August 2010

Round Rock, Day Two: Catching up with Mark Melancon.

Mark Melancon was diplomatic when I asked him about how he felt to be traded from the Yankees to the Astros, calling the whole experience exciting and different, while expressing his appreciation to his former club.

But I’ll bluntly say what Melancon did not: this trade was a very good thing for him, because he went from an organization that is stacked from top to bottom to one that has more holes than swiss cheese.

Holes create opportunities for unproven players. When you’re an unproven player in an organization deep in talent, those opportunities are far fewer than if you’re in one working its way out of troubled times.

An organization’s first responsibility is to build a farm system with its own players by drafting them, signing them, developing them and getting them to the big leagues in a reasonable amount of time. But another very important element is an ability to identify its own weaknesses, find a team with a surplus in that area and, if all of the stars are aligned, strike a deal.

Melancon wasn’t touted as a top Yankees prospect at the time of the trade, but if you dig a little deeper, the Astros appear to have something here. He’s 25, throws between 92 and 94 mph and has four pitches: a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball and changeup. And he’s working on a cutter.

Melancon has Major League experience, having been up with the Yankees three separate times last year and twice this year. Originally a ninth-round selection of the Yankees in 2006, the 6-foot-2, 215 pound right-hander has a 2.84 ERA over 123 Minor League appearances and in the big leagues, he has a combined ERA of 4.87 over 15 relief appearances.

He’s not years away from the big leagues as are the low-level prospects teams often get in return when they trade away a high-priced veteran. Look for Melancon compete for a job during Spring Training next year and don’t be surprised if he makes an appearance with the Astros when rosters expand to 40 on Sept. 1.

I wonder if this is sort of like the Dan Wheeler trade from six years ago. The Astros got him from the Mets for Adam Seuss, and before the year was over, Wheeler was one of the most reliable arms in the back end of the bullpen on a team that made it all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS.

Wheeler was behind a bunch of veteran relievers with the Mets, so to them, he was expendable. But he came to the Astros and soon, he was invaluable.

Time will tell if Melancon turns out to be that type of pitcher. He was endlessly lauded after the ’06 draft, but Tommy John surgery in 2007 slowed the development process and pushed him lower on the Yankees’ depth chart. Still, he seems to be someone who was still very highly thought of in the Yankees organization and who’s still young enough to develop into a pitcher who has staying power in the big leagues.

I asked him about his walk totals, which were unusually high this year. He walked 22 in ’08 and 11 in ’09, but by the time he was traded to the Astros, he had issued 31 walks over 56 1/3 innings. A change in mechanics may have something to do with that — after he was sent down to Triple-A earlier this year, Scranton coaches told him he needs to get the ball down a little more consistently. That led to a change in arm slot, dropping it from above the shoulder to more of a mid-range level. Melancon hesitates to use that as an excuse but acknowledged location issues can pop up when “you’re changing a lifelong habit.”

He hadn’t thought much about being traded from the Yankees, mainly because he had not heard his name come up in any rumors leading up to the July 31 non-waiver deadline. He said he was “completely shocked” when his manager called him in and put him on the phone with Yankees GM Brian Cashman. He didn’t sweat it, though, and realized pretty quickly this could work in his favor.

“If you’re established in the big leagues, (being traded is) probably more stressful, just depending on the situation. But going up and down between the big leagues and the Minor Leagues, you just try to establish yourself up there. You’re playing for all 30 teams, not just for one team. I feel this is a great opportunity for me. About five minutes after the trade, I was excited to be on board with the Astros.”

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Some images from a Thursday in Round Rock (Thirsty Thursday, no less: discounted soda and beer. Might explain the very healthy crowd on hand for the Express-Grizzlies games.)

That’s Melancon walking to the clubhouse from batting practice. After covering baseball at the Major League level for so long, the BP attire here — shorts and t-shirts — still takes me off guard. But as I mentioned during the Corpus leg of this trip, the heat is off-the-charts oppressive in the mid-afternoon hours this time of year (it was 102 at 4 p.m. on Thursday), so wearing uniform pants would be absurd.   

