Appel putting it together at Double-A

Astros prospect Mark Appel has seen fellow pitchers Lance McCullers Jr. and Vince Velasquez and shortstop Carlos Correa – three guys he began the season with in Double-A Corpus Christi – reach the Majors and have an impact on the big league club this year.

Appel, who got off to a slow start for the Hooks while others were being sent straight to Houston, didn’t get discouraged or stop working, and now he’s poised to perhaps join them with the Astros in the near future. Appel, the former No. 1 draft pick, threw a seven-inning complete game Sunday in the latest in a stretch of strong outings.

In his last five starts, Appel (5-1) has allowed seven earned runs, eight walks and struck out 24 in 29 innings, going 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA. Overall, he’s lowered his ERA to 4.26 from 6.02 following his May 22 start against Midland.

“I think just the circumstance the whole organization is in with a lot of success all the way through, especially at the big league level, shows that the Astros are not scared to bring up their best players,” Appel told MLB.com. “And so, Lance and Vince were pitching great. I’m very close friends with both of them and text them all the time and just so excited to see them do their thing. I want to be alongside with them. I believe I can. I know I will at some point.

“It’s funny. That team was pretty special here in Corpus at the beginning of the season and now three of those guys are having an impact on the big league team, and we would all go out to dinner and talk about what it would be like to all play together in Houston. That dream is becoming a reality pretty quickly. I’m excited to join them whenever that may be, but until then I’m going to keep working hard and having fun and trusting the process.”

The Astros have been trying to get Appel be more aggressive early in counts and get ahead of hitters more and establish his fastball, which he’s been able to do recently.

“I think just everything has kind of been going off my fastball, so getting my fastball right and getting it down in the zone and throwing it early in the count, that really opens up a lot of doors for my off-speed stuff or maybe elevating my fastball by design and so on and so forth,” he said. “Being able to get ahead of hitters, it puts you in a pitcher’s count and also you end up not really walking too many guys.”

Appel also said he’s gained confidence and trusts his stuff more, which he credits to the work he put in with pitching coach Doug Brocail between starts.

Confidence in the work and really trusting, it’s the best thing for me to prepare for each game,” he said.

Appel still believes he can pitch in Houston this year, and whether the Astros would promote him at some point straight from Double-A like they did with McCullers and Velasquez or move him up to Triple-A first remains to be seen. The Astros could be getting veteran Scott Feldman back into the rotation within the next month, so there might not be a spot for Appel just yet, especially if they make a trade to add another arm.

My goal is to get to Houston to help the big league team out, and I have confidence that I can get big league hitters and go deep into games and help the team win,” he said. “Whenever the Astros feel that time is correct, I want to be ready. That’s really the best answer I can give.

“I’m working hard here in Double-A and I’ll continue working hard and having fun and competing all the way up until they decide to send me somewhere else, and then I’ll work hard there. The process stays the same wherever I am. The work I put in stays the same wherever I am. I believe I can really help the team out. That’s really what the goal is for this season and long term.”

Altuve nearing return

Astros second baseman Jose Altuve went through some intense running and agility drills at Safeco Field to test his ailing right hamstring prior to Saturday’s game against the Mariners and spoke like someone who’s ready to play.

Altuve wasn’t in the lineup Saturday for the third consecutive game and said he’s getting anxious to play. He returned to action Tuesday after missing three games with right hamstring discomfort and left Wednesday’s game in Colorado because manager A.J. Hinch didn’t think he looked comfortable.

“I feel great,” Altuve said. “I went outside, I ran really hard. I just feel good.”

When asked what kind of feedback he got from Altuve and the training staff, he said they were “really happy.”

“They [talk] like I’m ready but like I say yesterday, it’s their call, so whenever they decide,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything stupid. But I feel like I’m great but like I said I’m going to be patient.”

Altuve said he’s done everything he needs to do to test out the hamstring, which included hitting and fielding grounders yesterday and running today.

