Why The Astros Have No Young Stars

added 2/5/2010 by Bob Hulsey

Back in 1963, the Phillies visited Colt Stadium in late September, still hoping to move past San Francisco and finish the season in third place. A pennant was already out of the question but their young manager, Gene Mauch, still wanted his team to fight hard.

In a Sunday series finale, they appeared to have the hapless Colt .45s beaten going into the last of the ninth. Up by a run, starter Chris Short began to tire. With two aboard and one out, Bob Aspromonte singled to left and plated Carl Warwick to tie the game. Mauch called for Johnny Klippstein from the bullpen. He retired Rusty Staub for the second out.

Up stepped Joe Morgan, 5'-7", and three days past his 20th birthday. He probably looked no older than the bat boy. Morgan spanked a single to right that plated Jim Wynn from third and the Colts walked off 2-1 winners.

Back in the Philadelphia clubhouse, most of the Phils had already begun to shrug off a late season loss, take their showers and start to chow down on the picnic table which had their postgame meal spread out on it.

Until Mauch came in with fury. He charged the table and knocked it over, spilling all the food onto the floor.

"You just let a Little Leaguer beat you!," he screamed.

It might have helped Mauch to know that Little Leaguer would last 22 years in the majors and make the Hall of Fame someday. But that wouldn't have mattered to him at the time.

The Colt .45s, which became the Astros, had some players who got their big league starts at very young ages. Wynn was just 21. Staub was 19. All three were in their rookie seasons. Houston had a lot of young players debut that year. Most of them would have undistinguished careers but a few were keepers and they were able to fast track because they were on an expansion team in a league that had just grown 20%. There were a lot of job openings for talented applicants - no experience necessary.

Tommy Manzella is likely to be the Astros' new shortstop this year. He got into seven games at the end of last season. They were his first games in the majors. He's 26 years old and he'll turn 27 before April is over.

While I'm highlighting extremes, the point I'm trying to make is that the Astros don't promote young players to the majors anymore. In today's Astros farm system, players like Morgan, Wynn and Staub would have probably been held back until they were at least 24 or 25 before they started their big league careers.

If you look at the current 40-man roster, the youngest guy on it(pitcher Henry Villar) will turn 23 in May. The youngest player likely to break camp on the active roster will be pitcher Bud Norris at age 25.

There are two major reasons why young guys who come up in their teens or early 20s have become extremely rare. One is college. Back in the old days, college was often where the lesser prospects went to play. Your better prospects went straight from high school to the minors so they might make their big league debut at 21 or 22 with a few years of minor league seasoning under their belts. Today, many top players choose college either for the scholastic benefits or in hopes of improving their leverage when the time comes to turn pro.

If a player signs after two years of college, he's probably 20 years old at that point and will likely start in low A ball or below. If he's a four-year college player, he starts his pro career at age 22 - more physically mature and more predictable in his development but he's lost time because many teams don't want prospects who are older then 26 so the window to making the majors is smaller than getting into the system at 18.

The other major reason why you see so few young stars is economic. The major league minimum is now $400,000 and teams don't want to pay that sort of money until they're sure the player is ready and likely to stick. Once the player is called up, it also starts their service time going through to arbitration. The longer a team can delay bringing a prospect up to the majors, the longer they can enjoy him at a reduced price and keep him away from free agency.

Therefore, players who might have been rushed through the system 30 years ago are now walked through it so as to be sure they are really ready for the majors if/when their time comes because the team doesn't want their service clock started prematurely.

The only two exceptions would be top draft picks who are already getting paid like big league players so you might as well let them get big league experience. Another exception would be the Rule V choice who has to stay on the major league roster or be offered back to the club they were picked from. That's how Wesley Wright made the majors at age 23 back in 2008.

I'm not sure that waiting until players are in their mid-20s to expose them to the majors is necessarily the right move. Injuries are random at any level and career-killing arm or knee injuries can happen before the team got any benefit from their investment. The epidemic of Tommy John surgeries takes two years off the development time of a pitching prospect and there's no guarantee they'll be the pitcher they once were afterwards.

Yes, sometimes a player is overwhelmed at the big league level. I suspect that was the case with J.R. Towles who I am hoping will have a breakout season this year. Towles was 23 when he had that wonderful September in 2007 but will be 26 before camp starts this month. Yet it is hard to know who will prosper and who will flop until they get the chance.

J.R. Richard made his big league debut at age 21. He struck out 15 batters to tie a big league record. But wildness made him bounce between Houston and AAA for three more years before he stuck with the parent club. He was ready at 25.

So, when you watch Tommy Manzella finally get his chance this year, remember he's closer to 30 than he is to his playing days at Tulane. Some guys are late bloomers but the development curve on guys like him and Norris and Felipe Paulino are very tight and there won't be much time to make a great impression. It adds more pressure on them than they would already be feeling trying to convince themselves they are ready for The Show.

At least modern-day Mauchs no longer have to fear seeing their best-laid plans ruined by some baby-faced kid.