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Houston Astros Top 30 Prospects for 2021

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While new information this past year was limited, there was enough to reshuffle the deck.

NCAA BASEBALL: APR 05 Texas A&M at Rice Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While there was no 2020 minor league season, the Astros have added a few players since the last time I put together a list, and I’ve had plenty of time to argue with myself, so it felt like an appropriate time to update. Ranking the Astros system is a difficult task right now because it lacks top end talent and there’s little separation after the first handful of names, and it’s overflowing with righthanded pitchers. Feel free to let me know where you disagree in the comments, but note that names are mostly interchangeable with those in the same area outside of the top 10.

  1. Forrest Whitley, RHP - I can’t blame anyone for jumping ship on Whitley, but I think there’s still cause for hope. His path has been frustrating, as he looked more or less ready to contribute at the highest level back in 2018, but ran into a series of setbacks that have prevented him from meaningfully advancing since then. After command wobbles and shoulder trouble derailed Whitley in 2019, the team refocused him on making changes to his delivery and body to help prevent future shoulder issues and sharpen his start-to-start command consistency. While the mechanical changes aren’t extreme and his delivery has a similar overall appearance, in our looks at him in late 2019 and 2020 he looks noticeably more upright and seems to load his shoulder less aggressively. Whitley had some extra weight in high school and proceeded to slim down precipitously as a pro, and has now begun to add some bulk to his wiry 6’7” frame. Scouts have also remarked that his on-mound demeanor has improved, and he’s known for working diligently in the offseason. We still need proof that Whitley has the command to stick in the rotation and that he can handle such a workload, but I think he’s getting close. The traits that once made Whitley the top pitching prospect in all of baseball are still there- the unreal arm speed and mid-90s heat, the incredibly tight curveball, the sublimely efficient changeup spin- the finer points have just taken longer to work out than we hoped. He’s fully healthy as of this writing and looks to be in good shape, so he should be turned loose atop the Triple-A rotation to open 2021, with- again- a chance to join the big club midseason if things go well.
  2. Jeremy Pena, SS - Pena lacks the typical ceiling projection of a #2 organizational prospect, but his high floor and upward trajectory have me excited about him nonetheless. Drafted for his defensive polish and bat to ball skills, Pena has added significant bulk to his body without losing meaningful movement ability, and now drives the ball with much more consistency. A shortstop by trade, Pena should be able to handle more or less any defensive position his team wants him to thanks to his instinctive play and solid arm. He has evolved as a hitter consistently over the last few years- a slap hitter when in college, he began making more consistent line drive contact after transitioning to full season pro ball, a trajectory he’s continued in LIDOM play this winter. I expect his power to manifest mostly in the form of gapper extra base hits, but he has added enough strength to project 10-15 home runs annually, and when that’s combined with significant defensive value and some solid batting average upside, it allows Pena to project pretty safely as a super-utility type, with everyday infielder outcomes in play as well.
  3. Tyler Ivey, RHP - I’m taking a bit of a leap of faith in placing Ivey this highly, but I feel that he requires the least projection as a starter of any arm in the system currently, really only needing his health to cooperate. An ex-Aggie who transferred to the JUCO ranks before being drafted, Ivey’s bread and butter is a classic 12-6 curveball, which is a weapon not only because of its strong movement profile, but also because of how effectively Ivey can spot it. Past the hook, Ivey also has a solid fastball that sits in the low-90s with an attractive spin profile (typical of Astros pitching prospects) as well as a changeup that has progressed nicely in the pro game to become an average offering. We’ve also seen him toy with a fourth pitch that has oscillated between slider and cutter depending on how much oomph he puts behind it, and while it’s likely not going to be a significant part of his repertoire it can help him out in some situations. Ivey lost a lot of 2019 due to a suspension for using a foreign substance and some injury trouble, and it was a bit surprising that we never saw him in 2020 given his pedigree compared to some of the arms who were called up, but to the public’s knowledge he’s a full go for 2021. The delivery is weird and there’s some violence to it, but I don’t think it’s a major injury risk, and he locates the ball really well despite it, so I really don’t see it as a problem. If Ivey can hold up over a full season’s workload, I don’t think you have to squint very hard to see a big league #4.