“I’m really anxious but like I said we still have a lot of games left,” he said. “To try to hurry for one game you can miss more games. I’m ready for whenever they decide to put me back there.”

Altuve is hitting .287 with five homers, 28 RBIS and 17 stolen bases, which leads the American League.

Eshelman always under control

Asking Thomas Eshelman to choose between getting the last out to secure a berth in the College World Series for Cal State Fullerton or the joy of being drafted No. 46 overall by the Astros on Monday in the First-Year Player Draft is as an unfair as asking a parent to pick his favorite kid.

The fact they both happened pretty much simultaneously for Eshelman makes for a heck of a story, and one the 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-hander will never forget. Though he’s a starter, Eshelman closed out the Titans’ win over Louisville in the NCAA Super Regional on Monday and was in the post-game meeting when he got another thrill.

“My strength and conditioning coach came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you just became an Astro,’” he said. “That kind of poured over me a little bit. I didn’t really tell anyone and then everyone went into the locker room and found out and came back out and gave me a huge hug. It was fun to kind of be a part of and experience that.”

Astros scouting director Mike Elias sees Eshelman as someone who could move quickly through the system. He throws in the low 90s mph range, but has shown impeccable control throughout his college career with 18 walks in 370 2/3 innings to go along with 313 strikeouts. This year, he’s 8-5 with a 1.58 ERA in 17 starts heading to Omaha.

Once he signs, he’ll join a growing group of impressive pitching depth in the Houston organization, including two that recently graduated two to the Major Leagues from Double-A – Lance McCullers Jr. and Vincent Velasquez.

“I know the Astros are an up-and-coming organization,” Eshelman said. “I know they have a lot of young talent. One of my teammates from a couple of years ago, [2014 Astros draft pick] J.D. Davis is in [Class A] Lancaster with the Astros, and I’m sure I’ll get the lowdown from him. I know they like to move players up pretty quickly and I’m looking forward to getting out there and putting my nose to the grind and working hard for whatever team I’m on at that moment in time.”

So, Thomas, which experience was greater? Clinching a spot in the World Series or getting drafted?

“They’re both equal,” he said. “I wasn’t really a top recruit coming out of high school, whether it be the draft or college. Cal State Fullerton gave me the opportunity to come here and for me to do well and the Astros gave me an opportunity with the organization. I hope to do the same thing I did in college and continue to get better and make the big league roster one day.”ore out of him than what he’s given us.”

Draft, Correa links

MLB.com’s coverage of the first day of the First-Year Player Draft and Carlos Correa’s debut was pretty comprehensive. Below, I’ve posted all the links from Monday’s coverage:

Commentary:

Phil Rogers: Correa just the start of something big

Richard Justice: Correa’s arrival another major step for Astros

Anthony Castrovince: Correa joins exciting MLB youth movement

Correa’s debut:

Correa’s first hit, RBI, not enough in Chicago

Instant impact: Correa contributes in MLB debut

Story and video: Correa’s family shows support in Chicago

Five awesome facts about Correa

Draft

LSU’s Bregman thrilled to go to Astros at No. 2

Family ties: Astros draft Preston’s brother, Kyle Tucker at No. 5

Seeking MLB pedigree, Astros draft Cameron

Eshelman drafted on memorable night

Video: Luhnow, Elias discuss Bregman, Tucker

Other stuff:

Astros call up Vincent Velasquez

Jose Altuve’s All-Star lead at 2B slipping

Matt Dominguez DFA’d

Astros set to call up Velasquez

Right-handed pitcher Vincent Velasquez, who went 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA in five starts at Double-A Corpus Christi, will be called up and join the Astros in Chicago on Monday, general manager Jeff Luhnow said. Velasquez, ranked as the Astros’ No. 4-ranked prospect by MLB.com, will start Wednesday’s game against the White Sox.

Shortstop Carlos Correa, one of the top prospects in baseball, will make his Major League debut on Monday for the Astros, who announced Sunday they were calling him up at 20 years old.