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The view of Dell Diamond from the press box. This is one of the best facilities in Minor League baseball, especially from a working standpoint. It really doesn’t get any better.

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Ran into Chris Sampson in the dugout (in this picture, he’s playing catch with his son). He pitched a scoreless inning Thursday night and has allowed two runs over 4 2/3 innings since he was sent to Round Rock not long ago.

 

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Meanwhile, back in Houston, the Astros officially announced the signing of their first-round pick, Delino DeShields Jr. The deal was completed much later than the Astros had hoped — the goal after the draft is to sign them and get them playing as quickly as possible — but the important thing is they signed him. Some images from an eventful afternoon at Minute Maid Park:

Before addressing the media,  DeShields signs the contract.

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He’s then congratulated by Asst GM/Scouting director Bobby Heck.

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Putting on the jersey…

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…and shaking hands with club owner Drayton McLane.

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Posing with Heck and Astros amateur scout Lincoln Martin, who signed DeShields.

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Continuing the Minor League tour. (Next time, my timing will be better.)

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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Optioning myself to the Minor Leagues (for four days)

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Greetings from Corpus Christi, home of the Astros’ Double-A Hooks. This week I’m taking a break from the Major League side of things to tour our top two affiliates. I’ll be in Corpus Monday and Tuesday and then will move to Round Rock Wednesday and Thursday.

I always look forward to these Minor League trips. First and foremost, I’m anxious to see some of the prospects coming through the system, especially considering the Astros are getting younger and have made continuing strides in revamping the farm system in the last few years.

But this is also a nice break from the hectic pace we’ve kept for the first four months of the season. I love coming to Corpus, a beautiful town with a state-of-the-art Minor League ballpark that looks as new now as it did when it first opened five years ago:

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I’m keeping my eye on a handful players while I’m in Corpus, including right-hander Jordan Lyles (although I probably won’t get to see him pitch, seeing he’s scheduled to start on Thursday. I’m still holding out hope he’ll get a promotion to Round Rock by then.) The feeling around here, among those who watch him regularly, is Lyles is definitely the real deal, a future top-of-the-rotation type starter.

Lyles is only 19, however, and the hope among some around here is that they do not rush him to the big leagues too quickly. It’s definitely the “in” thing lately for teams to promote their high picks from the 2008 draft (including the Astros, who brought up catcher Jason Castro a while back), but given Lyles’ young age, it wouldn’t shock me if he spent a good amount of time at Triple-A first before receiving consideration for promotion to the big leagues at some point next year. I’d expect him to be in Major League Spring Training in ’11. 

Other prospects to check out: outfielder J.D. Martinez, outfielder Jon Gaston (who I’ve been told has a cannon for an arm), second baseman Albert Cartwright, and pitcher Henry Villar, who pitched pretty well Monday night against Midland. He gave up one three-run homer but otherwise appeared in control over his seven innings of work.

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Over three rehab games for the Hooks, Geoff Blum played five innings Saturday, nine Sunday and nine Monday. He plans to fly from Houston to St. Louis Tuesday afternoon, arriving to Busch Stadium around 5 p.m. CT. So look for the Astros to make a roster move before the second game with the Cardinals.

Blum said his elbow feels fine but the rest of him is a little sore, which is to be expected when you miss a month of games. That’s what Minor League rehabs are for — get the body moving again and get past the general aches and pains that pop up after not playing for so long.

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The Hooks, like the Astros, have had some hard times this year, and I’ve heard a lot about the 16-game losing streak they suffered through about a month ago. Still, the Hooks found a way to turn it into a positive through a promotion called “Guaranteed Win” night (the lifeline of a Minor League team is promotions — the more creative, the better), which offered fans free tickets to the next night’s game if the losing streak continued that particular day. Bring a ticket stub to that game and get in the next night for free.

Coincidentally, the offer was made the morning of the game that finally ended the losing streak. The Hooks, however, let anyone who showed up with a ticket stub to the game in free the next night anyway.

