Feature Photo: Francis Martes, RHP Astros
By Dave DeFreitas and Nick J. Faleris
The Astros boast an impressive blend of ceiling, floor and depth throughout the system, with quality talent ready to impact the big league club over the next 18 months, and multiple waves of prospects following closely behind.
CREAM OF THE CROP
The Tools: 70 fastball; 65 curveball; 55 changeup; 50 slider – Sitting in the mid-to-upper 90s with the heater, Martes gets excellent life in the zone and can dial up hard sink middle to arm side when he turns it over. giving it the makings of a two-way pitch, as the slider seems destined to fork off into more of a cutter as a second look option with small dart that he can use to the glove side. The power curveball is his best secondary and a swing-and-miss pitch, with 11-to-5 break and late snap. The arm speed with the pitch is excellent, and he has some feel to add and subtract from it. The changeup is still a work in progress, as he lacks feel for the offering and the action is inconsistent, but given how well the arm works he should be able to find more consistency with it while producing solid-average arm-side dive. The command/control is below average right now, but the delivery is compact and the actions are all pretty easy, so it is not a stretch to think that he will get to above-average control and at least average command.
The Profile: A legit, mid- to top-of-the-rotation arm, Martes’s easy arm action is lightning through the high-3/4’s slot and generates plus life on his power stuff. Nothing he throws is straight, and the heft on the fastball combined with the arm speed he maintains with the breaking stuff makes him very hard to square up and gives him significant margin for error in the zone. He is a better athlete than the body lets on, but there is not a ton of physical projection left and his physique will require maintenance as he matures. As it stands now, Martes is confident in the zone, but he will need to learn to work to the corners, as even with the big stuff he won’t be able to overpower advanced bats while living in the middle of the plate. He will also have to develop the changeup as his third pitch to give him a weapon versus lefties, and to keep hitters off the firmer nature of his primary weapons.
Overall, there is no question as to the quality of the pure stuff with Martes – the real question will be how well his command develops. If the fastball command gets to above average and he can better utilize the late sink, he becomes less reliant on the strikeout numbers and is much better positioned to avoid the big inning. He will pitch all of 2017 at age 21, so this is still a very young kid we are talking about. He handled a significant work load at Double-A last season, tossing 125 1/3 innings and only giving up 104 hits. He will have to learn to handle adversity however, as he can lose focus at times and let the situation get to him – much like Johnny Cueto (RHP, Giants) was at the same age – and like Cueto the ingredients are there for him to develop into a very good number three starter. If he continues on the pace he set last year and makes strides with the changeup, Martes could be in Houston around the All-Star break.
The Tools: 60 hit; 60 power; 50 run; 55 field; 55 arm – Tucker’s simple swing from the left side plays well to contact and power alike, coming with natural loft and advanced feel for the barrel. There’s good bat speed and increasing strength in his already sturdy core, allowing for both the hit tool and power to project to at least above average. Tucker has the physical tools to play across all three outfield positions and should settle in as an everyday right or center fielder, depending on how much the body ultimately thickens and where the foot speed ends up. He’s an average runner at present whose speed can play up on the bases and grass alike thanks to his advanced feel.
The Profile: Signed to a $4 million bonus as the fifth overall selection in the 2015 MLB Draft, Tucker has looked every bit the part of a future impact contributor over his first year-and-a-half of pro ball. 2016 saw the former Plant High School (Tampa, FL) standout slash a combined .285/.360/.438 over 117 full season contests (101 with Class A Quad Cities and 16 with High A Lancaster), all the while displaying an advanced approach and high level of comfort in the box. His swing comes with heavy plane overlap, maximizing his opportunities for hard contact, as well as natural loft and lift that plays particularly well to the pull side. He maintains a steady head and good balance in the box to go with a patient plan of attack that helps him to both seek out balls to drive and work walks.
A good athlete with above-average arm strength and a nose for the ball, Tucker has the skillset at present to hold down all three outfield positions, and should be able to stick in center field so long as the body does not get to bulky to limit his coverage area at maturity. To the extent it does, Tucker has the arm for right field. Either way, the hit tool and power should help the bat to play above average. He’s an average runner at present who gets the most out of his speed thanks to good reads both on the bases and in the outfield, as well as with his overall feel.
Tucker has the upside of an impact first-division outfielder who can contribute in the box, on the bases and in the field. Already growing into his frame, the biggest question mark for the young batsman is exactly how much muscle there is to come, and what impact it will have on his mobility in the long term. He’s a good athlete with a frame that should handle some mass without too much trouble, and any thickness in the trunk that might push him to an outfield corner spot could very easily come with an increase in playable power above his current projections. He’ll likely start 2017 in High A Buies Creek and could jump to Double-A Corpus Christi before season’s end.
Forrest Whitley, RHP, Rookie Greenville | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 65/55
Ht/Wt: 6’7”/240 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 19y 2m
The Tools: 70 fastball; 65 curveball; 55 changeup; 50 slider – Whitley backs up his imposing stature with a quality four-pitch repertoire highlighted by a low- to mid-90s fastball that should sit comfortably in the middle 90s at maturity. His curveball is a power breaker that works well in the low 80s with hard 11-to-5 action, and he has enough feel for the pitch to manipulate the shape and work it as a deeper, softer, upper-70s weapon. His slider comes with two-plane action and average depth in the low-to-mid 80s, and he has above-average feel for a quality change-up that should be at least an above-average weapon for him in time.
The Profile: The Texas-strong righty out of Alamo Heights High School (San Antonio, TX) was one of the most impressive high school arms in the 2016 MLB Draft Class last spring, ultimately earning a $3.1 million signing bonus after being selected 17th overall by the Astros. The big-bodied power arm carved out his reputation as a potential front-end arm with strong showings during the summer scouting circuit leading into his senior year of high school, as well as a highly-impressive showing with USA Baseball’s gold-medal winning 18U squad. While there isn’t much in the way of projection in his frame, Whitley should see added strength as he continues to firm up his physique while his body matures, leaving open the chance for a half-tick or so in stuff.