Velasquez, 23, becomes the second pitcher the Astros have called up within a month from Double-A without even throwing a pitch at Triple-A. Lance McCullers Jr., who will start Monday’s game, was called up from Fresno shortly after being promoted from Double-A.

Roberto Hernandez, who’s 2-5 with a 5.18 ERA in 11 starts, has been told he’s being moved to the bullpen. He’s currently the scheduled starter for Wednesday.

Velasquez, a second-round pick in 2010, missed the first month of this season after suffering a strained right lat on Nov. 4 while playing in the Arizona Fall League. He missed two months last season with a strained groin and all of the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. When healthy, he had a nice 2014 at Class A Advanced Lancaster, going 7-4 with a 3.74 ERA in 15 games (10 starts).

Tal Smith on Tal’s Hill

On the heels of the Astros’ decision announced Thursday to get rid of Tal’s Hill for next season, I checked in with the man for whom the hill in center field was named – former Astros president and general manager Tal Smith.

“It was an interesting feature that created some conversation and uniqueness for the ballpark, and I thought it really added a dimension because now and then it was really exciting and fun to see Michael Bourn or Lance Berkman go up the hill make a marvelous catch,” said Smith, who’s still active in baseball by doing consulting work.

Smith said Astros president of baseball operations Reid Ryan called him Thursday morning and told him about the upcoming changes.

“I think over the years the hill has provided a lot of memorable plays without any mishap,” Smith said. “I know there’s always been concern about injuries and so on. As I pointed out, I’ve seen more players stumble over the pitching mound than I have on Tal’s Hill. I’m a proponent that defensive plays can be very exciting and they help provide some of those.”

Smith said when the ballpark’s initial dimensions were discussed, the large center field offset the short 315 feet down the left-field line and 326 feet down the right field line.

“We knew left field and the Crawford Boxes were going to be a hitter’s haven and as we saw in the year 2000, the pitchers learned to use center field to adjust for the short lines, particularly down left field,” he said. “It proved a good balance. It’s going to take a while to adjust. Shortening center field by that much in a ballpark that has a short left and where right field is not all that difficult, it creates somewhat of a dilemma for pitchers.

“It will provide more offense and maybe that’s good. Everybody’s got their own thoughts.”

Astros owner Jim Crane said the removal of the Hill had nothing to do with Smith personally and said the club would still like to honor him in some way under the new configuration.

“From my standpoint, it was never about the nomenclature, a personal tribute,” Smith said. “It evolved as a means of identification. I was asked by [former owner] Drayton [McLane] in a meeting with the designers and architects and other staff members what we could do to make the ballpark interesting.”

Smith the Astros considered the monuments at Yankee Stadium, the ivy at Wrigley Field, the Green Monster in Boston and the hills and inclines at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field when coming up with a concept for Minute Maid Park, which opened as Enron Field in 2000.

“I saw Frank Robinson navigate [the hills at Crosley Field] without any difficulty,” Smith said. “It wasn’t anything I particularly advocated, and the name Tal’s Hill was used for an identification standpoint and it took on a life of its own.”

Smith maintained his sense of humor.

“Facetiously, they did that so they could have somebody to blame for it,” he joked.

Astros plan to remove Tal’s HIll for 2016

The Astros have received preliminary approval from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority their plans for a $15-million renovation to Minute Maid Park that would include the removal Tal’s Hill in center field and moving the flag poles so they’re no longer in play.

Astros owner Jim Crane thanked the Sports Authority for their support at a meeting Thursday morning and said the renovation project would begin as soon as the season ends and would be finished in time for the 2016 season. The renovations would include more fan-friendly areas in center field.

The Astros hope to eventually open a Hall of Fame beyond center field or in Union Station, but that’s not part of the $15 million plan that’s been approved. The Astros will pay for the project.

