MINNEAPOLIS -- The 2014 First-Year Player Draft is behind Astros scouting director Mike Elias, but he was back at work Sunday in Houston trying to sign some of the 41 players the club drafted over three days. Two of his most challenging players to sign will be pitchers Jacob Nix (fifth round) and Mac Marshall (21st), both of whom are firmly committed to college.
Nix, a 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher from Los Alamitos (Calif.) High School, has committed to attend UCLA. Marshall is a 6-foot-2 left-hander from suburban Atlanta who has committed to LSU. Both would have been drafted higher had they not been so firm in their college commitments.
Still, Elias believes the Astros have a shot to sign both. They were two of only four high school players the Astros took among their 41 picks.
"Mac Marshall has a very strong commitment to LSU," Elias said. "It was somebody that we saw on the board that late and drafted him on the off chance that we would be able to sign him. We're certainly going to make an attempt to do everything within our power and within our financial capabilities. I don't think it's going to be a real easy sign for us."
Nix is a good friend of No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken, whom the Astros hope will sway Nix away from UCLA.
"The kid is a really tantalizing high school right-hander," Elias said. "He's huge. Our scouts compare him physically to Mark Prior. He's got a really good arm, and we see a lot of potential in him -- especially with our pitching coach and the way they like to teach. We feel he would be a good fit for our system.
"We knew going into the Draft he was going to be an expensive sign. Being we took him in the fifth round, we wouldn't have taken him that early if we weren't confident in the fact we were going to sign him. I am optimistic about that one."
Astros playing long game with rehabbing Draftee Smith
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Astros don't mind playing the waiting game for 17th-round pick Ben Smith, a junior left-hander from Coastal Carolina who had Tommy John surgery in April. He's probably out of action until next summer, but the Astros plan to sign him and oversee his rehab.
Smith struck out 181 in 178 1/3 innings in his college career. He had 39 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings this year before he was injured. National crosschecker David Post and area scout Tim Bittner saw Smith in the first week of the season.
"They had him rated as a sixth-round talent," scouting director Mike Elias said. "He's a lefty with a real good arm. He's going to be shut down rehabbing for another year or so, but we thought it was a really good value pick. We're going to oversee his rehab, get him down at our facility [in Kissimmee, Fla.] and our doctors and medical staff are some of the best. It will be a good rehab environment for him."
The Astros took another pitcher who's had Tommy John surgery in the past -- Oklahoma A&M right-hander Dean Deetz -- with the first pick of the 11th round. He's healthy now and came to the pre-Draft workout in Houston a week ago and was clocked as high as 98 mph.
"He really impressed Nolan Ryan during the workout, and Jim Stevenson, the scout who drafted him, has compared him to a kind of Trevor Rosenthal kind of arm," Elias said. "Just power, upper 90s guy. He thinks he's got a chance to be a 100-mph guy, and his slider is a plus weapon."
Owens called up to bolster 'pen; Clemens optioned
MINNEAPOLIS -- Needing a fresh arm for their bullpen, the Astros on Sunday called up left-hander Rudy Owens and optioned right-hander Paul Clemens to Triple-A Oklahoma City as a long reliever. The Astros' bullpen had to pick up 6 1/3 innings on Saturday after starter Scott Feldman was knocked out after 1 2/3 innings.
"After the short outing by Feldman yesterday and pretty much going through both of our long guys, you have to make sure you have coverage coming into today's game so that you don't put yourself in even worse position for today or moving forward," manager Bo Porter said.
Owens, who allowed five runs and nine hits in 5 2/3 innings in his only Major League game on May 23 in Seattle, has been a starter his whole career. He was 2-4 with a 5.20 ERA in 12 games for the RedHawks, where he worked in Oklahoma City's tandem starter system.
Pitching in relief is something new.
"I'm super nervous about it, just thinking about it," Owens said. "It's something that's different. I've never done it before. It's going to be a new experience. I've come in relief in a couple of Spring Training games, but this is a little different than that."
Clemens, meanwhile, has bounced between the Astros and Triple-A this year, but has struggled in the Major Leagues. He's posted a 5.16 ERA in 11 games with the Astros in 22 2/3 innings. He allowed four runs on five walks and two hits over two innings in Saturday's loss to the Twins.
"There's a fluctuation in velocity," Porter said. "Some days he's 94, 95 [mph], other days he's 88-90, and it's more like he's trying to save himself. We've talked to him about letting the ball go."
Elbow improved, Villar returns to lineup for finale
MINNEAPOLIS -- After missing the last four games with a bruised right elbow, shortstop Jonathan Villar returned to the lineup for Sunday's series finale against the Twins. Villar had been out since getting struck on the elbow by a pitch Tuesday in Houston.
"He was able to swing [Saturday] and came out and threw with the trainers, and all that went well," manager Bo Porter said. "We're excited to get him back in the lineup, and hopefully he doesn't have any ill effects or any setbacks."
Villar, a switch-hitter, is hitting .193 with five home runs and 17 RBIs, but he's struggled mightily of late. In 23 games prior to Sunday, he was hitting .101 (7-for-69) with four RBIs.
Marwin Gonzalez hit .154 (2-for-13) while starting four games in Villar's absence, including a solo home run in Friday's win. He became the first Astros player to start at shortstop, third base and left field in a season since Brian Bixler in 2012.