has recently shown the hitting skill that that the Astros foresaw when they selected him with the 31st overall pick of last year’s draft. The third baseman is hitting .304 and has driven in 32 runs, though the latter is also the product of hitting in the middle of a potent lineup.

For the second straight year, an outfielder drafted in the 20th round broke out at Tri-City. Dan Adamson showed an impressive combination of speed and power for the ValleyCats last year, and he has put up even better numbers in two months at Lexington, trailing only Orloff with a .329 batting average. Adamson, who fanned more than once per game in the NYPL last year, has struck out only 29 times in 43 games so far.

One of two ‘Cats invited to the 2010 NYPL All-Star Game, first baseman Tyler Burnett was also promoted to Lexington for the 2011 season. Burnett has upped his average by a few points but seen his walk rate take a hit from last year’s remarkable level, which was one of the league’s best.

Young hitter Telvin Nash, who joined the ‘Cats for the stretch run in 2010, suffered a wrist injury at the end of April and has yet to return to the field. It was a shame, as Nash – who showed as much power as any Tri-City hitter despite his youth – killed the ball for three weeks in the Sally League, hitting .310/.394/.603 while playing in both outfield corners and learning first base.

A fan favorite in 2010, Kiké Hernandez has struggled in his first stop in a full-season league, batting .244. He has shown much-improved plate discipline, drawing 10 walks in 23 games after taking only 14 all of last season, but the gap power he showed last season is gone, as he has only four extra-base hits, all doubles. Hernandez is still recovering from a sprained ankle, which took him out of action for four weeks between April and May.

The ace of the 2010 pitching staff, Carlos Quevedo, is having a strange season at Lexington. Known for his stingy nature at Tri-City, Quevedo has unbelievably lowered his walk rate this season, issuing just three free passes in 54.2 innings. Though he has increased his strikeout rate significantly (his K/BB is currently a ridiculous 15.33), Quevedo’s ERA has still risen more than two runs to a mediocre 5.27. The main culprit is that hitters are squaring up his pitches – opponents have racked up 12.5 hits per nine innings and have taken the righty deep 11 times. Part of this may be bad luck, but it’s not a good sign for someone who pitches up in the zone without an overpowering fastball.

Southpaw Alex Sogard has been finishing his share of games for the Legends, notching four saves in 12 relief appearances while also making one start. Sogard, who possesses a deadly curveball, has a 3.14 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28.2 innings.

Jason Chowning, who joined the ‘Cats in early July last year, has been lights-out in his sophomore season. The righty has a 1.40 ERA, 33 strikeouts and eight walks in 25.2 innings pitched this season, the most effective member of the Lexington bullpen.

Flamethrowing righty Jorge De Leon, who posted a 0.64 ERA as the Cats’ closer last year, has saved six games for the Legends this season. The converted shortstop has fanned 19 batters in 21.2 innings while figuring out his control issues in his second season as a pitcher, issuing only four walks.

Outfielder Austin Wates was one of six ‘Cats assigned to high-A Lancaster for the 2011 season. The athletic outfielder, who was signed in August as a third-round draft pick, is hitting .303 for the Jethawks through two months. Wates, who swiped nine bags in just 12 games for Tri-City, has 11 steals and four unsuccessful attempts this year.

Catcher Ben Heath, who was called up to Lexington midseason and even spent a couple days in AA Corpus Christi, is hitting .260 at Lancaster. The fifth-round draft pick, who shows prodigious power in batting practice and led the ‘Cats with six homers at the time of his promotion, has gone deep four times for the Jethawks. But he has continued to struggle behind the plate, throwing out just three of 36 basestealers while allowing five passed balls.

The ValleyCats’ best pitching performance of 2010 undoubtedly belonged to Jake Buchanan, who threw seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 win at Batavia to earn a berth in the NYPL Championship Series. The righty, who gets good movement and keeps the ball down in the zone, has excelled at Lancaster this season, leading the team with a 3.15 ERA despite playing in a very tough pitcher’s environment. Buchanan has been extremely durable, throwing 74.1 innings in 11 starts, over 20 innings more than the next-best on the team. If he continues to perform like this, Buchanan will rise through the system quickly.

After an inconsistent start to the season, Bobby Doran found his command and was one of five Tri-City starters to excel in August, kick-starting the Cats’ pennant run. He has not transitioned well to full-season ball, however, allowing 54 runs and 71 hits in just 44 innings at Lancaster. He is not missing bats – only 22 strikeouts – and his control, such an asset last season, has faltered, as his walk rate has nearly quadrupled to 3.9 per nine innings.

Andrew Robinson, a righty who spent time as a reliever and starter last season, has split time between the roles again for Lancaster. He was called up for two spot appearances in Corpus Christi, becoming Houston’s first pick from the ’10 draft to reach AA, but quickly returned to Lancaster within a week. Robinson has a mediocre 5.17 ERA despite strong control numbers.