“We’ve been working for some time to look at how we can improve the ballpark and we’ve gone through a number of renovations, including the diamond club, the club level, the locker rooms, the offices,” Crane told MLB.com “This is one of our big projects we knew we wanted to do. We did a lot of studies on other ballparks on the entertainment areas in center field and ours is very outdated over the life of the stadium, which has been great.

“We’ve submitted a plan to renovate center field and make it more fan-friendly and get more participation from the fans and really draw some more people in there.”

Crane said the center field fence, which currently sits 436 feet from home plate, would be brought in to about 409 feet. The extra space beyond the wall would be used for additional concessions and fan-friendly areas where spectators can watch the game.

Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan and senior vice president of business operations Marcel Braithwaite toured more than 20 ballparks last year to get ideas for reimagining the center field area.

“As you know, Tal’s Hill, some people love it, some people hate it,” Crane said. “We just thought it would be a better ballpark by moving that in. It will still be a very deep center field. There’s always been concern with the flag poles in play and danger in that and also the injuries going up the Hill, so we think this would be better for the players, utilize the space better and be a very pretty ballpark.”

Minute Maid Park, which opened in 2000, is owned by the taxpayers of Harris County and the city of Houston, so any changes must be approved by the Sports Authority, which serves as the landlord.

“Any time our tenants want to spend a significant amount money to upgrade our facilities, I think it’s in the taxpayers’ best interest to do that,” said Kenny Friedman, chairman of the Sports Authority. “We’ve been working with them all along on what their ideas are. They have great ideas, and I think the public will be excited by what they’re planning on doing there.”

Brathwaite, who said the Astros will begin putting the center field project out to bid soon to make sure they’re staying with in the budget, said the eventual Hall of Fame concept will aim to preserve the legacy of the franchise.

“We want to make sure we’ve have a great home to celebrate the tremendous history we have here,” he said.

Keuchel wins second AL Pitcher of the Month award

Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel won his second consecutive American League Pitcher of the Month award, joining Andy Pettitte and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers in club history to win the award twice in a single season.

Keuchel went 4-1 in his six starts in May, posting a 2.62 ERA and 38 strikeouts while allowing a .223 opponents’ average. The southpaw closed the month with back-to-back complete games, including a four-hit, 11-strikeout, shutout against the White Sox on Saturday at Minute Maid Park.

Keuchel and Johnson are the only pitchers in Astros history to win consecutive pitcher of the month awards.

During the month, Keuchel led the AL in innings pitched, ranked tied for first in complete games, tied for fourth in wins, eighth in strikeouts and ninth in ERA. He currently leads all Major League pitchers in innings pitched (81 2/3), ERA (1.76), opponents’ average (.183) and groundball-to-fly ball ratio (4.68), while ranking tied for second in the AL in wins (7).

The 1979 season was the only other year when the Astros took home multiple pitcher of the month awards, as RHP Ken Forsch (April), RHP Joe Niekro (May), RHP Joaquin Andujar (June) and RHP J.R. Richard (September) all received National League Pitcher of the Month honors that year.

Astros’ Minor League Players of the Month

The Astros’ player development department has named May’s Minor League Pitchers and Players of the Month at each of their four in-season minor league affiliates (these awards are chosen every month by the field staff of each team):

At Triple-A Fresno, IF Jon Singleton was named the May Player of the Month and RHP Dan Straily was named the May Pitcher of the Month. Singleton had a historic month of May, as his 37 RBIs marked the most by a Triple-A player in a single month since May 2011, when IF Brett Lawrie and IF Mike Carp each put up 37 RBIs. In 29 total May games, Singleton hit .286 with seven doubles, one triple, 10 homers and a 1.001 OPS. This included a stretch in which he hit three grand slams and five total home runs over a five-game span, in addition to setting a Fresno single-game club record with 10 RBIs on May 13. The 23-year-old currently leads all of Minor League baseball in homers (14) and RBIs (49). In five May starts, Straily went 2-2 with a 3.07 ERA, 28 strikeouts and just three walks. During his final start of the month on May 30, Straily struck out 10 batters in six innings of one-run ball.

