Tony DeFrancesco, the manager at Triple-A Oklahoma City, said in Spring Training he expected his club to be deeper and more talented, and thus more competitive this year. Through 11 games, the RedHawks have been just that.
Oklahoma City, which went 68-75 last year in its first season as the Astros' Triple-A affiliate, was off to an 8-3 start heading into Monday's game at Memphis. The strength of the RedHawks so far has been pitching, especially the starting rotation. The pitching staff ranks seventh in the Pacific Coast League with a 2.87 ERA.
"I think overall, we've got a very nice club," DeFrancesco said. "We have guys that have been around the game and have some big league experience. It's a whole different makeup from last year. Plus, we've got five starting pitchers that give us a chance every night."
The rotation of Paul Clemens, Jordan Lyles, Dallas Keuchel, Aneury Rodriguez and Henry Sosa were a combined 6-1 with a 2.04 ERA heading into Rodriguez's start Monday. Lyles, Rodriguez and Sosa each pitched in the Astros' rotation last year, and Clemens is the organization's most big league-ready starting pitching prospect.
"Clemens has fit right in and given us a chance," DeFrancesco said. "We have some power arms coming at you from the right, and Keuchel, the lefty, has really improved his sinker and is getting a ton of ground balls and pitching with confidence. After the first week, I'm really pleased with the way the pitching has been."
Because the RedHawks have yet to play a road game at an affiliate of an American League team, they haven't used a designed hitter and have had to rotate their outfield mix of Collin DeLome, Fernando Martinez, J.B. Shuck and Justin Ruggiano. Martinez is hitting .341 with three homers and 13 RBIs.
"He came out of the chute swinging the bat really well, and [Angel] Sanchez has been a solid player in the middle of the diamond, and [Brian] Bixler came down and has been on fire," DeFrancesco said. "It's a nice group of power and speed. It's fun to watch."
Astros director of player development Fred Nelson said one of the goals of the offseason was to make the club more competitive with more Major League-ready players.
"If you look at the club from the first guy to the 25th guy, it's better," he said. "I was there when the team opened the season and listened to one of Tony's meetings when he addressed some things and he had posted the lineup and he said, 'OK, look at the lineup, because I've got four or five real good players sitting on the bench tonight.' A lot of times, you don't see that. "
The man who could be the Astros' designated hitter of the future when the club joins the AL has been flashing his power muscle in the early going at Class A Lancaster. First baseman Telvin Nash was hitting .316 (12-for-38) through 10 games with six homers and 11 RBIs. He's slugging .816 and has a gaudy OPS of 1.211.
Nash, a right-handed hitter, missed most of last year after breaking a bone in his hand and undergoing surgery.
"I think the fact he's back and getting his at-bats is really important," Nelson said. "His season was really chopped up last year, and I think sometimes guys get into a routine and into a groove. He appears healthy and swinging the bat well."
The California League, especially Lancaster, is conducive to putting up big offensive numbers, but Nelson said teams tend to send more experienced pitchers to that league for that reason. Nelson said that has to be taken into consideration when you consider the players that are putting up big numbers with the bat.
"I think offensively, guys like Jonathan Meyer, Jio Mier, George Springer and Domingo Santana -- all the guys we considered to be good prospects or some of our top prospects -- the challenges offensively are pretty significant and the ability they have to adjust is apparent, and I think Telvin has done a good job," Nelson said.
Springer, the team's first-round Draft pick last year, is hitting .275 with two homers and nine RBIs while batting in the No. 3 hole ahead of Nash.
Lexington right-hander Nick Tropeano, the No. 17-ranked prospect by MLB.com, threw six scoreless innings in a loss to Kannapolis on Saturday. In two starts, he's struck out 18 batters and walked three in 11 innings, allowing eight hits and one earned run. He was a fifth-round Draft pick last year.
"I wasn't overly impressed with him in the Penn League last year, but we're always cautious about that because he's pitched a lot of innings and guys are tired from multiples years of summer league and the college season," Nelson said. "Guys get into pro ball and they start to pitch every fifth day and they're already gassed. I think Tropeano came back and we've seen better velocity out of him. It's made him a very interesting person to watch."
Nelson also recently got a chance to watch 2010 first-round pick Delino DeShields Jr., a second baseman who's started the season repeating at Lexington. He's hitting .295 with one homer and five RBIs, but has 12 strikeouts in 44 at-bats.
"I've seen more life in his bat than I did last year," Nelson said. "He's still a very young player  in that league, and to see him hold his own and strike the ball much harder is encouraging. He's running better than I've seen him and playing with more energy and life. He's still going to have his ups and downs defensively, but he's working hard to get better."
Keep an eye on Lexington left fielder Jordan Scott, drafted out of high school in 2010. Scott, a left-handed hitter, was hitting .395 with a .500 on-base percentage through 11 games for the Legends. He had nine walks and only five strikeouts.
"This guy is a pretty good hitter," Nelson said. "He's running better than I remember and he also gained 25 pounds in the last two years. His nicknamed used to be 'Skinny,' and now it's getting harder to call him skinny. He gets the bat through the zone really well and hits a lot of balls up the middle. You hope that with maturity he starts to lift and drive balls out of the ballpark. Right now, he's a gap-to-gap hitter and a singles hitter."
On the farm
Corpus Christi second baseman Jose Martinez, who was signed by Jeff Luhnow while with the Cardinals in 2004 and was released last year, leads all Double-A players with 13 RBIs. He's struck out only twice in 33 at-bats.
Oklahoma City third baseman/first baseman Brett Wallace is nursing a strained oblique, which he suffered making an off-balance throw. He took ground balls Sunday, and DeFrancesco said he could return to action soon, perhaps as early as Monday.
Jarred Cosart, the hard-throwing right-hander in Double-A Corpus Christi, has missed two turns in the rotation because of a blister on his thumb caused by gripping his curveball. Nelson said he's hopeful Cosart can make his next start later this week.
Lancaster right fielder Domingo Santana was scheduled to come off the disabled list Monday. He had been sidelined with a mild hamstring strain.