A 33rd round draft pick, Michael Ness was by far the lowest-regarded member of Houston’s 2010 class among the six players in Lancaster. The righty, so successful as the Tri-City closer last year – and the man on the mound when the ‘Cats won the 2010 NYPL Championship – has allowed a 6.40 ERA in his sophomore season. His fastball-cutter combination has not kept California League hitters off-balance, as he has allowed 13.4 hits per nine innings.

Kevin Whitaker

Intern Challenge: The Cat’athlon

During the season, the Tri-City ValleyCats organization relies heavily on its valuable interns to provide a quality product for our fans. About two-thirds of the summer employees are interns, helping each department succeed before and during the 12-week season.

As of this week, all the summer interns are on board and getting ready for Opening Day. The full-time employees, feeling that today would be a good time for us to get to know each other and the organization better, designed a scavenger hunt-like challenge, which they dubbed the “Cat’athlon.”

At 11 a.m., I joined 23 fellow interns outside the main gate as we awaited our instructions. We were paired into two-person teams and given matching shirts:

Catathalon 2011

A few minutes later, the horn sounded, and we were off. We went to the box office and received a pair of tickets to the day’s event, directing us to a seat in the stadium with our first clue.

Interns were paired with peers from other departments, which came in handy throughout the day. I had no trouble matching the 14 teams of the New York-Penn League to their parent MLB clubs, but when we came to tasks about menus or sponsors, I mostly relied on my partner Ryan, who knew those subjects much better.

At one station, one partner was blindfolded and had to correctly guess five of seven foods that can be found in the ballpark, which was a bit disorienting. The food was a nice energy boost midway through the event, but the spoonful of nacho cheese came as a surprise…

Food tasting

We scrambled all around the ballpark, running from station to station to gain an edge on the other competitors. The weather, fortunately, cooperated – after a week of scorching afternoons and a freezing Thursday, the sun was shining and the temperature was very pleasant.

Some stations involved physical labor…

…while others were more cerebral. In Southpaw’s Den, we calculated discounts, taxes and totals on merchandise:

Many of the stations involved trivia tasks, making sure that we knew our stuff for the upcoming season. Another involved throwing giveaway items into a designated area of the stands, as ValleyCats employees will be doing often during each of our 38 home games this season.

Interns also put on mascot costumes and showed off their best dance moves:

The “Cat’athlon” lasted quite a while, as even the fastest teams took about an hour and a half to complete all the challenges, culminating in a run around the bases. After all the groups finished, everybody retired for lunch and to talk about the day.

Ryan and I came in first place:

Now our focus is solely on preparation for Opening Day, exactly two weeks from this evening. ‘Cats Corner and the ValleyCats Network will bring you full coverage of the 2011 MLB Draft, including live chats on Monday and Tuesday, when the Astros will draft many players who will join the ValleyCats and try to defend the NY-Penn League Championship.

Kevin Whitaker

‘Cat Watch: Martinez continues to mash

In the second of three installments, ‘Cat Watch takes a look at some former Tri-City players who have reached the upper levels of the minor leagues.

Few expected the former 20th-round draft pick to make a major impact in the pros, but J.D. Martinez just keeps hitting. The outfielder destroyed Greeneville pitching in 19 games and earned a promotion to Tri-City in his rookie season, where he led the New York-Penn League with a .326 batting average. He crushed the Sally League for three months in 2010, hitting .362 with 15 homers, and still hit above .300 as the first member of his draft class in Double A.

The Astros’ 2010 Minor League Player of the Year is back at it again in 2011, hitting .328 and slugging an even .500 in his second time through the Texas League. Martinez leads Corpus Christi with 32 RBIs and has been remarkably patient, drawing 21 walks in 37 games. As a roughly average corner outfielder, Martinez may not contribute much defensive value, but he won’t need to if he continues to hit this well.

Another successful member of the 2009 ValleyCats is also in his second stint at Corpus Christi. Lefty Dallas Keuchel was called up to Double A after 120 strong innings at high-A Lancaster. He went 2-6 with a 4.70 ERA in the Texas League last season but has had much more success in 2011, posting a 3.04 ERA through nine starts. Keuchel’s strikeout rate has dropped significantly – he’s fanned less than one batter every two innings – but he has also been stingy with hits and free passes.

Venezuelan second baseman Jose Altuve had a fantastic start to the season, hitting .408 at Lancaster and earning a promotion to Double A this week. The diminutive Altuve – listed at anywhere from 5’5” to 5’7” – went three-for-four in his first game at Corpus Christi, homering and driving in three runs.

Center fielder T.J. Steele has been plagued by injuries in each of his first two full pro seasons. Twice drafted by the Astros – unsigned out of high school in 2005 but selected again in ’08 – the outfielder is in his second season at Corpus Christi after being sidelined for the second half of 2010. Steele has struggled to replicate the success he had at Lancaster in 2009, posting a .264 on-base percentage over a full season’s worth of at-bats over the past two years.

Koby Clemens moved up the organizational ladder to AAA Oklahoma City this season, six years after making a brief appearance in Troy. The first baseman is hitting a pedestrian .254 with some power, including six homers and 10 doubles.

