The deadline for teams to add players to their 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft is later tonight, and the Astros have made a set of moves to protect eligible prospects Cristian Javier, Enoli Paredes, Taylor Jones and Nivaldo Rodriguez. All four would have been likely to be selected if left off the 40-man.
The biggest name of the group is Cristian Javier, a right handed starting pitcher who enjoyed one of the best statistical seasons of any hurler in the minor leagues this past season. Pitching across three levels, Javier accumulated 170 strikeouts in just 113 and 2⁄3 innings, against 59 walks. Javier’s unique delivery attacks hitters from a bit of an angle, and he brings an arsenal of five legitimate offerings. These traits in combination make Javier very difficult to step in against, and thus far minor league hitters have been unable to solve him. He flirted with a big league call-up in 2019, and could be given a real shot to break camp with the Astros in 2020 depending on what moves they make in the pitching market.
Enoli Paredes also had a very strong season on the farm, and possesses perhaps the best raw stuff in the system now that J.B. Bukauskas is with the Diamondbacks. The wiry, 5’11” hurler possesses mid-90s velocity that touches higher, a curveball that has drawn 7 grades, a strong changeup and a slider that he will mix in occasionally. His arsenal is that of a starter, and he’s worked primarily as one with the Astros thus far. However, his slight frame and max-effort delivery have him ticketed for relief in the eyes of many, and he’s close to ready to throw in the majors in that role. With that in mind, he was very likely to be selected in the Rule 5 if unprotected, and would’ve had a good chance to stick with his new club to boot. After throwing 94 innings in 22 appearances in 2019, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Astros shift him exclusively to short relief in 2020, but they may prefer him in a hybrid multi-inning role, where he’d have the stuff to succeed.
The lone position player of the group, Jones had a breakout 2019 campaign and was perhaps a single injury away from joining the Astros last season. A 19th round pick in 2016, Jones comes from a basketball background, unsurprising considering his 6’7” frame. After an illustrious two sport career in the Washington state prep ranks, Jones joined the Gonzaga baseball club, where he worked as a pitcher early on. Having struggled with control on the mound, Jones was transitioned to first base as a junior, a role in which he enjoyed great success. After hitting .358/.414/.545, the Cubs took a stab on him in the 35th round, but Jones decided to head back to Spokane and seek to bolster his stock as a senior. His numbers actually took a bit of a step back in his senior year, but the Astros liked what they saw and popped him early on day 3 of the draft.
Early in his pro days Jones largely struggled, but had encouraging strikeout and walk rates, and showed signs of a breakout in Double-A in 2018, hitting .314/.409/.528 for Corpus with 13 home runs. Jones was notably old for the level at age 24, but given his lack of experience as a hitter compared to his peers, his advanced age was a bit less concerning than it would be typically. His upward trajectory continued into 2019, when he clubbed 27 home runs across Double and Triple-A, with 22 of those coming in Round Rock. After hitting 15 home runs across 2016 and 2017 in the pros, Jones appears to have made the necessary adjustments to tap into his considerable raw power, and should get a chance to prove he has a future as a big league bat in 2020. He’s more or less ready to go and would likely be first on the list for a call-up if the Astros suffered an injury to a corner type.
The last player protected was right handed pitcher Nivaldo Rodriguez, who enjoyed a very strong 2019 across the Low and High-A levels. Across 95 innings, Rodriguez struck out 114 against 35 walks and 28 earned runs. Rodriguez lacks the high level velocity of a Paredes, but has been able to confound hitters with a plus curveball and strike-throwing ability. Rodriguez hasn’t pitched very high on the ladder yet, but has had success everywhere he’s been assigned as has impressive polish for a pitcher who is yet to reach the upper minors. It’s very easy to envision Rodriguez as either a #4-5 starter or a middle relief type depending on how impactful his command is and how his sinking change develops, and he shouldn’t need much more seasoning to reach most of his potential.
The Astros’ 40 man may be finalized at this point, but if history is any indication, we shouldn’t be surprised if they make another move later today ahead of the deadline. Of players currently unprotected, Jonathan Arauz and Ronnie Dawson would be appear most likely to be selected among position players. Arauz has been slow to develop in the Astros system, but has shown some steady improvement year-to-year and reached Corpus Christi by the end of last season. Arauz is an athletic infielder with some speed and a gorgeous swing, but is nowhere near ready to handle major league pitching, if he ever will be. Dawson is a very polished defensive outfielder capable of playing all three positions, and has siginifcant power in his bat to boot. However, he’s had persistent contact issues that continued throughout the 2019 season. If Dawson were able to cut down on his strikeouts considerably he could be a breakout player, but he’ll turn 25 early in the 2020 season and is running out of time. Of the two, Dawson feels more likely to be selected, as his defense is already above average and he’s solid on the basepaths, meaning he could be hidden on a big league roster without having to handle too many at bats. Arauz could also be hidden as a utility infielder, but his bat will be a liability if he is thrust into the majors next year and he would be difficult to hold onto for a full season.
A couple of pitchers could also potentially get looks from other teams are Yohan Ramirez and Carlos Sanabria, who both bring significant strikeout potential along with strike throwing concerns. As noted below by Reillocity, Ramirez’ skills project well to a relief role, but he’s been used as a starter primarily by Houston as is customary in their system:
Since he's not behind paywall, thoughts on HOU RHP Yohan Ramirez? Among wildest AA/AAAers up for protection else drafting, but also armed with some of the loudest out-generation skills (righthanded Darwinzon Hernandez profile). Projects short RP, which he hasn't done much of yet.— reillocity ft. FaBIO (@reillocity) November 20, 2019
It’s not hard to imagine a team taking a stab on Ramirez and trying him out in a short middle relief role, where he could conceivably hold his own. Sanabria, on the other hand, has worked exclusively in short relief in recent history, and just got some work in the Arizona Fall League. Sanabria has a starter-esque three pitch mix and isn’t necessarily overpowering, but he controls his stuff well and projects pretty comfortably to middle relief. If still unprotected at the deadline, the Astros can likely expect to lose one or both of these hurlers to reliever-needy clubs, as the bullpen is one of the easiest places to stash a Rule 5 selection. A final potential target for opposing teams would be 5’10” hurler Brandon Bailey, who has a dynamite three-pitch mix and solid if unspectacular performance at Double-A under his belt. Bailey possesses all the traits to start other than his stature, but with less than ideal command, relief may be more likely for him in the long term. In terms of raw stuff he likely ranks highest among the eligible pitchers after Enoli Paredes, but his future role is less clear. Were I in charge of the selection for a rebuilding club, I’d take a long look at Bailey, who still has the potential to blossom into a #4 starter, and could potentially crank the effort level on his delivery a bit and shift to the bullpen as well, where his elite fastball life should play. The 2019 Rule 5 draft will be held December 12th.