The arsenal is impressive already, beginning with a quality low- to mid-90s fastball that can reach higher on occasion and comes with some arm-side run. He does a good job of creating tough angles out of a high-3/4’s release, consistently driving the ball down in the zone and picking up a little bit of giddy-up when he elevates. His curveball plays well out of his high release, showing 11-to-5 action in both a deeper upper-70s version and tighter low-80s variation. He maintains good arm speed with his changeup and turns it over well to produce some quality fade in the low- to mid-80s velocity range, and he can also break off a hard mid-80s slider with two-plane action.
Despite his big body, Whitley does a good job repeating his simple telephone booth delivery and generally stays on tempo, working to both sides of the plate and avoiding prolonged issues with execution and control. He projects as a good mid-rotation arm, with the upside of a front-end contributor depending on where the stuff ultimately settles. He is advanced enough to make the jump to Class A ball to start 2017, and even if Houston elects to take a more conservative approach with his development, Whitley should make it to Class A Quad Cities at some point this summer.
The Tools: 60 fastball; 65 curveball; 50 changeup – Paulino’s mid- to upper-90s heater jumps out of his hand and gets on hitters even quicker than the plus velocity suggests. The pitch tends to get flat up in the zone and he will pitch up there more often than he should, but when he is able to drive down through the zone the pitch takes off and is tough to square up. The 12-to-6 breaker is his best secondary offering and he has the feel to change the shape and dial up some hard snap, making it a true swing-and-miss offering. It can get a little loopy at times, but the hand speed and the velocity separation give him a weapon to put go good use versus both righties and lefties. The changeup, while more inconsistent than the breaking ball, offers similar value in terms of separation and deception. If he can get more consistent locating his offspeed at the bottom of the zone, he should see more of the hard, circle dive, helping him to settle in with three above average to double-plus offerings.
The Profile: At 6-foot-7 inches, Paulino is massive presence on the mound, with lots of arms and legs coming at the hitter, making for highly uncomfortable at-bats. The stuff is very good, and that alone makes it easy to dream on Paulino slotting into the number three spot in the rotation very soon. However, while he doesn’t walk many and works confidently in the zone, his command is below average and he works up above the belt too often. He threw 90 minor league innings in 2016 and only managed a 0.78 GO:FO ratio, which shows that in spite of the plus to double-plus stuff and ability to create great angle, Paulino is far too easy to lift. While he does have the tools to miss some bats, he will have to start locating the fastball in order to repeat the 10-plus SO/9 rate he showed across that same 90-inning stretch. On balance, Paulino was difficult to square up, giving up only 78 hits over 97 innings (including MLB time), so the ingredients are there for him to both miss bats and maintain low hit totals.
While the feel with the breaking ball at a relatively young age is extremely encouraging, he will have to make some strides with the fastball command and learn to pound down in the zone more effectively versus big league hitters. The good bender may buy increase his margin for error in the minors, but being loose in the zone with the heater and missing up against big league bats will eventually translate to balls leaving the yard. That all said, we have a 23-year-old kid who is yet to top 100 innings in any professional season. He will find more body control as he matures physically, and with that should come more consistent execution. Houston doesn’t have to rush the young arm either, so while Paulino can contribute in the big leagues right now, it might make more sense for him to find a routine at Triple-A and join the Astros by mid-summer with a bit more polish to the profile. He has the upside of a number three starter if the command comes along, however the safe money is on him settling in as a very good number four due to the command falling just shy of average.
Derek Fisher, OF, Triple-A Fresno | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 60/55
Ht/Wt: 6’3”/205 B/T: L/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 23y 3m
The Tools: 60 power; 60 run; 50 field – Fisher’s hit tool remains a question, as the lofted swing comes with plenty of swing and miss, but the easy double-plus raw power carries with it plenty of opportunities for damage at the highest level, be it via home runs or doubles. Fisher is a plus runner whose speed plays up underway on the bases and down some on the grass, where he is still working to improve upon his reads off the bat. The arm is fringy, and he can struggle at times to get himself into ideal positions on throws, but the physical tools are there for him to stick in center field long term, and to eventually grow into an average defender there.
The Profile: A 2014 supplemental first-rounder out of the University of Virginia, the former Wahoo has flexed both his plus speed and plus playable power at each level over the course of the past two-plus seasons, reaching Triple-A Fresno last summer and setting himself up for a 2017 debut with the big club. Fisher has lots of natural loft in his left-sided swing, producing moonshots to the pull side but also leaving some gaps in his plate coverage and firing the barrel through the zone a bit too quickly at times. Even with some swing and miss built into profile, there is room for above-average offensive production thanks to the potential for damage, a willingness to work a walk (he has averaged an 87 point on-base-to-average delta over his 294 minor league contests, including a 112-point delta at the upper levels last summer), and his impact speed.
Defensively, Fisher lacks the arm for left field, but has more than enough speed to cover large swaths of green up the middle. Because his arm is fringy, there is a high level of import placed on him taking the right paths to balls in play so as to set him up well for his throws from center field. He needs to continue to grow that skill, in addition to improving his reads off the bat, in order to stick in center field long term. Should he shift to left field, there is still enough offensive impact for him to produce as a first-division regular so long as he continues to draw free passes and makes enough contact to get to plus playable pop.
Fisher should return to Triple-A Fresno to start 2017 and will almost certainly make his debut in Houston at some point this summer. There is impact upside in the profile, and the power and speed make him a solid bet to at least produce as a quality everyday outfielder for a playoff contender.
ON THE HORIZON
Quick Hit: The former USC Trojan enjoyed a breakout season in 2016, slashing .304/.391/.469 over 86 games split between High A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi. Stubbs walked almost as often as he struck out (43 walks to 48 strikeouts) while chipping in 15 stolen bases and getting thrown out just three times. This outburst of offensive productivity was a welcome development for the 2015 eighth-rounder who had, up until last summer, been known more for his plus glove and impressive catch-and-throw game.