After an early promotion to the Pacific Coast League in 2010, J.B. Shuck is back with Oklahoma City this year. He has continued his low-power ways, with a .311 slugging percentage – just six ticks lower than his mark from last year – but is batting a respectable .265 while drawing a walk every eight plate appearances.

Kevin Whitaker

‘Cat Watch: Pence, Norris having breakout seasons

This is the first of three ‘Cat Watch posts this week, taking a look at how former Tri-City players have fared since leaving Troy. Today, we look at the players who have spent 2011 on an active MLB roster. All stats as of June 1.

After a breakout 2009 campaign in which he made the All-Star team and earned MVP votes, Ben Zobrist suffered a disappointing 2010 season at the plate, batting just .238 with reduced power. He continued to provide versatility for the AL East-winning Rays, however, starting several games at four different positions and seeing time at two others. A member of the 2004 ValleyCats, Zobrist was traded from Houston to Tampa Bay shortly before his 2006 big-league debut. So far this season, he has regained some of his magic at the plate, slugging .477 despite a recent slump with a team-high nine homers, helping the Rays surprisingly stay near the top of baseball’s most competitive division.

Right fielder Hunter Pence, also a 2009 All-Star and a teammate of Zobrist’s on the team that reached the 2004 NY-Penn League championship series, has been remarkably consistent since a breakout rookie campaign. From 2008-10, he hit between .269 and .282 and slugged .461-.472 every season and is on pace to post his best numbers yet. The 28-year-old Pence is batting .319 through 55 games, including a league-high 17 doubles, and leads the Astros with a .509 slugging percentage.

Bud Norris is enjoying a breakout season in his third year in the big show, ranking second in the Astros’ rotation with a 3.76 ERA through the season’s first two months. Already good at missing opponents’ bats, the right-hander has taken his ability to new heights this season – with 73 whiffs in 67 frames, Norris ranks fifth in baseball in strikeouts per inning.

The Astros’ top prospect entering 2010, catcher Jason Castro struggled after a midseason call-up, batting .205 in 195 major-league at-bats after a late-June debut. The bad news continued for Castro early in 2011, as he tore his right ACL in an early-March Spring Training game. He is expected to miss the entire season while recovering from the injury.

Chris Johnson was one of baseball’s most productive rookies last season, posting a .308 batting average with 35 extra-base hits after being recalled from the minors in the middle of June. Unfortunately, his momentum has not carried into 2011, as the third baseman has flirted with the Mendoza Line for much of the year, batting just .216 through 47 games.

After changing locations twice since the end of 2010, Felipe Paulino is trying to stick as a member of the Kansas City Royals. The right-handed pitcher was traded from Houston to Colorado in the offseason, but he was designated for assignment after allowing 12 runs in 14.2 innings out of the bullpen. The Royals claimed Paulino and purchased his contract from Colorado, and the 27-year-old allowed one hit over 4.1 scoreless innings in his first appearance.

Late in the 2010 season, Fernando Abad was a dependable member of the Astros’ bullpen, posting a 2.84 ERA in 19 innings of relief. He has struggled to repeat that performance this season, allowing 13 runs in as many innings and seeing his role reduced after suffering two losses in mid-May.

A two-time member of the ValleyCats (2005-06), former first-round draft pick Brian Bogusevic opened the season as a member of the Astros’ bench. Largely given pinch-hitting duties, the left-handed hitter reached base 10 times in 31 plate appearances before he was optioned to AAA in late May.

Drew Sutton got his first shot in the pros with Cincinnati in 2009 after a six-year minor league career and spent limited time with each of the two Ohio ballclubs last year. After signing with Boston in the offseason and hitting .307 to start the season at Pawtucket, Sutton was called up on May 20 and received regular playing time for the Red Sox soon after. He racked up five hits in his first three games as a starter, all Boston victories.

The very first ValleyCat to reach the majors, Matt Albers, is still in the big leagues, now a part of the Red Sox bullpen. The right-handed reliever, pitching for his third team after spending the last three seasons in Baltimore, has posted a 3.54 ERA in 20.1 innings while fanning 21 opponents through one-third of the season.

Chad Reineke, who spent all of 2010 and the first two months of 2011 in Triple A, made his first major-league appearance in nearly two years on May 31 when he was called up to start in place of Homer Bailey. After retiring the side in order in the first two innings, the righty ran into trouble in the third, allowing four runs in the frame. Reineke walked five batters and allowed five earned runs in 6.1 innings of work, taking the 7-2 loss.

The consensus top prospect in the Astros’ organization, Jordan Lyles, made his big-league debut on May 31. Starting against the Cubs at Minute Maid Park, Lyles held the opponents scoreless through seven innings, mixing four pitches and showing why he was highly regarded in the minor leagues. Though he committed a costly throwing error that led to a three-run rally in the eighth inning, the Astros rallied in the ninth to win the game 7-3. The 20-year-old Lyles became the youngest active player in the major leagues.

Kevin Whitaker

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.