IF Tony Kemp was named the Double-A Corpus Christi Player of the Month after batting .326 with 11 stolen bases and a .417 on-base percentage in 23 games in May. The left-handed hitter currently ranks third in the Texas League in batting average, and ranks seventh among all Minor League hitters in on-base percentage (.437). Winning his second consecutive Corpus Christi Pitcher of the Month Award was RHP Chris Devenski, who went 4-0 with a 1.01 ERA and 19 strikeouts in five games (four starts) in May. On Friday, Devenski and LHP Josh Hader combined to throw the first no-hitter in Hooks franchise history in what was a rain-shortened, 4-0 win. Devenski’s 0.59 ERA this season ranks second in all of minor league baseball.

A second-round pick by the Astros in 2014, IF A.J. Reed took home Lancaster’s May Player of the Month honors. Reed’s 10 homers in May were tied for the most in the minors with Singleton. In 28 total games during the month, he hit .327 with 29 RBIs and a 1.080 OPS. Reed currently leads the California League in home runs (13) and ranks second in RBIs (42) and fourth in OPS. RHP Joe Musgrove earned JetHawks’ May Pitcher of the Month honors after going 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA, 36 strikeouts and no walks in five games (three starts) with the club. Musgrove, who was named the Quad Cities April Pitcher of the Month, has recorded 59 strikeouts while walking just one batter in 49 2/3 innings between Lancaster (five games) and Quad Cities (five) this season.

C Jacob Nottingham was named the Quad Cities’ Player of the Month for May after hitting .355 with 13 extra-base hits (8 doubles, 1 triple, 4 homers), 20 RBI and a .997 OPS in 23 games. A sixth-round selection by the Astros in 2013, the 20-year old is leading the Midwest League in OPS (.956), while ranking fourth in homers (8) and batting average (.327). RHP Akeem Bostick won the River Bandits Pitcher of the Month award as he went 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA and just nine hits allowed (.125 opponents’ average) in four games (three starts) in May. Bostick was a second round pick by the Rangers in 2013, and was acquired by Houston on Jan. 21, 2015 in exchange for C Carlos Corporan.

Marisnick moved to leadoff spot

Astros center fielder Jake Marisnick has flourished hitting in front of Jose Altuve for much of this season, but after entering Saturday in a mini-slump (1-for-15 over his previous five games), manager A.J. Hinch was hoping moving him to the top of the order would do the trick.

Marisnick will still be hitting in front of Altuve, who was moved down to second against the Angels. Marisnick hit ninth the first two weeks of the season, with Altuve in the leadoff spot. Marisnick was hitting a scorching .382 through Sunday, but has one hit  since.

“His results haven’t been great, but I don’t call it struggling,” Hinch said. “He’s had a couple of games he hasn’t recorded as many hits as he did at the beginning of the season, but I wouldn’t say struggling is fair. He plays with a ton of energy, plays a terrific  defense.”

With Marisnick hitting leadoff, he figures to get at least one more at-bat per game, which could help him. Also, Marisnick has plenty of speed and Altuve has a great bat control, so the Astros will be able to embark on more hit and runs and push the tempo more. It also gives the Astros some team speed at the top.

“I’m not married to it,” Hinch said. “Things change quickly, but I like Marisnick and Altuve hitting back to back. When Marisnick was hot early, it was very tempting to move him in the order.”

Altuve hit second in the order much of last  year.

“I feel really comfortable in that position,” he said. “We’re also going to have Jake Marisnick getting one more at-bat, and for me he’s the best hitter right now on the team. That’s going to give your team one more chance to score a  run.”

Marisnick was a leadoff hitter coming through the Minor Leagues with the Marlins.

“Hopefully we feed off of each other and get rolling and get this offense going a little bit,” he said. “We’ve been struggling here the last couple of games. It would be nice to get rolling.”

 

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