Stubbs is a quality athlete with smooth, quick actions behind the dish and a strong, accurate arm that plays as a plus weapon. An average runner, he moves better on the bases than most at his position, and shows good balance in the box along with a feel for the barrel. With a simple lefty swing and patient approach, Stubbs projects to an above-average hit tool and enough over-the-fence pop to perhaps reach high single-digit home runs and a couple-dozen doubles annually provided he logs enough at-bats over the course of a full MLB season.
Not overly physical, there is still some question as to how the body will hold up over 125-plus starts. While he did show some signs of tiring late in 2016 season, his overall performance in the Arizona Fall League gave some comfort that even with some fatigue creeping into the offensive side of his game he was still highly impressive working behind the plate and with a number of advanced arms with whom he had not previously worked. Stubbs will likely return to Corpus Christi in 2017 with a chance to reach Triple-A later this summer and perhaps debut in Houston at some point. He looks the part of a future everyday catcher with a ceiling as a true first-division contributor.
Quick Hit: Laureano draws rave reviews for his make-up and focus both on the field and off, with his willingness to put in developmental work resulting in a very loud 2016. The previously unheralded 2014 16th rounder out of Northeast Oklahoma A&M College showed off a compact and contact-oriented swing last summer to go with an advanced feel for the zone and willingness to work a walk and search out quality pitches to drive. The result was a .319/.428/.528 slash line over 505 plate appearances (357 with High A Lancaster and 148 with Double-A Corpus Christi). Most impressively, Laureano was able to continue to produce via average, on-base percentage, and ISO across both levels while also showing off his plus speed on the bases, swiping 43 bags at a 75% success rate.
Laureano’s speed plays in the field, as well, giving him a chance to stick in center field long term with continued development of his route running. He has enough arm to handle right field, as while, giving the Astros plenty of options as to how to utilize his talents and find at-bast in an increasingly crowded Houston outfield. There is some question as to how much over-the-fence power Laureano will settle into at the highest level, though the hard contact rate is such that he should at a minimum provide gap-to-gap damage in the form of plenty of doubles. He could start 2017 back in Corpus Christi but has the present skillset to reach Triple-A this summer and perhaps Houston by the end of the year. He projects as an everyday contributor given his offensive tools and defensive versatility.
Teoscar Hernandez, OF, Astros | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 55/50
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/180 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 24y 1m
Quick Hit: Like Ramon Laureano, Hernandez possesses the physical tools to cover all three outfield positions, including plus speed and an above-average arm. He has a good nose for the ball and shows particularly well closing and finishing at the margins of his range, making him a candidate to either stick in center field long term, or to provide above-average defensive production from a corner-outfield spot. His speed plays on the bases, as well, as evidenced by his 30-plus stolen bases over each of his past three seasons and his 76% success rate (100-for-131).
Hernandez made strides in the box in 2016, cutting down on his aggressive approach and the resultant empty swings, though he back-slid some over the course of his 112 plate appearances in Houston. There’s a little more natural loft in Hernandez’s swing than in Laureano’s, resulting in a slightly better projection for ultimate over-the-fence production, though Laureano may bridge that gap with more frequent hard contact and aggregate ISO taking into account total bases via doubles and triples.
While Hernandez’s progress in cutting down on the empty swings is promising, he will need to prove he can repeat that skill at the major league level in order to reach his ceiling as an everyday center or right fielder on a playoff-caliber club. He’ll compete for a spot on the 25-man this spring, and he should get the opportunity to log plenty of at-bats in Houston this summer provided he proves ready to contribute for a team focused on an A.L. West division title and playoff run.
Quick Hit: Gurriel finds his way into this Astros review on a technicality, as the 32-year-old veteran of the international scene amassed exactly 130 at-bats with the Astros last summer and, and so he retains his rookie eligibility for another season. Once viewed as a potential all-star during his time with Cuba’s national team, Gurriel still retains the tools to provide impact production in his early 30s – particularly with the stick. Still capable of showing above-average bat speed and ball-seeking barrel control, the former Cuban standout has the skillset to hit for average and flex some over-the-fence power, particularly to the pull side. There’s good strength and a career’s worth of experience in high-leverage games, helping to minimize some of the risk that the bat will start to slow over the next few seasons.
2016 represented a transition period for Gurriel, with the talented infielder getting his first regular taste of advanced competition since 2014, and reaching the big leagues after just 56 minor league plate appearances. Though not dominant in his debut, Gurriel did not look overmatched, and should be up to speed from the get-go in 2017. While he has the tools to handle the hot corner, he’ll be seeing regular time across the diamond at first base for the Astros in 2017, in deference to the impactful young left-side tandem of shortstop Carlos Correa and third baseman Alex Bregman. Gurriel could prove a valuable contributor for an Astros team looking to make a run deep into October, and seems a safe bet to at least provide value on par with an average everyday contributor, both in the box and on the dirt.
Jandel Gustave, RHP, Astros | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 55/50
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/210 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 24y 2m
Quick Hit: Gustave reached Houston last summer off the strength of his upper-90s heater and a quality upper-80s power slider – a combo that produced regular soft contact at Triple-A Fresno before running into a few too many big league barrels. There’s good life on Gustave’s fastball down in the zone, though the pitch flattens a bit at the higher end of his velocity band and the loose command in the zone can too often leave the offering in danger of being driven with authority. His slider plays as a solid above-average pitch and will flash plus bite when he’s hitting his release and maximizing his spin, but it still flirts with fringy looks at times and, like the fastball, play too hittable when thrown loosely in the zone.
There’s good heft and power to Gustave’s two-pitch arsenal when he’s on, giving him a chance to miss bats and draw soft ground ball contact when he is working with a purpose in the zone. He has the upside of a quality high-leverage arm in the late innings, but needs to improve the consistency of his execution and continue to grow his ability to work effectively both inside and at the periphery of the strike zone. He could contribute valuable innings for the Astros as early as this summer, and should earn a spot as a go-to arm as soon as he proves that the long ball will not be an ongoing concern at the major league level.