  4. Pedro Leon, RF - Tooled up but enigmatic, Leon’s current placement is based largely on potential as we have little to go on in terms of skills. While he’s been a top performer in Cuba, which has one of the world’s stronger professional leagues, he really hasn’t played very many games, particularly not recently, and scouts aren’t completely sold on his ability to hit for consistent contact. Despite a smaller frame, Leon is very muscular and sports true plus power as well as excellent straight line speed. Reports suggest his approach at the plate is aggressive and pull heavy, and there are some questions regarding his bat control as well. While we don’t really know how he’s progressed over the last couple of years, it’s likely Leon will need to add some offensive polish to succeed, but he won’t need to turn into a plus hitter to be an asset. He projects as a volatile, streaky player but one who can impact the game with power and speed, with potential for big peak seasons.
  5. Luis Garcia, RHP - A massive 6’1” righty, Garcia was a great story during the 2020 season, reeling off a few good outings after being unexpectedly called up with no experience above A-ball. His poise under unique circumstances was impressive, but what also stood out was a vastly improved changeup that acted as his primary offspeed weapon in the majors. His fastball is very firm, and he’s flashed a swing and miss breaking ball in the past, so the overall arsenal here is of a mid-rotation quality when it’s all firing, but Garcia is really yet to show starter command at any level, and walked 10.2% of opposing batters in his big league trial. Some pitchers do pick up a tick of command in their mid-20s, something Framber Valdez seemed to do for the Astros this past season, and if Garcia is able to do something similar he could stick as a starter, but I’m projecting below average command and feel he’s more likely to end up in the bullpen- though I think he has multi-inning potential there.
  6. Korey Lee, C - Lee’s track record is a short one, but if he can build on his 2019 breakout season, he has a legitimate chance to be a major league club’s primary catcher. He struggled with the bat as an underclassman at Cal, but erupted as a junior, becoming the team’s second best bat after top draft pick Andrew Vaughn. Lee is a solid but unremarkable defensive catcher with solid average athleticism and above average arm strength, projecting for a well-rounded defensive profile. His thick 6’2” frame generates significant power, and while he doesn’t have superlative bat speed he’s able to drive the ball with a relatively compact, simple stroke that should limit his strikeouts to reasonable levels. He’s more line drive oriented for now and could do a better job of maximizing his home run potential, which should be a point of focus for him going forward. Things rarely go according to plan developmentally for catchers, but Lee has a nice all-around game with few weaknesses and could move relatively quickly up the ladder. I’d assume the Astros will assign him to High-A Asheville to start 2021, where he’ll get the majority of the starts at catcher.
  7. Colin Barber, OF - A popular sleeper in the 2019 draft, most expected Barber would honor his Oregon commitment given his long term upside, but the Astros were able to snare him with an overslot bonus in the fourth round. Barber first stands out for his tools- he’s a plus runner, and while he’s not especially big he has a broad build that generates above average raw power. He’s also got some nice arm strength, and should have a puncher’s chance of sticking in center field. Were he to have to move to a corner, he’d project for above average range there and should provide some level of defensive value regardless of outcome. He requires a bit more projection offensively, as his prep swing needed a bit of adjustment, but he shows some nascent bat to ball feel and had a strong approach in his pro debut as well. His bat speed is well above average, and with the right adjustments I think he could hit for relatively high averages down the line. Barber will need significant development time, but has a chance to turn into a top of the order threat with enough patience. Those who have worked with him rave about his makeup and work ethic, which he’ll most likely bring to Fayetteville to start 2021.
