I wasn’t in the Astros war room in 2017 when they made their first-round selection, as much as I would’ve loved to have been, but I have to imagine there was something of a celebration when UNC righty J.B. Bukauskas slipped to them at 15th overall. A wiry plus athlete who has been seen as a first-round talent since his prep days, Bukauskas was projected by many as a top-10 lock entering draft season in 2017. The slender, 6’0” fireballer was lauded for his upper-90s heat and potential plus-plus slider, with both pitches drawing future 70 grades from some evaluators. There was a contingent that saw him as a future reliever because of his high-effort delivery and slight frame, but even those who did projected him as a high-octane, late-inning man.
Since being drafted, Bukauskas has not given us much more to go on, throwing just 69.0 IP total between 2017 and 2018. He was not expected to make much of a mark in 2017 after playing a full NCAA season for a competitive program, but the Astros hoped to get an extended look at him as a starter in 2018. Unfortunately, Bukauskas was involved in a car accident in the spring which resulted in an injury that shelved him until July. Once on the mound, however, he was able to show off some of the upside that made him one of the most touted prospects in the 2017 class. After settling back in with 8.1 IP over three starts at Tri-City, in which he posted nine strikeouts against two walks, he was moved up to Quad Cities where he was similarly impressive. He only ended up making two starts with the River Bandits, striking out seven batters in each, and was subsequently moved up again, to High-A Buies Creek. With BC, he was borderline dominant and at one point strung together three consecutive scoreless starts, in which he struck out eighteen over as many innings. As a final reward for his late season efforts, Bukauskas was promoted for a final start with Double-A Corpus Christi, a highly impressive outing in which he allowed just one hit across six frames, striking out eight and walking two.
All in all, Bukauskas made an outstanding impression in his injury-shortened 2018 season. He totaled 59.0 IP with outstanding dominance ratios, yielding just 42 hits and posting a 71/24 K/BB mark. Though the club would’ve loved to have seen how the 6’0” starter held up under the rigors of a full pro season, Bukauskas was as advertised in his first real taste of the minors. His injury was not arm-related and should not be a long-term concern, and his ability to miss bats is as present as ever. The fastball-slider combo that carried him to this point is still extremely sharp, and minor-league hitters looked overmatched at times trying to make contact with his breaking ball. While there’s not much of a body of work yet, and the fine command concerns persist (3.6 BB/9), anyone who was a fan of Bukauskas in 2017 should continue to be heading into 2019. He still carries #2 starter upside with a late-inning relief floor, and his 1-2 punch is on par with that of anyone in the minor leagues.
Assuming his pitching arm remains intact, I project a monster season from Bukauskas in 2019, potentially even including a promotion to the major-league bullpen late in the season to get his feet wet. As was the case this past offseason, command and changeup development will be the keys to continued improvement, and both are necessary if Bukauskas hopes to solidify himself as a future starter. Currently, I would rank him in the back end of a top-100 prospects list, with serious potential to rise if he can demonstrate a workable changeup and maintain his stuff over a whole season. I feel as though he is currently underrated in the Astros system by many at this point in time, and I can see a case for him as the 3rd best prospect in the system, ahead of Yordan Alvarez and fellow starters Cionel Perez and Corbin Martin. It’s natural for evaluators to be cautious when ranking players with a limited track record, but his upside dwarfs that of most farmhands.
Addendum from Astros Future
“The season started slow for Bukauskas as he worked his way back on the field following an off-season car accident. Prospect gurus started to drop him in the rankings, falling out of the to 100 in some instances. When he came back, he showed why he was a first round pick.
He dominated at ever level making it all the way to Double-A and had a 2.14 ERA (2.51 FIP) while striking out 10.8 K/9. Also a key to remember is he is still just 21 years old. Despite missing the start of the season, 2018 way a definite step in the right direction for Bukauskas. I look forward to seeing what he can do in 2019.”