Make no mistake: the Astros farm system is no longer strong. After consistently ranking somewhere in the top half of the league through most of the Luhnow era, they are currently unquestionably among the bottom 5-10 systems in Major League Baseball, with only one top 100 candidate and a handful of other names who project as major leaguers of some variety. In that second group, the one player who could reasonably be projected as a potential star is Freudis Nova, long seen as one of the most exciting international prospects to enter the organization in years.
With a powerful 6’1” frame, mammoth arm strength and sudden athleticism, Nova carries all the hallmarks of a strong defensive left side infielder, with a solid chance to keep playing shortstop all the way up the ladder. He may end up growing out of the position and moving to third, but if that happens he’d project as a strong defender with above average range for the hot corner and more than enough arm.
While the defensive tools are strong, Nova’s calling card has always been offensive upside, a product of his explosive right handed swing and raw power. Entering 2019, there was a path for Nova to emerge as a top 100 prospect with a good offensive showing in the Midwest League at age 19. After a rock solid .308/.331/.466 slash line the previous season in the GCL, expectations were high. In rookie ball, Nova had maintained tidy strikeout totals with a sprinkling of power and speed, with the former expected to continue to mature rapidly.
In his full season ball assignment this past season, Nova was a mixed bag. While it would be fair to say his performance was disappointing, there were plenty of positive markers that have buoyed his stock entering 2020. Unfortunately, he was only able to compete in 75 games on the year, a product of some minor injuries that kept him shelved for stretches of the season, which was doubly disappointing as he had to miss some time right as he seemed to catch his stride at the level. The biggest problem that Nova showed in full-season ball was a less than ideal approach. This hadn’t hindered him much in rookie ball as he hit most of what was thrown his way, but making the jump to much older competition saw him struggle with bad swings at chase pitches. The result was a strikeout rate that ballooned to 22.7%, a manageable number, but one that needs to be offset with a healthy dose of power and walks. The latter was not there, and watching Nova’s game at bats evidences why- at this stage in his development, Nova is a free swinger, and produces more swings and misses and weak contact than his swing should in theory.
Approaches can be malleable in some cases, but in many others deficient discipline follows players all the way up the ladder. Some organizations appear to be better at shoring up approaches than others, but it’s difficult to ascertain whether this is a product of superior development, or finding players who are more likely to make strides in this area to begin with. Additionally, it’s rare for a player with an approach like Nova’s to develop ideal discipline- marginal improvements are a much more reasonable expectation. Thankfully for him, that may be all he needs given his ample offensive tools. His power projects as plus, a product of his bat speed and explosive lower half, and his tight swing path should allow plenty of contact. One of the most positive developments for Nova in 2019 was that the power was showing up in games- yes, his ISO was just .110, but the extra base hits started coming in bunches later in the season and he ended with 20 doubles in his 75 contests to go with 3 homers and a triple. He also already makes pretty consistent contact on pitches within the zone, so being more selective could produce a swift statistical breakout.
Given his injury-shortened campaign, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Nova reassigned to Quad Cities in 2020 with the hope that he shows some strides and gives himself a bit of momentum into High-A ball. Nova just turned 20 this past Sunday, so time remains firmly on his side in his development, but he’s also notably Rule 5 eligible at the end of the upcoming season, so the Astros would surely like to see him make their 40 man decision at the end of the year an easy one. He continues to carry the ceiling of a heart of the order bat on the infield, but his 2019 campaign shed light on a dimension of risk that wasn’t as obvious in his career’s earliest stages. With a clear development plan and some maturation, Nova has a chance to make good on his top-100 upside in the new decade.