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2020 Could Be Window into Bullpen’s Future

If you’re looking forward to rookie impact during the upcoming season, look to the Astros’ relief stable.

MLB: JUL 12 Astros Summer Camp Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the last several years, the Astros have had a consistent pipeline of minor league talent reaching the major leagues season to season, adding significant sparks to a powerful big league roster. More recently, that pipeline has begun to dry up. The Astros’ farm system is far from barren, and top prospect Forrest Whitley’s camp performance suggests that the team might once again have a rookie of the year contender, but after him, it’s fair to wonder how much young talent might contribute to the 2020 club, expanded rosters or not.

Looking over the Astros’ 60-man expanded roster, there are a number of prospects present, but they skew toward the pitching side. Journeymen such as Alex De Goti and Nick Tanielu, both versatile Triple-A stalwarts, could debut in a similar fashion to Jack Mayfield in ‘19, and slugging first baseman Taylor Jones has a chance to crack the lineup as a backup for the Yordan Alvarez role. Outfielder Chas McCormick also made the cut, and is perhaps the most promising position player on the list with prospect eligibility, but would also likely need an injury to occur to get any real playing time. McCormick projects as a versatile fourth outfielder with value on both sides of the ball long term.

While all the players mentioned above have some big league skills that should earn them a spot with a big club at some point, they don’t project to play much on the Astros 2020 roster as currently comprised. On the pitching side, however, the circumstances are a bit different. The Astros’ big league pitching depth has backed up a bit over the last year or two with free agent losses, and they’ve had numerous big league talents in the upper minors for the last two years or so.

The Astros really don’t have a locked in #5 starter for the 2020 season to this point, and there’s a real chance for a rookie to seize that role. Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers are locked into the top 3 spots in the rotation, and Josh James figures to be safe in the #4 slot after strong fall and spring performances over the last several months. The team may opt against using a true five-man rotation, but if they do, Forrest Whitley has to be given a long look, and players like Brandon Bielak, Rogelio Armenteros and Cristian Javier could compete for starts at some point this season, against veterans like Framber Valdez and Austin Pruitt- though their real chance for impact likely comes in 2021.

Where Astros rookies might be able to move the needle this year is in the bullpen- the Astros pen became a bit shakier down the stretch in 2019, and the team has lost Will Harris to free agency and Joe Smith to an opt-out since that time. While the back end of the pen sans Harris returns intact, there are a number of spots in the middle relief stable up for grabs, and Astros prospects might be the most promising options. Fans got a taste of Bryan Abreu’s high octane stuff late in 2019, and it’d be a surprise if he didn’t continue to be a part of the mix as he continues to add finishing touches to his profile. Additionally, fireballing, 5’11” righty Enoli Paredes might be ready to crack the bigs himself. Paredes has some of the best pure stuff in the system, and shows as many as four pitches. Paredes throws with a ton of effort and whip-like arm action, so fans should expect some walks, but he’ll rack up enough strikeouts to offset them and could be a key set-up man for the club at some point in the next few years.

While Paredes and Abreu bring starter arsenals out of high-effort deliveries, the Astros have a third premium relief prospect who relies almost entirely on pure heat- Jojanse Torres, who has impressed onlookers in “Spring Training II.” Torres is 6’4” with loose athleticism, and routinely uncorks triple-digit fastballs with high torque mechanics. Torres’ approach involves leaning on his heater while mixing in biting sliders, giving him a high strikeout, late inning projection. It’s hard to say how innings might shake out amongst this young group, but I feel strongly that they are the beginning of Houston’s bullpen of the future, and the 2020 season could be an exciting look into their future with the team. If you’re looking for some rookie excitement this year on a day when Forrest Whitley isn’t throwing- wait for the late innings.