Quick Hit: The former 2015 third-rounder out of TCU put together a dominant 10 innings of work in April and was promptly shut down for the balance of the season following shoulder surgery to remove an aneurysm. Though the former Horned Frog has thrown just 26 2/3 innings since signing mid-summer in 2015, he has consistently displayed power stuff worthy of late-inning consideration, including a plus tandem in his fastball and slider. The heater works comfortably in the 93-to-97 mph velocity band with arm-side life and two-seam sink, while the slider presents tilted action and sharp bite when on, capable of working as a swing-and-miss offering both in and out of the zone.
While Ferrell has struggled to repeat his high-effort mechanics and hit his release with consistency in the past — leading to regular bouts of wildness — his brief 2016 campaign was highlighted by greater regularity in his motion and his hitting his mechanical checkpoints with a higher frequency of success. Though it’s a limited sampling of game action, the positive takeaway is important inasmuch as the Astros will need to trust that Ferrell can display at least average control and quadrant command with his offerings in order to truly trust him with high-leverage work at maturity. Once healthy and back on the field, Ferrell could move quickly to Houston where he could eventually slot into a late-inning role. If he can build upon the progress he showed in his brief 2016 performance, there might even be closer upside here.
James Hoyt, RHP, Astros | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 55/50
Ht/Wt: 6’6”/230 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 30y 2m
Quick Hit: The late-blooming righty took a long and winding path the majors that included multiple independent league stints and time in the Mexican League before ultimately being signed by Atlanta in 2012 and then traded to Houston as part of the Evan Gattis (C, Astros) trade that sent Mike Foltynewicz (RHP, Braves), Rio Ruiz (3B, Braves) and Andrew Thurman (RHP, Dodgers) to the Braves two winters ago. Hoyt reached Houston at the end of the 2016 season after turning the corner with Triple-A Fresno and showing more consistency in execution as well as improved control to go with an average of 15.2 SO/9.
Hoyt continued to miss bats at the major league level, averaging 11.5 SO/9 over his 22 innings of work for the Astros, but like Gustave, he ran into trouble via mistakes over the plate, as big league bats had little trouble finding pitches to lift and drive. When on, Hoyt wields late 0inning stuff including a hard mid- to upper-80s power slider and heavy low- to mid-90s fastball. He can also show an above-average upper-80s split change that can draw empty swings and soft ground ball contact alike, though he all but ditched the pitch in Houston in deference to heavy use of his slider. Hoyt will compete for a bullpen spot this spring and has the stuff to throw high-leverage innings for the ‘Stros immediately. Like Jandel Gustave, Hoyt just needs to execute and limit his mistakes up and over the white – if he does that he’s likely to prove a valuable asset for Houston in the late innings.
J.D. Davis, 3B, Double-A Corpus Christi | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 50/45
Ht/Wt: 6’3”/225 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 23y 7m
Quick Hit: The two-way standout out of Cal State Fullerton has made steady progress through the Astros system after being selected in the third round of the 2014 MLB draft, serving a full season at High A Lancaster in 2015 and Double-A Corpus Christi in 2016 while performing adequately at each stop. Davis’s game is power, as as evidenced by the slugging corner bat’s 23 bombs (T-3, Texas League), 34 doubles (leading the Texas League), .485 slugging percentage (2nd, Texas League) and 235 total bases (2nd, Texas League) to go with a .217 ISO in 2016. The swing comes with a steep upper cut and merely average bat speed, however, leaving Davis exposed to premium velocity and quality sequencing, limiting his overall ceiling on the offensive side.
There isn’t much defensive value in the profile, though Davis’s double-plus arm can be a weapon, and he has worked hard to grow into an adequate glove at the hot corner. He’s a well-below-average runner who’s impact on the bases will be limited. Davis looks the part of a fringy everyday player but could carve out some value off the strength of his power production provided he continues to make enough contact for the tool to play at the highest levels. He fits as a potential six- or seven-hole stick with a chance for 20-plus home runs a year and enough patience to draw some walks and chip in some on-base value, but his limited value outside of the box means there is a lot of pressure to hit the higher end of his offensive projections at maturity. He’ll likely tackle Triple-A Fresno to start the 2017 season.
Brady Rodgers, RHP, Triple-A Fresno | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 45/45
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/210 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 26y 2m
Quick Hit: After putting together a solid repeat performance in the Pacific Coast League with Triple-A Fresno, including a 5.04 SO/BB rate, 1.152 WHIP and league-leading 2.86 ERA over 132 innings of work, Rodgers earned a brief call to Houston last summer making one start and four relief appearances. The former Arizona State Sun Devil was a third-round selection in the 2012 MLB Draft and has methodically climbed the developmental ladder in Houston’s system off the strength of his plus command and ability to keep hitters off balance with a solid four-pitch mix. It’s average stuff across the board, including an upper-80s-to-low-90s fastball, solid upper-70s-to-low-80s slider, a low-80s changeup and a mid-70s curveball, which he utilizes as a change-of-pace offering that can also change a hitter’s eye level.
If he can leverage his ability to show different looks with his fastball (run and cut) and slider (true breaker with depth and short, cutter variation) in particular, there’s room for Rodgers to settle in as a quality back-end arm for Houston. The ceiling is limited, but any time you can run a multi-look four-pitch mix out on the mound with feel and command, you have a chance to turn over lineups and chew through big league innings. He’s ready to compete for a 25-man spot this spring.
Brendan McCurry, RHP, Triple-A Fresno | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 45/45
Ht/Wt: 5’10”/170 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 24y 11m
Quick Hit: The short-in-stature righty averaged 10.3 SO/9 last summer over 82 innings of relief work split almost evenly between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Fresno. McCurry’s best weapon is probably his 11-to-5 curveball, which he wields out of a high-3/4’s slot with good depth and shape. The curve serves as a balance to his fastball, slider and changeup, which can all come on similar planes, helping to keep hitters hitters from sitting on any one offering. McCurry can also drop down to a lower, near side-armed slot on occasion, adding additional horizontal action to his slider and a little more arm-side dive with his changeup.
