Continuing the Minor League tour. (Next time, my timing will be better.)
I planned my visits to the Astros’ two Minor League affiliates this week intending to watch Jordan Lyles pitch, but I knew that by splitting my time equally between Corpus and Round Rock, I only had a 50-50 chance to actually meet that goal.
Lyles was on track to start Thursday of this week, so logic would dictate I probably should have planned to be in Corpus that day. But I had a semi-strong feeling that Lyles just might be in Round Rock by then, and I went with it. Unfortunately, I had it wrong, wrong, wrong.
So I’ll have to settle instead for the nice 15-minute conversation I had with Lyles during my time in Corpus and hope the kid gets an invite to big league Spring Training in 2011. (Meanwhile, if you’re at the Hooks game Thursday night, send me a note and let me know how he looked.)
Lyles is an intriguing study. He was the Astros’ first-round supplemental pick in 2008, has been rated as one of the top 20 prospects in the country and he throws hard. And he’s only 19 years old.
Nineteen. It’s not that the Astros don’t have players that young in their system, but playing as high as Double-A? Not even close. Lyles doesn’t turn 20 until October, yet he’s moving quickly through the Minor League system, one that still carries a stigma of pushing its players a little too gingerly from step to step.
The Astros have become much more liberal with their thinking when it comes to challenging the really special talent, and while they don’t want to place too many early expectations on Lyles, it’s clear he’s the pitching prospect with the brightest future. After spending the 2009 season with Low-A Lexington, Lyles skipped High-A Lancaster and went straight to Corpus to begin ’10, and there’s a chance that’s not his final stop this year, despite there less than a month remaining in the Minor League season.
A 6-foot-4, 215-pound righty from Hartsville, S.C., Lyles played three sports as a high schooler — baseball, basketball and football. In his earlier high school years, he always thought he would play college baseball at University of South Carolina and join the football team as a walk-on.
He briefly changed his mind his junior year and decided to take that season off from football after deciding maybe that sport shouldn’t be in the mix when he stared college. He thought about going the basketball-baseball route instead, but almost as soon as he quit football, he began to miss it. So he came back, had a great season, and almost immediately began taking recruiting calls from college coaches.
If Lyles had any mixed feelings about exactly what he wanted to do in college or how many sports he wanted to play, that ended when the Astros selected him as their second overall pick in the 2008 draft (Jason Castro was first). The then 17-year-old was offered a signing bonus larger than what he had expected or asked for, and there were no more decisions over which to agonize: he’d forego college and begin his professional baseball career immediately (that’s not an exaggeration. Guys sign their contracts and head out the next morning for Rookie ball.)
Coming out of high school, Lyles had four pitches — fastball, curveball, cutter and changeup. When he went to Rookie ball, they had him table the cutter and focus on the other three, but last year, under the advisement of assistant general manager Ricky Bennett and Minor League pitching coordinator Britt Burns, Lyles brought back the cutter.
He feels the cutter is his second or third best pitch, but “all in all, my pitches have jumped better for me,” he said. “Fine-tuning things, that’s what we work on every day. The four days I’m not starting, I’m working, trying to make the pitches more consistent.”
While young pitchers often have to put in extra time to perfect the changeup, that’s a pitch that doesn’t give Lyles many problems. High school hitters weren’t advanced enough to prompt him to use it pre-draft, and now that he’s worked it back into his repertoire, he feels it’s “one of my better pitches, and has become a plus-pitch for me.”
I’m looking forward to tracking Lyles progress. And I kind of wish I was in Corpus right now.
That said, I’m glad to finally visit Round Rock during an actual baseball season. I’ve been to The Dell Diamond five or six times during the offseason — the Astros attend a yearly luncheon here as part of their January caravan tour — but I’ve never made it here for a game.
This ballpark is fantastic, which comes as no surprise seeing the Ryan-Sanders families that run the Corpus franchise also run this one. Round Rock has long been affiliated with the Astros organization, first as its Double-A franchise, which won the Texas League championship several years ago.
You can find plenty of photos of former Express players who made it to the big leagues around the ballpark, but the one I posted below is by far and away my favorite. That’s Keith Ginter and Morgan Ensberg with manager Jackie Moore, minutes after the Express won the TL title in 2000. During the on-field celebration, Moore informed both that they were being promoted to the big leagues.
About a year ago, The Dell Diamond went through a bit of a face lift. They added an Intel Club that hosts private parties, and they massively upgraded their press box area, which now offers plenty of space for reporters, scouts and front office members to work, mingle and, most importantly, eat.
I could get used to it here.