Gone are the days when the Houston Astros were so good and so deep that they were consistently raided in the Rule 5 draft. Let’s hope the days are also gone when their normally competent GM protected Ronald Torreyes and left Delino Deshields, Jr. to get snapped up by a divisional rival (he’s produced 5 WAR in his career; that move was dumb and the time, remained dumb in retrospect, but was hardly a disaster).
To understand Friday evening’s moves, it’s helpful to put the 40-man roster in perspective. The 26-man roster = the big league club in Houston. In event of injury, waiver, demotion, or trade, the team adds from the 40-man. Otherwise, it must make a corresponding move to keep the 40-man at 40.
The 40-man, in other words, represents the team’s depth. Most of the players on it will play. If you’re protecting 5-6 players with no chance of helping your MLB team, your lack of depth will likely get exposed (unless you’re exceptionally injury-free). You can add to the 40-man if you move a player to the 60-day IL. Once free agents are added this offseason (the Astros should add 3 to 4, so expect a further 40-man purging, more anon), that’s basically the list of guys who will play in Houston in 2021. (A guy like Jeremy Pena, if he looks great, could of course get added if there’s an injury in 2021).
On Friday the Astros chose to protect five players: four arms (Forrest Whitley, Jairo Solis, Tyler Ivey, Peter Solomon) and one bat (Freudis Nova). They also moved two players off the 40-man: Jack Mayfield and Brandon Bailey. The most notable players left unprotected were Luis Santana (crown jewel of the J.D. Davis trade) and Ronnie Dawson (a classic tools over skills prospect who’s fizzled at the upper levels).
The moves tells us both what the Astros are thinking, and what they’re thinking about what other clubs are thinking. Sometimes those thoughts overlap (Whitley is a head case but almost every club would risk sorting him out, basically for free). Sometimes they don’t (the Astros may have unlocked Dawson in the intra-squads this year and think he can contribute, but they’re nearly certain that no club would take him based on age + past performance). But why risk it? It’s a bummer to lose players that you spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars investing in, only to lose that player, as they near MLB, for 50K.
Although the reputation of Houston’s farm is down, the reputation it has for developing pitchers and teaching them how to throw high-spin-rate breaking balls has never been higher. Cristian Javier and Enoli Paredes came from way outside the top 100 to pitch high leverage innings in multiple playoffs. Framber Valdez threw perhaps the most dominant curveball of anybody on the planet in 2020. Astros’ arms are highly regarded.
This explains why 4 were protected, including Solomon, who seemed the least likely. Solomon (along with Ivey) was part of the 2017 class of college arms that was perhaps the greatest selection of college arms in recent memory (J.B. Bukauskas, Corbin Martin, Ivey, Solomon, Brandon Bielak; that’s five likely MLBers, and perhaps 4 will spend time as starters or high-leverage relievers). Solomon’s great 2018 season got him ranked #20 on Fangraphs’ Spring 2019 rankings (two ahead of Valdez, one behind Abraham Toro). He had Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2019. He’s 24 and has never pitched above A+ ball. It says a lot that they protected him. He’s probably slated as relief depth.
Ivey had more success at higher levels, and it would shock me if he doesn’t debut in 2021. I imagine he starts the season in the AAA rotation, and will probably be somewhere between 8th and 10th in terms of rotational depth. The reports talk about his Roy Oswalt-style 12-6 breaking ball thrown at various speeds, and his windup that’s got some Dizzy Dean.
As far as Forrest Whitley, what else can be said? 2021 may be his make-or-break year. Reports in Spring 2020 were that he didn’t work on what he should have worked on in the offseason. I am not sure how there can be miscommunication with your top prospect after losing Cole and Miley. He has the potential to do for Houston in 2021 what Valdez did in 2020. If that happens, Houston probably wins the AL West. I could see him breaking with Houston out of camp if there’s an injury in the rotation, or also being a long reliever so he gets to be around the team, or being the first guy in line in Sugar Land. Or being injured.
Solis and Nova seem least likely to get to Houston, but maybe both make huge leaps in Corpus Christi. Nova and Pena seem like the two best bets to be above-average regulars. Nova seems unlikely to stick at the MLB level, but it would be too big of a risk to expose him. The same with Solis. He missed 2019 due to Tommy John surgery but he’s still only 20 (for a few more weeks). I imagine he would start in AA, and if he dominates, he’s the most likely Astro to break into the midseason top 100 lists. Given he’s already on the 40-man, there’s a chance he makes it to Houston in the latter half of 2021 in a relief role.
In the big picture Houston has a lot of arms on the 40-man. I would expect that when the Astros add free agents, arms—not bats—will be optioned and exposed to the waiver wire, with Cy Sneed, Cionel Perez, and Humberto Castellanos being possible candidates. I wouldn’t be shocked if all three were offered in similar deals to the one that sent Brandon Bailey to the Cincinatti Reds for cash.