McCurry doesn’t possess overpowering stuff, but he has excellent feel for his arsenal and above-average command and control, helping to limit damage and hard contact rates. He may not exceed a strikeout-per-inning at the major league level, but provided he can continue to mix looks and pitch purposefully at the margins of the zone, there should be value in the profile as a quality seventh-inning arm capable of drawing ground ball contact. He’s ready to compete for a bullpen spot in Houston, but those plans are on hold for the time being, as the righty will sit out the first 50 games of 2017 after testing positive for Methamphetamine this offseason.
Colin Moran, 3B, Astros | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 45/40
Ht/Wt: 6’4”/204 B/T: L/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 24y 2m
Quick Hit: A former first-round selection of the Marlins (sixth overall) in the 2013 MLB Draft, Moran has developed into a quality hitter ready to compete for a spot on the 25-man since coming over to Houston in exchange for Jared Cosart (RHP, Padres) in 2014. Moran has a good feel for the barrel, giving him a chance for an above-average hit tool, but not much in the way of playable power, limiting his potential impact as a corner contributor. He’s an adequate but unspectacular defender at the hot corner and below-average runner, making it tough to envision an everyday spot for him given the impactful potential of Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel already in the mix in Houston on the left side.
Quick Hit: Martin is an athletic, corner outfielder who brings extra-base hit potential and an advanced approach to the plate. He has a very compact stroke with minimal pre-pitch movement, plus bat speed, and excellent feel for the barrel. The actions across the board are very easy and he is already strong enough to drive both gaps with authority. Martin has feel for the strike zone and is comfortable hitting with two strikes, however he got a little pull happy in the bandbox stadiums of the Cal League and saw the swing and miss spike a bit. Still, the swing itself is conducive to him getting back to high-contact rates and, while he doesn’t project as a big home run guy, his hard contact should translate to productive ISO numbers.
Martin is an above-average runner with the foot speed playing better underway than down the line (4.19 second home-to-first times), and it only translates to average range in the outfield due to inefficient routes. While he has the instincts to handle center field, the range might be shy up the middle, with Martin ultimately fitting better as an above-average defender on the corner in the mold of Michael Brantley (OF, Indians) or Carl Crawford (OF, Dodgers). On the bases Martin is a heady runner who will look to take the extra base when available. The gait is a little bit stiff, but the strides lengthen out as he gets going. Overall, Martin should continue to adjust as he advances and ultimately settles in as a versatile bat similar to Matt Lawton (MLB 1995-2006, multiple teams).
Franklin Perez, RHP, Class A Quad Cities | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 55/50
Ht/Wt: 6’3”/197 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 18y 11m
Quick Hit: A plus athlete as a middle infielder, but light with the stick, Perez has taken to the mound in fine fashion. He has a compact delivery that he repeats well and plus arm speed through a high-3/4’s slot. The fastball is plus at present, sitting in the 92-to-95 mph velocity band with life in the zone and some ride up, though it stays on plane and lacks any kind of two-seam tail or sink. Perez boasts some feel for spin, with a 12-to-6 power curveball that could get to a 60-grade offering in time provided he is able to get more consistent with the execution. The changeup should continue to develop, but unless he gets it to an average grade pitch, he may have a hard time keeping hitters off of the hard/hard profile and turning over more advanced lineups.
Perez throws a lot of strikes and could get to average command, but he will need to be able to pitch better to the corners versus more advanced lineups as he advances. He is only 19 years old, so there is still plenty of time for his full development to play out, but the 8-plus H/9 he has averaged the past two seasons are an indicator that hitters are able to get good wood on him at times – certainly better than one would expect based on the quality of the raw stuff. He also saw the ground balls he was spinning in 2015 (1.28 GO:AO ratio) dry up to the tune of 0.71 GO:AO in 2016. Even so, he is relatively new to pitching and the arm strength is undeniable.
Physically, the righty is already a big, strong kid with additional room to fill out. While the actions are athletic and added strength could translate into more velocity, the max-effort motion will likely be prohibitive to him realizing and maintaining a huge uptick in stuff. He has the upside of a good number four starter in the mold of Matt Garza (RHP, Brewers), but if the third pitch doesn’t come around he could still provide value courtesy of matchup stuff that would play well in an eighth-inning bullpen role.
Miguelangel Sierra, SS, Short-Season A Tri-City | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 55/45
Ht/Wt: 5’11”/165 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 18y 11m
Quick Hit: After debuting in the U.S. in the Gulf Coast League towards the end of 2015, the seven-figure bonus, 2014 J2 signee returned to the complex at the outset of 2016 for extended spring training, graduating to Rookie Greenville and then Short-Season A Tri-City to cap his first full season of stateside pro ball. Sierra slashed a combined .224/.314/.744 over 56 games and 246 plate appearances, but the scouting outdistanced the performance as evaluators were generally impressed by his poise in the box – particularly in the Appalachian League, where the young middle infielder took a more balanced approach to the plate and showed some feel for driving the ball to all fields and working the count.
While Sierra has already begun to thicken in his core his actions in the field remain fluid and athletic, helping the profile to project up the middle long term. He has the hands, range and arm for shortstop, where his future-average hit tool and fringe-average power could play well-above average for the position. Additionally, there remains an outside shot that, as the body matures, Sierra runs into more power than was projected at the time of his signing. Provided he’s able to stick up the middle with a slightly thicker build, the added pop could push his ceiling to that of a true impact talent. Sierra is still a long way off from being major league ready, and there are significant risks attached to the offensive side of the profile given his at times pull-happy approach, big cuts, and propensity for swing and miss. The Astros could challenge the teenager with a jump to Class A Quad Cities at the outset in 2017, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t log significant time in the Midwest League at some point this summer.
Cionel Perez, LHP, Did Not Play | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 55/45
Ht/Wt: 5’11”/170 B/T: L/L Age (as of December 1st 2016): 20y 8m
Quick Hit: A slim, slender lefty, Perez has a quick arm with smooth easy mechanics. He doesn’t have an overly projectable frame, but is a good athlete and will get stronger as the body matures. He has some crossfire in the delivery that adds deception, and while he sits in the upper 80s now, it is not a stretch to think that his heater will climb into the low 90s eventually. While the fastball generally plays pretty straight, he can show two-seam tail to the arm side, which should help to miss barrels as he climbs the developmental ladder. Perez isn’t scared to work inside and given how smooth everything is and how well the arm works, he could get to average command at maturity.
