With the Astros now firmly entrenched as contenders in the short term, acquisitions have become more of a focus for fans than prospect graduations, but Houston projects to get plenty of help from both sources in 2019. With two top-15 prospects knocking on the door and significant midrange talent in the upper minors, there could be several new faces in Houston over the course of the season.
Locks to Debut
Forrest Whitley, RHP, 21 - The first of two blue chippers in the system, Whitley was expected to debut last summer but had his season derailed by a stimulant suspension and was limited to just 26.1 live regular season innings. Whitley was up and down in those frames but generally very solid, striking out 34 against 11 walks with just two home runs allowed. He built on that bit of success in the Arizona fall league, where he also threw 26 innings, and added another 36 strikeouts against 7 walks and as many runs. Scouting reports from the AFL were glowing, as observers still see Whitley show plus with four pitches and strong command. His upside is that of a true ace, and he is generally considered the best pitching prospect in minor league baseball. Whitley will likely be with the big club early next season given their lack of rotation depth relative to 2018, perhaps as soon as late April, but more likely May or June. At this point, his only shortcoming is an inability to carry his best stuff in command deep into starts, but should improve in that regard as he adds strength.
Kyle Tucker, OF, 21 - There has been incessant trade chatter surrounding Tucker for much of the offseason, but I personally think it looks rather unlikely that he is shipped out at this stage. Tucker continued to make a mockery of minor league pitching in 2018, posting a Nintendo-like .332/.400/.590 slash line with Triple-A Fresno, including 24 home runs in 100 games. Tucker continues to show present average hitting skills with room to grow, plus power potential and solid defensive tools. He “struggled” in his major league trial last season, hitting .141/.236/.203 in 72 plate appearances, but he struck out in just 18.1% of those trips, identical to his Triple-A rate and just needs to turn the soft contact into hard. Mike Trout hit .220/.281/.390 in his first taste of the bigs, and Tucker has the ability to put his stumble out of the gate behind him in a hurry just as Trout did. If Tucker continues to hit, the Astros will find a full-time outfield role for him in some fashion.
Rogelio Armenteros, RHP, 24 - Unlike the two players discussed above, Armenteros doesn’t bring a ton of upside to the table. That said, the righty is a finished product with 3 MLB pitches, command and great pitchability. Armenteros has carved up the upper minors the last two years, consistently striking out more than 26% of opposing batters with single-digit walk rates. His biggest struggle has been keeping the ball in the yard, and with his lack of premium stuff, it’s one that is likely to follow him to the big leagues. Armenteros leans on his plus changeup, complementing it with a low-90s fastball and workable slider. His arsenal doesn’t afford him much margin for error, but its one that can play in the rotation or bullpen, and Armenteros is most likely to serve as a spot starter/long man for the big club this season, or potentially the #5 starter early in the year or in the event of an injury.
Garrett Stubbs, C, 25 - A contact-first, 50 runner, Stubbs is a bit of an oddball catcher in the Austin Barnes mold. A lefty bat, Stubbs was resurgent in 2018 after a rough 2017, raking to the tune of a .310/.382/.455 slash line, 15.6% K rate and 120 wRC+. Stubbs offers little in the power department, but is nonetheless able to draw walks at a high clip and can even help with his legs on the basepaths. His arm is above average and he’s a solid receiver, though not plus in either department. Stubbs is exceptionally well rounded for the position, and I think he can seriously push Max Stassi for backup catcher duties this season on the back of his consistent offensive production, and would be the easy choice were the club to decide to carry three backstops at any point.
Myles Straw, OF, 24 - An outstanding find by the Astros in round 12 of the 2015 draft, Straw played himself out of fringe prospect status with his epic 70-stolen base 2018 campaign. A 5’10” outfielder with little power, Straw has a similar offensive profile to Garrett Stubbs, but is a true plus-plus baserunner, having succeeded on 88.6% of stolen base attempts in the minors last season. He hit just two home runs last year and rarely connects with authority, but he brings a savvy approach and has had consistently high OBPs up the ladder. Straw will need to keep his contact rate around 85% to be a consistent contributor in the bigs, but I like his chances to do so. Straw projects to play the Tony Kemp role and provide more value with his speed, an area where Kemp has struggled as a big leaguer.
Cionel Perez, LHP, 22 - Perez got his feet wet in the major league bullpen last year, and seems to fit better in a relief role overall, but could return to starting this season if he doesn’t break with the big club. Perez has ridiculous heat for a lefty, averaging 95.6 MPH on his fastball in the majors last season. He’s shown a slider, curve and change in the past with the breaking stuff showing more promise. Perez is ready to challenge hitters out of the pen right now, where he could scrap his fringy changeup, or he could be sent down to Double or Triple-A as a starter and refine his approach. Perez has significant upside as a starter in the Eduardo Rodriguez mold, so the Astros might make the call to stretch him back out in the spring if they feel good about their major league pitching depth. Perez could be a #3 starter or late inning reliever depending on how he continues to develop.
