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Slow the Lyles Express Down

Houston Astros top pitching prospect Jordan Lyles was promoted to Triple-A following his last start, his 21st appearance above A-ball. While with Corpus Christi in the Texas League, Lyles posted a 3.12 ERA, 3.31 FIP, and succeeded despite a defense that led to a .328 BABIP. He left the Texas League fifth in innings pitched and second in strikeouts, despite being the league’s third youngest player.

Lyles, who jumped straight from the South Atlantic League (Low-A) to the Texas League (Double-A), will now become the youngest player in the Pacific Coast League. He will turn 20 following the season, in October. Recently, Houston manager Brad Mills told the Houston Chronicle that Lyles could have one promotion left this season: a Major League debut.

“That’s not out of the question,” Mills said. “You see guys make those steps all the time, get a couple of starts at Triple-A and then move up to the next level.

“If he is as good as advertised, that wouldn’t be surprising at all.”

If he does follow that path laid out by Mills, Lyles is in line to become the eighth player in the last 20 years to pitch in the Majors at age 19. Here are the previous seven: Madison Bumgarner, Felix Hernandez, Edwin Jackson, Rick Ankiel, Matt Riley, Todd Van Poppel and Rich Garces. It’s not the most inspiring list, but it should be mentioned that the 80’s had some better success stories with Jose Rijo, Dwight Gooden, and Fernando Valenzuela. To be in that territory is certainly the sign of an elite prospect.

But when I mentioned this on Twitter, Jack Moore had a good (albeit snarky!) point: “He should slow down a little bit so he can still be under team control when Houston can put another contender on the field.” Hyperbole, perhaps, but the underlying point is that Houston is risking having Lyles enter free agency a year earlier with this aggressive path, and you have to believe that they will be more successful in 2017 than 2011.

First, I should say one thing: I totally agreed with the Astros decision to have Lyles bypass High-A and the California League. Their affiliate in the league, Lancaster, is no place for baseball to be played: the stadium there is seeing 12.8 runs per game, which you might remember in contrast to the Florida State League, where the highest this season was 9.93. Plus, Lyles posseses an arsenal geared for success in the higher levels, which I praised after the Futures Game a couple weeks ago. Armed with one of the minor league’s best change-ups, and good command of his fastball, Lyles had no problem making the jump, even holding lefties to a .259/.309/.374 line this season.

But jumping from Low-A to Double-A in one season is a precedented move that the California League has forced teams to exercise often. Moving that same player to Triple-A, and possibly to the Major Leagues at age 19, is less precedented, and as a result, open to more questioning. While Lyles is a workhorse, he’s also just 18 innings from bypassing last year’s innings pitched total (144.2). The more appropriate decision might be to give him five starts, where his inning total will be around 160, and then to call it a season.

Before this season, I wrote a piece criticizing the Braves for opening the season with Jason Heyward on the 25-man roster. If other teams are exploiting the service time rules to retain their players for the most time (see: Santana, Carlos; Strasburg, Stephen), I thought the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze for Atlanta. Many of you argued the ethics of such a move. In hindsight, given Atlanta’s spot atop the NL East, aided no doubt by Heyward’s 2.6 WAR, I was probably wrong about my example, if not my point.

Regardless of his performance in Triple-A this month, Lyles should return to Round Rock to start next season. He should make 11 starts there to open the 2011 season, and if he’s then ready, should finally make his big league debut next June. I don’t think anyone would argue they held him back, and the team wouldn’t lose a service year to their own fascinations. It’s the most prudent, responsible move for an organization that owes their fan base a well-managed rebuild.

Lyles is one of the minor leagues best pitching prospects, and has been developed flawlessly by the Astros. Here’s to hoping he’s still around for Astros fans in 2017.