  8. Jairo Solis, RHP - Solis has been on the shelf for awhile while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but was on a great trajectory prior to that and has some of the best all around stuff in the system. Standing 6’2” with good on mound athleticism, Solis is already able to generate low-to-mid 90s heat with his fastball and could add more as he matures physically. My favorite piece of his profile is his big breaking curve, which shows out pitch potential and helped him strike out over a batter per inning when we last saw him in live action. He can flash an impressive changeup as well, and shows a mid-rotation ceiling with as many as three above-average offerings if he can stay in one piece and his command improves along a typical curve. The Astros placed Solis on their 40 man this past November, so clearly he remains well regarded internally and around the league, as most pitchers with this experience level aren’t rule 5 considerations. Given the amount of time he’s had for rehab, Solis should be all the way back into game shape and could be assigned to High-A Asheville to open 2021.
  9. Alex Santos, RHP - He needs a lot of work, but Santos has a ton of attractive traits that make me optimistic about his long term potential. An athletic 6’3” righty from New York, Santos throws both his fastball and breaking ball with tight spin, and should be able to generate swings and misses with both offerings. He was mostly 90-92 in his draft year, but has plenty of remaining projection, particularly in the upper body, and could add meaningful velocity down the line. On some pitches he can rush through his delivery a bit and he’ll need to sharpen his control, but early reviews of his changeup have been good and he shows a starter’s profile, perhaps as good as a #3 if everything progresses. Given the pedigree, he’s most likely to start 2021 at Low-A Fayetteville.
  10. Freudis Nova, INF - Nova’s tools excited evaluators and Astros fans when he was signed, and he showed some positive early markers, but overall the progress has been slower than was hoped and his star has faded. While he still has an explosive swing and was starting to get to more of his power in games the last time we saw him in 2019, Nova’s pitch recognition leaves a lot to be desired and his approach is too aggressive on the whole, which has me concerned about his long term contact ability. Defensively, he’s still pretty rough around the edges and probably needs a move off of shortstop, most likely to third base, which puts more strain on his bat. There’s still plus power projection and he’s really a pretty good hitter on pitches in the strike zone, but I’m skeptical he’ll be able to make the strides with his plate discipline that will be necessary for the offensive tools to really play, as we haven’t seen enough improvement in those areas yet.
  11. Bryan Abreu, RHP - While Abreu’s raw stuff is probably as good as anyone’s in the system save for Whitley, his control simply hasn’t progressed enough for me to continue giving him a chance to emerge as a starter. An outstanding on mound athlete, Abreu’s control issues mainly come down to mechanical consistency, but that’s often easier to diagnose than remedy, and he throws with a lot of effort. While I do see him as a pure reliever, Abreu continues to show elite strikeout potential with his pair of swing and miss breaking balls and big velocity, and he has the endurance to go multiple innings, so he could be one of the league’s more valuable short-stint arms with relatively small improvements, but there’s also the risk he remains extremely volatile and is limited to middle relief. We’ve seen him in the majors a bit already, and he should be given an opportunity to earn a spot with the big club out of spring training.
  12. Hunter Brown, RHP - A D-II standout from the 2019 class, Brown has a wide range of outcomes but most of them involve him returning big league value. 6’2” with big time arm speed, Brown’s fastball explodes out of his hand with mid-90s heat, keeping hitters on their heels, and he backs it up with a hard, tight slider. Both pitches project in above-average territory and he’s also got a legitimate changeup, so the arsenal is of strong #4 starter quality if the command follows. It’s not there yet, and while Brown’s delivery is simple there’s a bit of stiffness to it, so it’s fair to wonder if he’ll get there. If he’s not able to locate as consistently as he needs to to start, he should be able to settle into a setup man role pretty easily.
  13. Dauri Lorenzo, INF - We haven’t seen him in game action yet, but Lorenzo’s tools give him a chance to emerge as one of the system’s only position players with everyday upside in short order. He’s on the larger side for middle infield but moves well laterally, and should be able to stick on the dirt in some capacity. He’s most appealing to me for his impressive bat control from both sides of the plate, giving him significant hit tool upside to go with some solid power projection. He’s line drive oriented at the moment, but looks to have average to above-average raw power potential, so getting some more loft into his swing may be a focus early on. Much can go wrong with players this young, but there’s top of the order potential here with minor league seasoning. We should see him in stateside rookie ball this season, which will give us a better idea of where his approach is at and bring his long term projection into better focus.