Framber Valdez, LHP, 25 - Though he’s similarly experienced, Valdez is a very different pitcher from 2018 teammate Rogelio Armenteros. While Armenteros takes a finesse approach, Valdez is a true power lefty with an above average fastball and plus curve, but little else. He performed admirably as a spot starter and occasional reliever for the big club last year, but his 2.19 ERA was backed by a dubious 4.65 FIP, largely due to his 15.6% BB rate. I feel that Valdez fits best in the bullpen going forward, as it’s unlikely for a 25 year old pitcher to make significant strides with their command, and with his lack of a third pitch (he threw 98.3% fastballs and curveballs in the majors last year), he faces long odds to be a consistent starter. That said, much like Perez, Valdez brings premium heat for a lefty, topping out at 96, and his curve is a true swing and miss offering. Valdez could earn a rotation spot with a strong spring, but failing that can be a very useful weapon out of the pen for A.J. Hinch and company.
Josh James, RHP, 25 - A 2014 34th round pick, James represents one of the Luhnow Astros’ best late round stabs. The 6’3” righty was diagnosed with sleep apnea during the offseason which he had treated, and came back throwing triple-digit heat. Seriously. James told David Laurila of Fangraphs in a September interview that he “had some apnea, and [he’s] using a CPAP every day.” He continued: “I feel like a different person, now, being able to wake up and feel refreshed,” and he certainly pitched like it in 2018. James’ Double-A K rate almost doubled compared to 2017 (up to 40.9% from 21.0%), and remained at an elite 35.2% in Triple-A and 31.9% in his major league trial. James brings a plus-plus fastball now, and backs it up with an above average slider and workable change. There is very little reason not to buy into James’ breakout considering the factors at play, and the 25 year old is ready to take the ball every fifth day for the big club. James is difficult to project but I have him on the #3/#4 starter borderline, with late inning relief as a fallback. If all goes according to plan, he will break camp in the major league rotation behind Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Collin McHugh.
J.B. Bukauskas, RHP, 22 - The Astros first-round pick in 2017, Bukauskas has struggled to get moving in pro ball, but looks to finally be on track after an injury sustained in a car accident threatened to derail his 2018. Much like Forrest Whitley, Bukauskas’ regular season was very abbreviated (34 IP) and his performance was solid, so the Astros sent him to the Arizona Fall League where he received rave reviews. Bukauskas continues to walk a lot of batters, and that didn’t change in Arizona, but scouts were in awe of his stuff. Bukauskas’ slider was called the best breaking ball in the 2017 class, and is just as filthy today, drawing plenty of 70s from evaluators and a particularly ugly swing from Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. in game action. His fastball is also plus, sitting in the mid-90s. Bukauskas hasn’t had to lean on his changeup much at all with his dynamic 1-2 punch, but it also shows big league average potential. The biggest question mark on J.B. is his ability to handle a starter’s workload. His frame is somewhat slight for a hurler at 6’0”, 196 lbs., and he generates most of his velocity with his arm. He will continue to start in 2019, but the concerns are valid, and his future may be in a “super-reliever,” 100-120 IP role if the Astros want to get creative. If he is to contribute in the majors next year, it will be as a short reliever, and he could make for a threatening playoff weapon if he is able to stay healthy and turn in good outings through the summer.
Corbin Martin, RHP, 23 - Selected with the 56th overall pick in the 2017 draft out of Texas A&M, Martin is a balanced starter with a three-pitch arsenal that includes a plus slider. The righty held up well over 122 innings across High-A and Double-A in 2018, maintaining a 0.00 ERA in his 19 High-A frames. Martin didn’t miss as many bats in Corpus, but did manage to limit hard contact with 84 hits allowed in 103 innings and just 7 homers. Martin doesn’t overpower batters, but can miss his fair share of bats and if everything comes together there is strong #3 starter upside and a pretty high floor. Martin is naturally overshadowed by some of the other arms in this system, but it would not be a surprise at all if he ends up being better than all but Whitley. Martin is a dark horse to pitch in the majors this year, but is more of a natural starter than Valdez, Bukauskas or Perez, and if he performs especially well he could snag a rotation spot ahead of schedule.
Yordan Alvarez, OF/1B/DH, 21 - With Michael Brantley joining the fold, Alvarez looks even less likely to factor into the 2019 Astros’ plans, but he remains just one rung below the majors on the ladder and is thus a hot streak away from a big league role. Alvarez hasn’t shown a ton of growth since exploding onto the scene in 2017, and I continue to question his ability to play the outfield capably. Alvarez managed 20 homers in 379 plate appearances in 2018, and struck out in roughly 24% of his trips across two stops. Alvarez has a massive 6’5” frame with plus to plus-plus raw power, but doesn’t get to all of it in games yet. While his contact ability is better than many power-first prospects, at best it projects as slightly above average. Given the Astros’ depth at his potential defensive positions, he will need to really rake to earn a promotion this season barring injury, but the talent is there for him to do so.