While amateur acquisition under the Jeff Luhnow front office slowed significantly after the 2012 MLB draft, one area where the group consistently excelled was in unearthing overlooked pitchers on the international market. Perhaps the most talented hurler from that group is Bryan Abreu, who debuted back in 2014 after signing out of the D.R. the previous November.
Early in his career, Abreu grappled with strike throwing issues. It took Abreu four full seasons in the rookie ball ranks (DSL, GCL, Appy League) to earn a trip to full season ball, but since making that leap he’s ascended through the system rapidly. In 2018, he appeared in 21 games for Tri-City and Quad Cities, striking out nearly 40% of the batters he faced while walking roughly 10%, standout figures.
He mainly pitched in shorter stints, compiling a total of 54 and 1⁄3 innings on the season, but his stuff impressed both internal and external evaluators so much that the Astros protected him from the Rule 5 draft following the season, despite him not having pitched above Low-A ball. In 2019, Abreu built on that success, starting the season with High-A Fayetteville, where he struck out 42% of opposing batters in 14 and 2⁄3 innings, earning a swift promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi.
His ERA ballooned to 5.05 with the Hooks, up from 3.68 in Fayetteville and sub-2 figures at both of his 2018 stops, but his performance was largely positive. The upper minors competition laid off of him more often, causing his walk rate to spike to 14.2%, his highest mark in full season play, and while he didn’t produce as many swings and misses, his 30% K rate was still in elite territory. While he didn’t exactly look like a fully realized pitcher at this point, he nonetheless earned a big league callup with roster expansion and injuries to the big league bullpen entering the equation.
In his major league debut, Abreu recorded 8 and 2⁄3 innings pitched in 7 appearances, striking out 13 batters against 3 walks and a single run allowed. He put some gaudy statcast data on the books in his brief taste of the big leagues, averaging over 2200 RPM on his fastball and nearly 3000 on his curve, with an average fastball velocity of 95.1 MPH. These figures back up in person reports on Abreu’s stuff from the last few years- in terms of raw bat missing ability, few are in his class. His explosive arm speed allows him to consistently sit in the mid-90s, and his feel for spin is elite. His pair of plus breaking balls both average over 2750 RPM, and he shows an ability to tweak the shape of his stuff along the curveball/slider spectrum.
While few can compete with Abreu’s raw stuff, in the Astros organization or otherwise, there is nonetheless a lot of uncertainty in his profile. While his delivery isn’t overly complicated or violent, he’s been unable to consistently throw the amount of strikes typical of a starting pitcher. He has the frame and arsenal to turn over a lineup multiple times, but it’s not a role he’ll be able to fill at the big league level unless his command improves.
Athleticism and mechanics tend to be the best markers that indicate future command gains, and on a surface level, Abreu checks both of those boxes. He’s an outstanding athlete, and the bones of his delivery are very sound. However, his upper and lower halves are often a little bit out of sync, contributing to his scattershot tendencies. The progress on this front, while palpable, has been very slow and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever throw enough strikes to be a true rotation piece.
If his command and control do come around and reach a 45 grade or so level, the most that can be reasonably expected in my opinion, Abreu could be as much as a #3 starter thanks to a trio of premium offerings. It’s difficult to envision him ever having the location to consistently go 7 innings plus, but it’s possible that he could handle a Lance McCullers Jr. type of workload. If his profile holds steady, his future is in relief. However, with his three-pitch arsenal and ability to throw relatively high pitch counts while maintaining his stuff, he projects favorably as a multi-inning weapon with more impact than a typical short relief prospect.
Wherever Abreu goes from here, his nuclear stuff will make him highly recommended viewing. With the Astros major league pitching depth having thinned out significantly, there will be room for Abreu to establish himself in the majors in 2020, and he has a good chance to lead the team in strikeout rate. The dreamy, mid-rotation outcomes are lower probability in nature, but he’s nonetheless one of the best prospects currently in the system with a chance to be a significant contributor.