In addition to the fastball, Perez has some ability to spin a breaking ball with decent shape, but tends to slow down the arm when he throws it. As he gets more comfortable in his mechanics, the spin should tighten up and he should be able to develop some snap to help push the offering to above-average.
He should debut stateside in 2017 – likely with some significant time in extended spring training – but Perez is no newcomer to stiff competition having pitched in Serie Nacional as a teenager in Cuba. If things go well on the complex he could end up getting innings at Class A Quad Cities before the season is out. He may not end up having the velocity Gio Gonzalez (LHP, Nationals) has shown, but a comparison somewhere between Gonzalez and Jason Vargas (LHP, Royals) is a possibility.
Jonathan Arauz, SS, Rookie Greenville | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 55/45
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/150 B/T: S/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 18y 4m
Quick Hit: A plus athlete with some present wirey strength, the Astros knew what they were doing when they tacked on Arauz as part of the Ken Giles (RHP, Phillies) deal. Arauz has excellent balance at the plate, and while he has a lot of pre-pitch movement with the hands, his level plane keeps the barrel in the zone for an extended period. He keeps his head still throughout the stroke and does a good job keeping his hands back even when fooled, which plays right into the high-contact profile. He plays with good energy but there is not a lot of effort to his game, and Arauz could end up being one of those guys who can really excel by slow things down around him.
Aruaz doesn’t have much present pop to speak of, but he has room to continue to get stronger without sacrificing any athleticism. Given how the swing plays, the chance he has for above-average bat speed, and the barrel exit he gets it is not a stretch to think he will grow into decent gap power at maturity with an ultimate ISO production in the .140 range. He is not a burner, sitting around 4.30 seconds from home-to-first, but the foot speed plays up underway and the ease of his actions on the dirt should allow him to have enough range to stick up the middle. While the young infielder certainly has more than enough arm for shortstop, it will likely be his advanced game clock and above-average hands that will make him an asset at the six-spot. He could end up being an everyday guy there, or provide value as a super-utility type who gets a full season worth of at-bats while playing a few different positions like Jonathan Villar (SS/2B, Brewers) has done – albeit with less pop.
Yordan Alvarez, OF/1B, Rookie DSL | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 55/45
Ht/Wt: 6’5”/225 B/T: L/L Age (as of December 1st 2016): 19y 6m
Quick Hit: Alvarez came over to Houston for Los Angeles last summer in the Josh Fields (RHP, Dodgers) deal just weeks after signing for a $2 million bonus as part of last year’s J2 class. He has yet to make his way stateside for in-season work, but showed off an impressive collection of offensive tools during his Dominican Summer League work last summer, flashing present plus raw power and advanced bat-to-ball skills to go with a quality approach. Alvarez takes balanced, line-drive-centric cuts that belie his size and strength, limiting his present in-game power, but it’s easy to envision the young Cuban batsman quickly developing a knack for finding pitches he can lift and drive – particularly given his advanced feel for the craft.
Though evaluators have mentioned a potential home in left field, Alvarez’s size and below-average speed would seem to point more naturally to a long-term home at first base. He has immense upside with the bat, but still has a long developmental road to traverse before firmly establishing himself on the prospect scene. A strong 2017 could see him shoot up prospect and acquisition lists alike.
Jorge Alcala, RHP, Short-Season A Tri-City | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 55/45
Ht/Wt: 6’3”/180 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 21y 4m
Quick Hit: Alcala doesn’t blow evaluators away with sexy stuff, but his fastball and slider can both grade out as above-average to plus, with the former working in the low-to-mid 90s with good weight, and the latter playing best in the mid 80s with short-to-moderate depth and solid bite. His breaking ball can back up on him, particularly when he overthrows, coming too firm and flat and without enough velocity delta off the heater to make it an effective secondary. When on, however, it’s an impressive weapon that can miss barrels on the regular, drawing both empty swings out of the zone as well as soft contact on the ground.
Alcala’s changeup is in its nascent stages of development, lacking much in the way of action and deception, often working in the middle 80s and riding up the zone. In order to stick in the rotation long term, Alcala will need to mold his off-speed offering into a viable third option in order to keep hitters from sitting on the harder stuff. Because he can attack hitters with a fastball/slider combo that can both miss bats and draw ground ball contact, there’s an obvious fallback as a power-armed reliever, though the Astros have no reason to explore that road just yet. Alcala should get a good look piggy-backing his way through the Midwest League and perhaps the Cal League this summer, at which point evaluators should have a better feel for whether or not the profile is viable in a rotation long term. A solid showing could bump Alcala from simply another name to know in the system to a true player of interest in short order.
Gilberto Celestino, OF, Rookie GCL Astros | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 50/40
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/170 B/T: R/L Age (as of December 1st 2016): 17y 10m
Quick Hit: At $2.5 million, Celestino’s signing bonus seems like a bit of an overpay when you consider the lack of impact in the raw tools. However, while the 18-year-old doesn’t project to have any kind of loud carry tool, he does show advanced instincts in the outfield, and an overall feel for the game that suggests he could be a guy who gets the most out of what he does have. He is only about 6-feet tall, but the lanky frame has some wiry strength to it and there is room for him to get stronger without giving up too much in the way of athleticism.
Celestino doesn’t have a ton of fast-twitch actions in his game, but the level stroke is efficient and keeps the barrel in the zone for a good amount of time, making it reasonable to project some gap power as the body matures. He doesn’t have the run to be a true impact defender in center field, but the instincts are very good and he already has some feel reading the ball off the bat. The arm strength is fringe-average now, but the throwing motion works well, and Celestino could be one of the minority cases who sees a significant bump in arm strength as he fills out.
