Archive for the ‘ ‘Cat Watch ’ Category

‘Cat Watch: J.D. debuts

Outfielder J.D. Martinez joined the Houston Astros at around 5 p.m. central time on Saturday, officially reaching the major league team. It didn’t take long for Martinez to see some action: he pinch-hit for reliever Aneury Rodriguez in the bottom of the eighth inning, stepping to the plate for his first big-league at-bat.

Martinez took the first pitch for a strike and then swung at a low fastball, driving it deep to center field. The ball short-hopped the fence off the warning track two panels to the right of the 400-foot mark in dead center, going for a stand-up double that scored Humberto Quintero from first base.

(VIDEO: Watch Martinez double in his first big-league at-bat)

ValleyCats manager Stubby Clapp was Martinez’s hitting coach at two stops on his way up the minor-league ladder – at Rookie-League Greeneville in 2009 and at Low-A Lexington in 2010. He was not surprised to hear how Martinez debuted.

“That’s baseball as usual for him,” Clapp said. “That’s what he does – he hits. I’m very happy for him, he’s worked hard to get to that point and I hope that he has a solid career.”

Martinez, who played for the ValleyCats in 2009 and led the New York-Penn League in hitting, was called up to replace another former Tri-City player, Hunter Pence. When the outfielder batted for the first time, he became the 23rd former ValleyCat to reach the big leagues.

“It was definitely exciting,” Martinez told “You go up there to the plate and my mind was just, ‘Hit something hard. Don’t embarrass yourself.’”

Clapp spoke glowingly of Martinez’s drive and work ethic.

“He’s a consummate professional,” Clapp said. “He’s teachable. When you get a player that will come to you and ask their own questions, that’s special. Sometimes players are scared to ask questions, but J.D.’s not scared – no matter how small the question is, he’s going to come ask it.”

Martinez made his first career start this afternoon, drawing a walk in four plate appearances.

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

‘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