HOUSTON -- Astros director of player development Fred Nelson recently returned from a trip to the Astros' Class A affiliate in Lancaster, Calif., where he got the chance to see some of the club's top prospects up close and personal for a few days.
Perhaps the thing that stood out to Nelson more than anything else was the effectiveness of the pitching staff. The numbers, which show Lancaster last in the California League with a 5.03 ERA through play Sunday, don't provide a true indicator of how well the staff has thrown in a very favorable hitter's environment in Lancaster. The team ERA is nearly a run better than it was at the end of last season.
"I was really surprised at how well that club was able to pitch at home in this offensive environment," Nelson said.
Right-hander Ruben Alaniz, signed by the Astros as a non-drafted free agent out of south Texas nearly three years ago, threw seven scoreless innings Friday night to lower his ERA to 2.90 while improving to 2-0. Starter Bobby Doran (2-1, 3.30 ERA) has also pitched well.
The secret to Alaniz's success was pitching down in the zone and getting ground balls. Only four of the 21 outs he recorded were via fly balls, which Nelson said is the key to success in Lancaster.
"They're getting more ground balls than I've seen before out here, which obviously in that environment is a positive thing," Nelson said. "They've been more aggressive pitching in, and we talked about that this spring. The group of guys that goes out to Lancaster can't leave the ball out over the plate to right-handers so they can lift the ball into the jet stream."
Lancaster center fielder George Springer, the Astros' No. 1 Draft pick last year, was hitting .278 with two homers and 18 RBIs in 97 at-bats through the weekend. Nelson walked away impressed with him and shortstop Jiovanni Mier, third baseman Jonathan Meyer, first baseman Telvin Nash, catcher Rene Garcia and left fielder Enrique Hernandez.
"You've got a nucleus of a pretty good Minor League team and with that a nice little group of prospects as well," he said.
Nash has cooled off somewhat following his torrid start and was 7-for-39 in a 10-game span ending Sunday. Three of those hits were home runs, giving him nine for the season.