I’m not sure I like their Guaranteed Win promotion as much as I like Jim Deshaies‘ Guaranteed Win jacket, but it’s a close second.

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Randoms:

* A few of you have asked about infielder Koby Clemens’ injury. He’s out with a hamstring pull but is expected back soon. He hurt the hammy legging out a triple on July 24 at Frisco.

* Hooks catcher Lou Santangelo’s walk up music is Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” and I’m wondering who thought of it first — Santangelo or Hunter Pence.

* From reading this report from MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart, the Astros’ first-round draft pick, Delino DeShields Jr., will indeed sign a contract. When? Apparently, soon.

“He’s going to be an Astro,” his dad, Delino DeShields, said. “No doubt.”

The deadline to sign draft picks is Aug. 16.

Other stuff:

Tickets are still available for the Astros Wives 21st Annual Black Ties and Baseball Caps Gala, scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 12 at Minute Maid Park. Chaired by Morgan Keppinger and Heather Byrdak, the event benefiting the Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC) will be attended by current and former Astros players.

Astros Hall of Fame broadcaster Milo Hamilton will emcee the signature event themed “A Night in Paradise.” Supporters will mix and mingle with Astros players during the cocktail reception and silent auction at 6 p.m. followed by a dinner and live auction at 7 p.m.

Tickets to the gala begin at $500. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 713-781-0053.

Among the items up for bid in the silent and live auctions:

A Day on the Ranch with Mary and Carlos Lee: A winner and their immediate family are invited to spend the day on the private Panamanian ranch belonging to Mary and Carlos Lee where they will enjoy fishing and horseback riding.

Heisman Trophy Winners Autographed Helmet: Signatures from 41 elite college football players including Archie Griffin, Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell, Paul Hornung, Herschel Walker, Tony Dorsett, Billy Cannon, John David Crow, Ricky Williams, Hopalong Cassidy, Bo Jackson, Charles Woodson, Reggie Bush, Ron Dayne, Glenn Davis, Jay Berwanger, and Billy Sims.

Golf with the Houston Astros: Two people are invited to golf at the exclusive East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia with Houston Astros pitcher Brian Moehler and second baseman Jeff Keppinger. East Lake Golf Club is a membership by invitation only club that is the home golf course of the legendary Bobby Jones. It has hosted many golf tournaments including the 1950 U.S. Women’s Amateur, 1963 Ryder Cup, and 2001 U.S. Men’s Amateur. It is now the permanent home of The TOUR Championship, the culminating event of the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedEx Cup.

The winner also receives Continental Airlines airfare for two, a two-night stay at the Hilton Atlanta and Towers Downtown and a $600 dining certificate at the Capital Grille.

Castaway with the Houston Astros: A winner and four guests will go deep sea fishing out of Surfside Beach on a 46-foot Hatteras fishing boat, with Humberto Quintero, Jeff Keppinger and Tim Byrdak. Day includes all rods, reels, bait, tackle, food and beverages. Boat courtesy of Tim Wilson of Tim Wilson Investigations.

Vintage Houston Astros Dugout Playhouse: A 100 square foot vintage Astros dugout playhouse completely outfitted with a metal sport locker, Astros signage, memorabilia, Panasonic 32″ LCD 1080P HDTV, swivel wall mount system, Panasonic Blu-ray DVD player, Apple iPod Nano 8GB, iPod sound system with remote, Nintendo Wii system and MLB game, Wii Nerf sports pack, remote camera, 8,000 BTU air conditioner with remote, GE Stainless Steel beverage center and progress LED interior lighting. The playhouse is, fully insulated, fully air sealed and treated for termites. The winning bid includes delivery, set-up and electrical hookup (limitations apply).

George Bush Memorabilia: Own a piece of history. This one-of-a-kind framed item features a picture of George Bush (in his Yale uniform) with Babe Ruth. It also includes a rare (1 of 16) signed George Bush baseball card and a baseball signed recently by former President George Bush at a Houston Astros home game. A must-have for the true baseball aficionado.

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