The fact that the young outfielder is already showing evidence of discipline and an approach at the plate – as demonstrated by his drawing 25 walks to 23 strikeouts over 136 DSL at-bats – a bodes well for his offensive outlook, but eventually he will have to show he can sting the ball and do some damage to counter the challenge fastballs he’s going to see when he gets to full season ball. Overall, Celestino may not be big time prospect, but the ingredients are there for him to have impact at the big league level – perhaps in a hybrid OF-4/OF-5 role.
Jake Rogers, C, Class A Quad Cities | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 50/45
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/190 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 21y 7m
Quick Hit: The top defensive backstop in the 2016 MLB Draft class, Rogers was popped by Houston in the third round last June out of Tulane. The former Green Wave standout is a quiet receiver, agile defender and powerful catch-and-throw threat, grading out as a double-plus glove with double-plus arm strength to go with impressive on-field poise. There are lots of questions as to how much offense can be expected, as the bat speed is average and the swing works uphill and is pull-centric, leaving lots of plate coverage issues and a high risk of debilitating strikeout numbers. There’s some strength in the body, but not much in the way of track record when it comes to hitting for either average or power.
Rogers could carve out a backup role off the strength of his defensive profile alone, and if the Astros can tease even fringy offensive skills into the profile over the next couple of seasons he could emerge as a solid everyday option as a down-order stick with impact tools behind the plate.
Framber Valdez, LHP, High A Lancaster | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 50/45
Ht/Wt: 5’11”/170 B/T: L/L Age (as of December 1st 2016): 23y 1m
Quick Hit: A strong, thick-bodied lefty, Valdez has a very quick arm through a high-3/4’s slot with some crossfire in the delivery that works to play up the plus raw stuff. The fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90s with excellent late life in the zone, and the slider gets tight two-plane break with bite and average depth in the low 80s. He stays tall and creates decent angle for his size, but he tends to rush through his mechanics and will drag his arm causing the fastball to sail up and arm side, and cause the slider to back up on him.
Valdez does a good job pounding down in the zone, but is still very much a thrower who will need to develop a useable third pitch to remain in the rotation. The extreme ground ball rates he’s shown thus far through his pro career are indicative of how lively the pure stuff is, so if he can get to even fringe-average command he stands to be very hard to square up and could move quickly in 2017 – much like he did last season when he pitched at four different levels. Valdez likely will get significant innings at High A early in the summer while continuing to work out as a starter, but until he establishes a change-of-pace offering to keep hitters off of the harder stuff, and the overall command in the zone improves, the electric arm may project best in a late-inning role.
Anibal Sierra, SS, Rookie DSL | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 50/40
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/190 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 22y 10m
Quick Hit: Signing for a $1.5 million bonus out of Cuba last summer, the now 23-year-old Sierra brings to the table a contact-oriented bat with some middle-infield defensive ability. He is a long, lean kid with smooth, athletic actions and a middle-of-the-field approach. The bat speed is just average, but he has a level stroke with good barrel exit and while the pop isn’t great right now, he does have some room to fill out and should find some gap type power as he gets stronger.
He was signed as a shortstop and there are those that feel he will stay there, but the run is average at best and he may not have the quick-twitch actions to really be an impact defender at the position. He did well in the DSL after signing, but at age 22 he was exceptionally old for the level and likely had seen better competition in his time playing in the Serie Nacional. Expect Sierra to spend some time in extended spring training if he doesn’t impress in minor league camp this month, with the Astros’ goal being to get him significant at-bats at Class A before the season is out.
Quick Hit: The uber-athletic, yet uber-raw Cameron was paid well over slot to the tune of a $4 million signing bonus after being selected with the 37th overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft. Cameron is very strong for his age and the bloodlines are excellent, given the big league exploits of his father, Mike Cameron (OF, 1995-2011, multiple teams). However, Cameron has had some trouble making contact thus far and went from a 25% strikeout rate in Rookie Ball in 2015 to well over 30% across two levels of A- ball last year. He has average bat speed, but gets rotational and the actions get stiff making it hard for him to get the barrel out front and really take advantage of his raw power.
While Cameron clocks in as an above-average runner, he’s a power runner like his father and it plays better underway. He has some feel for the middle-outfield position with above-average range, and while the arm strength is fringe average, his clean release has his throws stay online. He should be fully healthy going into opening day after breaking his finger and missing the second half of last year, but could spend time in extended spring before reporting to a full season club. Cameron has a fair amount of development ahead of him if he’s to clean up the swing and miss, and avoid under-utilizing what is an otherwise impressive skill set.
Freudis Nova, SS, Did Not Play | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 50/40
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/180 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 16y 11m
Quick Hit: Yet to set foot on a pro field in the U.S., Nova brings a smooth stroke and some physical projection to go with his plus athleticism. The bat looks to be his carry tool, and while he doesn’t look like a big home run threat, he stays level through the zone and already shows some carry to the gaps in BP. He gets good barrel exit and there is not a ton of effort to the actions of his swing – at only 18 years old, he will get stronger and should develop more than enough pop to the middle of the field to do damage at maturity. He is athletic enough to handle the shortstop position, but stands to lose a step or two as he gets bigger and the short, wrist-flick arm action may make him better suited for second or third base when all is said and done. A nice piece to have, there is significant proximity risk here with Nova – even if he handles the DSL this year, it is still likely 2018 before he debuts stateside.
Stephen Wrenn, OF, Class A Quad Cities | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 45/40
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/185 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 22y 2m
Quick Hit: Wrenn stood out in the Cape Cod League in 2015, showing a center field tool set to go with an average-or-better hit tool with wood. A jarring injury to his face early in his junior year sidetracked his draft-eligible campaign, though he bounced back some after signing with Houston as a sixth-round selection in last June’s MLB Draft, slashing .260/.324/.471 over 71 games with Short-Season A Tri-City and Class A Quad Cities. Wrenn profiles as a potential fourth-outfielder option thanks to his double-plus speed and impressive defense in center field. If he can establish an offensive baseline on par with what he showed with the wood on the Cape, there’s an outside chance for the profile to mature into an everyday option for the Astros, but his aggregate value may still be too light to make that ceiling attainable, making an OF-5 role more realistic.
