It's still not where it needs to be, especially in terms of depth, but there are some homegrown players just about ready to contribute, with some more intriguing ones down the pike. Last year, Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino came up to help out the pitching staff and both could fill in the back end of the rotation in 2010.
Once healthy, Tommy Manzella looks primed to be the everyday shortstop. And while the team brought in Pedro Feliz to play third, Chris Johnson should contribute over the course of the season.
Much of the talk surrounding the improvement of the previously barren Astros farm system has centered around the work of scouting director Bobby Heck, who's overseen the past two Drafts. He's shown a willingness to go a little off the board, and it's already playing dividends at the highest level in the form of 2008 first-round pick Jason Castro.
The other benefits may take a bit longer to be felt in Houston and, truth be told, there's still not a ton of talent in the organization. But it is encouraging that there are some legitimate prospects at various rungs on the ladder.
Jason Castro, C
Even if J.R. Towles wins the job on Opening Day and Castro goes down to Triple-A, it's pretty clear Castro is just about ready. If Towles falters, Castro will be prepared to take over. While he doesn't have a ton of power, he should be able to hit for average, be productive at the plate and do a very nice job handling a pitching staff.
Chris Johnson, 3B
Johnson is back to waiting for a shot at a full-time gig in Houston, thanks to the Feliz signing. But he had a very strong spring and could get the call if there's an injury or other opening. The 25-year-old has shown glimpses of a good bat, with power, and will get to refine it while waiting for the call.
Tommy Manzella, SS
A strained quad put him on the shelf for a while this spring, but before the injury he had hit .300 in Grapefruit League games. The offense is a bit of a bonus, as Manzella will be expected to be a steady performer defensively and do the little things at the plate to help the Astros win.
Under the Radar
Koby Clemens, C/OF
Drew Locke, OF
It's hard to think of a son of Roger Clemens being under the radar, but perhaps it's because this Clemens has been around since the summer of 2005. He had a breakout last year, being named MLB.com's Class A Advanced Hitter of the Year after hitting .345 with a .419 on-base percentage, .636 slugging percentage, 22 homers and 121 RBIs. He'll need to show it wasn't a California League-induced spike when he moves up to Double-A this season.
Yes, the 2005 19th-round pick will play this year at 27. And yes, he's yet to play above Double-A. But the guy won two-thirds of the Texas League triple crown in 2009, falling just six homers shy of the whole thing. He's got a career .309//.366/.491 line -- not bad for someone picked up in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft.
Henry Villar, RHP
It's hard not to like what Villar did in 2009 as a reliever with Lexington: 2.60 ERA, .235 opponents' average, 109 strikeouts (good for fifth in the organization) and just 19 walks over 90 innings. It was his first season coming out of the 'pen -- he had largely been a starter in both the Dominican Summer League and rookie-level Appalachian League previously -- and it seems like the role suits him. It could mean a quicker ride up the ladder for the undersized right-hander.
SS Jiovanni Mier (1st round) performed well in his debut, hitting .276/.380/.484 over 192 at-bats, and he plays a very good shortstop. While a back injury slowed down second-rounder Tanner Bushue, the right-hander did post a 2.42 ERA and .200 opponents' average against in 22 1/3 GCL innings. ... RHP B.J. Hyatt (4th round) went to Appalachian League Greeneville and pitched very well in relief (1.64 ERA, 11 strikeouts in 11 innings) and not do well as a starter (8.36 ERA and 18 hits in 8 1/3 innings). ... LHP Dallas Keuchel (7th round) pitched very well for Tri-City in the NY-Penn League, posting a 2.70 ERA over 56 2/3 innings. He allowed 52 hits (.240 batting average against) while walking just nine and striking out 44. ... 20th rounder J.D Martinez made a brief stop with Greeneville (.403 in 19 games), then moved up to short-season Tri-City, promptly winning the batting title with a .326 average. He topped the league in OPS (.920) and was second with his .540 slugging percentage as well. ... OF Grant Hogue (35th round) went to Greeneville and hit .284/.365/.392 while stealing 17 bases in 22 tries. ... RHP Mike Schurz (44th round) was impressive in relief, albeit in the GCL and NY-Penn League, finishing with a 1.52 ERA and six saves in 29 2/3 total innings, allowing just 19 hits and striking out 37.
Hitter of the Year -- Jiovanni Mier, SS
Pitcher of the Year -- Jordan Lyles, RHP
Unsure of how California League standouts like Clemens and Jonathan Gaston will fare up a level, we like how Mier, last year's first-rounder, kicked things off. He'll handle the jump to full-season ball just fine and compete for the South Atlantic League MVP.
It's hard not to go with last year's winner since he's only going to get better. The only thing that could hold him back statistically would be extended time in Class A Lancaster, but even that might not keep him from being the organization's best in ERA and strikeouts.