"I'm a lot more optimistic than I was two years ago, that's for sure," Heck said.
That sense of optimism was on full display Saturday, when the Astros held their annual Minor League MVP ceremony before the big league squad's game with the Cincinnati Reds. Top Triple-A honors went to Astros shortstop Tommy Manzella, who hit .289 with nine home runs at Round Rock, along with earning two defensive player of the month awards from the club.
Manzella, for his part, earned a September callup to the Astros, where he's had one hit in five at-bats. Penciled in by many as a potential starter for the 2010 club, he's likely to get more opportunities as the season draws to a close.
"It's an audition," interim manager Dave Clark said. "It's an opportunity to step up and give us something to build on for next year. We'd like to have somewhat of an idea going into Spring Training as to what we have."
Outfielder Drew Locke took the honors for Double-A Corpus Christi, hitting .338 with 20 home runs, while Koby Clemens captured the honor for advanced Class A Lancaster by winning the California League's batting title with a .345 average.
"Moments like these are great," said Clemens, whose dad, Roger, was at Minute Maid Park for the ceremony and visited the Astros' clubhouse before the game. "I'm right where I need to be and putting myself in a position to keep moving up."
Heck said Clemens would have an opportunity to prove himself with a full season in Corpus Christi in 2010.
"There are players that are prospects because of their God-given skill set, who separate themselves because they look different and do things different," Heck said. "Then there are other guys that are more grinder types, who do have a combination of tools and skills, but they just learn and go through level by level improvement, like Koby. He's on the radar."
On a broader basis, the team's farm system appears to be on the rise simply due to the improvement in signing players. After a disastrous 2007 Draft, in which the Astros signed only 28 of 51 players, including none before the fifth round, the Astros under Wade and Heck signed 32 of 52 in 2008 and 36 of 51 in 2009, including 25 of the first 26 chosen.
"We feel real good about what we've done so far," Heck said. "The credit goes to our scouts; to get 25 of the first 26 players we drafted signed within two weeks, that's huge. The important thing is that the kids are out playing, because if they're out playing they have a chance to get here sooner."
Owner Drayton McLane was reportedly reluctant to go over slot money for drafted players prior to 2008, and the Astros' problems in player signings were compounded by a steady surrendering of Draft picks due to free-agent signings, Heck said.
But the current Astros regime has changed that approach in the past two years, and is counting on newfound depth to boost the club going forward.
"It's not going to be fixed in two Drafts," Heck said. "As excited as we are about some players right now, some are going to break our hearts. But if we get enough depth and quality through the Draft, we'll have some surprise, as well."
Other MVPs honored on Saturday included outfielder Brian Pellegrini for Class A Lexington, infielder Barry Butera for Class A short-season Tri City, second baseman Jose Altuve for rookie league Greeneville, infielder Enrique Hernandez for the Astros Gulf Coast League affiliate, and infielder Hector Rodriguez for the Astros Dominican Summer League team.