Ronnie Dawson, OF, Short Season A Tri-City | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 45/35
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/225 B/T: L/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 21y 7m
Quick Hit: Taken in the second round out of Ohio State last June, Dawson has a short, quick stroke with some raw power that will likely be his carry tool going forward. He has some feel for the strike zone and doesn’t expand too often, but the approach is very much pull oriented and his inability to cover the outer third of the plate with any kind of authority was exploited early in his pro debut. He struggled versus lefties to the tune of a .318 SLG over 66 at-bats, and that will likely continue unless he is able to more effectively utilize the left side of the field. He has some bat speed and is a strong kid, so the raw material is there to allow him to develop a more middle-of-the-field approach, and he has the strength to do damage to both gaps. He is limited on defense and will likely stay on the corner in left field, so he will need to make a bit more contact in the zone (22.2% strikeout rate in 2016) for the power to make an impact and carry the profile.
Guadalupe Chavez, RHP, Rookie Greenville | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 45/40
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/150 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 18y 11m
Quick Hit: Chavez made his way to the Houston system last summer via Toronto in exchange for Scott Feldman (RHP, Reds). The former Blue Jay boasts a quality changeup that plays well off of an average fastball, thanks to good arm speed and deception out of the hand. Chavez generally works from the upper 80s to the low 90s with the heater, showing loose feel in the zone. His curveball is a future-average offering with inconsistent shape at present, though he shows some feel for spin. The profile is that of a potential back-end arm provided his slight frame proves durable enough to handle the load.
Hector Perez, RHP, Class A Quad Cities | Ceiling/Realistic Role: 45/40
Ht/Wt: 6’3”/190 B/T: R/R Age (as of December 1st 2016): 20y 6m
Quick Hit: Perez showcases a quality fastball and easy plus slider that at least one evaluator graded out as a future double-plus offering with hard bite and good depth. The young righty has battled constantly with his mechanics, however, struggling to find the strike zone with any regularity, calling into question his long term viability in a rotation. He’ll likely return to Class A Quad Cities to start 2017 where he will continue to work on improving his control and consistency. He likely fits best as a middle-relief arm or swingman.
|1. Francis Martes, RHP, AA||6. Garrett Stubbs, C, AA||11. Yulieski Gurriel, 3B, MLB|
|2. Kyle Tucker, OF, High A||7. Franklin Perez, RHP, A||12. Miguelangel Sierra, SS, Rk.|
|3. Forrest Whitley, LHP, Rk.||8. Ramon Laureano, OF, AA||13. Jandel Gustave, RHP, MLB|
|4. David Paulino, RHP, MLB||9. Teoscar Hernandez, OF, MLB||14. Cionel Perez, LHP, N/A|
|5. Derek Fisher, OF, AAA||10. Jason Martin, OF, High A||15. Riley Ferrell, RHP, High A|
Even after trades that sent potential impact talent to Philadelphia, Milwaukee and New York, the Astros possess an impressive balance of polish and upside in the system, allowing the team the flexibility to pursue a wide range of players on the trade market in the upcoming months and years. While Houston will undoubtedly rely upon contributions of many of their top prospects in the short term, there is enough redundancy of talented prospects – in the outfield and on the mound in particular – for the team to leverage should they wish to pursue top-shelf established players.
In the outfield, Derek Fisher, Ramon Laureano and Teoscar Hernandez could interest teams looking for long-term solutions, and should the Astros need a headliner on a larger deal for elite talent, Kyle Tucker could easily fit that bill. On the bump, teams looking for short-term help would have obvious interest in high-end talent such as Francis Martes or David Paulino, while the lower levels provide for similarly enticing names with a longer developmental arc ahead of them, including Cionel Perez, Forrest Whitley and Franklin Perez.
With the playoffs and a push for a World Series title squarely in focus, it’s unlikely the Astros look to move much in the way of regular contributors at the major league level, though a successful shift to first base for Yulieski Gurriel could leave open the possibility of moving A.J. Reed for the right return should he reestablish some of his previous value in 2017. Additionally, it’s possible that by next offseason further development of Garret Stubbs makes one of Stubbs, Brian McCann and Evan Gattis an interesting target for clubs looking for help behind the plate. While depth is certainly welcome at the catcher position, the offered packages could certainly be worthy of consideration.
The Astros are well situated to compete for title in 2017, and with the system flush with talent across all levels it isn’t difficult to picture Houston as a fixture among the top teams in the game for the foreseeable future. Francis Martes, David Paulino, and to a lesser extent Brady Rodgers could help add depth to the rotation, while Teoscar Hernandez, Derek Fisher, and Ramon Laureano could see the Astros four-or-five deep in first-division talent out on the grass. Garrett Stubbs should have an opportunity to establish himself as a long-term fixture behind the plate over the next couple of years, with the team’s 2019 option on Brian McCann a solid safety net should Stubbs struggle in acclimating to the big leagues.
In addition to providing opportunities to bolster the 25-man roster via trades, the talent at the lower levels of the system also provide comfort in knowing that, as the big league roster becomes more expensive in the coming years, there will be a consistent pipeline of talent capable of filling in holes at cost-controlled prices. Additionally, prospects such as Forrest Whitley and Kyle Tucker carry with them true impact potential a few years down the line, while the likes of Miguelangel Sierra, Yordan Alvarez and Jonathan Aruaz likely require a little more developmental time, but are nevertheless possess intriguing upside.
With a current major league club ready to compete on April 1, plenty of bullets to fire off in trade at the deadline, and a wealth of talent still working its way through the system towards Houston, the Astros are among the best-situated organizations in the game. The front office has more than succeeded in rebuilding and restructuring the franchise to the point where the club now carries with it understandably high expectations to finish the job of bringing a championship to Houston. While a lot more comes into play than simply fielding a great team on paper, the front office has done what is needed in order to put the club in a position compete in both the short term and over the course the next several years – it’s a good time to be an Astros fan.
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