added 6/19/2013 by Bob Hulsey
Even before the recession hit, there was a trend one could find while seeking employment. The ideal candidate most hiring managers and human resource types were looking for were the ones who fit a specific profile - x amount of experience and x amount of education, x amount of work in a specific field or previous experience with x software or x protocol. Certainly, the right fit would have some of this but I found it rare to find gatekeepers who were willing to think outside the box or project someone's potential into a role. They wanted the safest choice possible so that if that candidate washed out, the gatekeepers could excuse themselves by saying the candidate clearly fit the profile.
That's why I've always had a special place in my heart for the ballplayers who were low-round picks or low expectation players. I've always had a special appreciation for the big leaguer who got results without a 95-mph fastball or without a picture-perfect swing. I could spend hours watching Doug Jones chew up hitters with his 50-mph changeup. I could imagine all the coaches who told young players not to stand at the plate like Jeff Bagwell. Yet these were guys who excelled despite their unorthodox talents.
So, even in the depths of our current displacement and despair, there are a few Astros players and prospects whom I root for just because I know they've had their naysayers every step of the way. They heard scouts tell them they weren't good enough to make the majors or they came to America with simply a hope and a prayer. They put in the extra hours to refine their skills and reached the majors without getting fawning reviews from Baseball America or big signing bonuses. They made it when other highly-sought talent washed out.
Jose Altuve is one such player but I went into detail about his story in a recent dual column with Scott Barzilla. In my mind, I pair him with J.D. Martinez, a lowly 20th-round draft pick from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Nobody expected much of him yet he, and Altuve, tore up the minors so dominantly that they were given express passes to the big leagues in 2011 because they had proven themselves ready for the test despite Altuve being just 21 years of age and Martinez 23. While J.D. has struggled to keep his job in Houston, he has proven he is willing to work hard to make the adjustments to stay productive. The left field job is his to lose at the present time.
Jose Cisnero is a pitcher that was often overlooked when the lists of top prospects were named. Even when he pitched well in the minors, the Dominican righthander never created the buzz that some of his minor league teammates did. While a starter during most of his time in the minors, Jose has adjusted to the bullpen role in the majors and could develop into a dependable set-up man. As of Tuesday, he has posted a 1-0 record with a 2.48 ERA and a healthy 1.24 WHIP in 13 big league appearances. More time is needed to see if he will pan out but I hope he does not get lost in the shuffle of arms coming through the system. Cisnero is still just 24 and can develop further.
In a different way, I lump Dallas Keuchel into my group. I remember watching Keuchel pitch for Arkansas in the 2009 College World Series. He reminded me of Mike Hampton, the sort of bulldog lefty that continued to battle hitters until the hook came. I was surprised he lasted until the seventh round when the Astros took him. Keuchel had a spectacular debut against the Rangers last year then took his lumps along with the rest of the club (3-8, 5.27 ERA) in 2012. While the front office pulled him from the starting rotation this spring, he has bounced back to join the Houston bullpen then returned to the rotation and has posted a 4-3 record and 4.23 ERA overall. Since returning to the rotation, Dallas has carried a 4-2 record with a 3.99 ERA.
What these four guys have in common is that they weren't expected to succeed. They weren't top draft choices or big-dollar signings. They were not high-ranking prospects and nothing was handed to them. They've earned everything they've accomplished so far and overcame the obstacle of being considered roster fodder to realize their dreams of playing in the major leagues.
One other thing all four of these players have in common - they are products of the much-maligned Astros farm system. They weren't waiver claims or trade acquisitions. They are all home grown Astros.
It is one thing to root for the guys who came to the organization with silver spoons and lofty expectations. Scouts and GMs did not stake their reputations on my special players. In fact, my special players had to outperform some of the prospects those front office types preferred.
I enjoyed the career of Chris Sampson, a shortstop-turned-pitcher that left baseball when he couldn't cut it as an infielder but reinvented himself as a pitcher and worked hard to reach the majors, overcoming the low expectations others set for him along the way. Cecil Cooper ruined Sampson in 2009 by using him too often in relief but, before then, his was the sort of real-life success story one had to root for. In a way, these four current Astros embody that same desire to work hard and get the most from their talents, even against the steep odds of becoming productive major leaguers.
Making it in the majors sometimes is more about heart than skill. A good team can't have enough guys who show heart. Wait, I think I heard about that once in a movie.