While the major league club wallows in the basement of the American League Western Division, the Houston Astros have rapidly improved a farm system that was bone-dry four years ago. It takes time for talent to percolate and reach the majors, but one of the first reinforcements should arrive later this year: right-handed pitcher Jarred Cosart.
Cosart was originally drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 38th round in 2008, from high school in League City, Texas. His draft position was deceptive: he was widely expected to attend college at the University of Missouri, and would have gone 30-35 rounds higher in the draft on pure talent alone. The Phillies signed him for $550,000.
He made his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League in 2009, posting a 2.22 ERA with a 25/7 K/BB in 24 innings, allowing just 12 hits, and gaining notice as a prospect to watch carefully. A sore elbow limited him to 14 starts and 71 innings for Low-A Lakewood in 2010, but he posted a 3.79 ERA and a 77/16 K/BB while impressing scouts with his velocity.
His command was inconsistent in 2011, resulting in a 3.92 ERA with a 79/43 K/BB in 108 innings for High-A Clearwater; the Phillies were willing to part with him on the trade market and he came to Houston that summer in the Hunter Pence deal. More command problems resulted in a 4.71 ERA in 36 innings for Double-A Corpus Christi after the trade.
Returned to Double-A to open 2012, he posted a 3.52 ERA with a 68/38 K/BB in 87 innings, followed by a 2.60 ERA with a 24/13 K/BB in 28 innings for Triple-A Oklahoma City. He's back in Sooner country this spring and performing quite well, with a 2.55 ERA in 49 innings with a 53/22 K/BB.
Of particular note in all of these numbers is his ground ball rate: 2.02 GO/AO in 2010, 1.79 in 2011, 2.01 in 2012, and 2.79 in 2013 so far.
Cosart is listed at 6-3, 180, born May 25, 1990. A talented two-way player in high school, he stands out for his athleticism on the mound. He has a very impressive fastball notable for velocity (93-97 MPH, timed as high as 99 at times) as well as movement. The sink on the fastball makes it tough for hitters to drive for distance, and his ground ball rates are no accident.
The problem for Cosart boils down to command of his secondary pitches. At times, his very hard curveball is simply overpowering and too much for most hitters to handle in combination with the heater. However, his command of the breaking ball comes and goes, thanks to inconsistent mechanics and a wavering release point. He hasn't shown much of a change-up in the past, leading many scouts to rate him as a future reliever. One PCL observer says it has improved this spring, though it still needs work.
The statistics do indicate some progress and his K/IP ratio for Oklahoma City is the best it has been since Low-A. Usually that dovetails with improved ability to change speeds or command the breaking ball, although his walk rate is still higher than ideal. Heath is another potential concern. His mechanics aren't the cleanest, and he has that bout of elbow soreness (as well as blister problems) on his resume. On the other hand, his athleticism should help him stay healthy, and the elbow trouble was three years ago.
Houston fans desperate for something fun to watch might want Cosart to be promoted soon, but I think it makes sense to leave him in Triple-A awhile longer given that he has less than 100 innings at the level and his command is still a work in progress. His upside is very high and he's made real progress harnessing it, but additional innings to refine his secondary pitches and put the finishing touches on his command can't hurt. I do expect we'll see him later this year.