  14. Shawn Dubin, RHRP - Dubin lights up a Rapsodo like few others in the system can, and the raw juice on his stuff has translated to a ton of swings and misses in game settings. 6’1” and wiry, Dubin has great flexibility and body control that allow him to locate his pitches adequately with a whippy, high effort delivery. He has shown a variety of offerings in some capacity, but will make his money primarily with his fastball and slider. The heater sits in the mid 90s with 2400-2500 RPMs of spin and rising action, and starts on a similar plane to his 2700 RPM slider, which follows with hard, corkscrewing action. While his rail-thin body and high effort style portend a bullpen future, Dubin did throw 110 innings in 2019, striking out 151 batters and showed no signs of late season fatigue, so I think it’s reasonable to say he could be a multi-inning weapon if the stuff plays. He also has a great beard.
  15. Angel Macuare, RHP - Macuare was difficult to find much info on after signing but had a good run with Tri-City in 2019, including some outings on television. His fastball isn’t especially hard and he’s only mildly projectable, but he already shows an ability to work his fastball to either side of the plate, and drop his curveball in on the knees of hitters. The heater has the rising action that the Astros covet and the raw movement on the curveball is solid, so he’s no slouch from a stuff perspective. While he’s mostly a two pitch guy now and he can run into some difficulties catching too much plate with his fastball, his early pitchability gives him a higher probability of reaching his ceiling than most pitchers this age, and the command could end up being plus at peak, so mid-rotation outcomes are a possibility. He should open 2021 with Low-A Fayetteville, and could be an early promotion candidate.
  16. Zack Daniels, OF - Daniels’ path thus far is similar in some ways to Korey Lee’s, though he has a much more extreme profile overall. The Astros made Daniels a third round selection on the basis of a 17-game 2020 sample in which he hit .357/.478/.750 with four homers and three steals, which came on the heels of sub-Mendoza performances in his freshman, sophomore and Cape Cod League seasons. While the track record of performance is very short, his tools have always been impressive, and if he’s able to continue his upward trajectory, the upside could be considerable. A plus runner, Daniels is a bit unrefined in the outfield still thanks to a relatively low number of college reps, but should be sent out as a center fielder in the pro game with a decent chance of sticking. He also sports big bat speed and above average raw power, and his ISO gradually went up over the course of his tenure with the Vols. His swing is pretty big and he’s definitely going to strike out, but with the other tools at his disposal, he could be an exciting player even if he only hits .250.
  17. Jairo Lopez, RHP - Despite standing just 5’11” and weighing 150 lbs., Lopez is big on present stuff and shows significant strikeout potential. He gets a lot of coil in his delivery and has good arm speed, which generates velocity that is already consistently in the low-to-mid 90s. He also shows a tight curve and some ability to drop it in for strikes, and there’s enough bite on it to get hitters to swing through. He’s on the low end of the size spectrum for starting pitchers and may not have quite enough command to stick in the rotation, but his arsenal is of that quality and he could also be a late-inning relief type.
  18. Grae Kessinger, INF - A balanced player with big league bloodlines, Kessinger has a broad base of tools and skills that could allow him to provide value on both sides of the ball. He’s more or less an average athlete but plays instinctively on the infield dirt and shows good hands and a quick throwing release, so I am comfortable projecting him at shortstop or any other spot on the infield. He has a compact swing that produces a lot of line drive contact when he’s going well, but his track record of offensive success in college was short, and while he does draw his share of walks, his current swing isn’t geared for power. I think he’d need a swing adjustment to have a chance to top out as more than a utility guy, but he has a pretty good chance to reach that kind of ceiling.
  19. Nivaldo Rodriguez, RHP - A 23 year old righty, Rodriguez shows great feel for a pair of downer breaking balls and averages a firm 93 MPH on his heater. He was thrust into big league action well ahead of schedule thanks to the wacky circumstances in 2020 and was scattershot, but did show quality stuff in his 8 and ⅔ innings. He should be sent down to the upper minors in 2021 to return to starting, a role he was highly effective in in 2019. He’s got stuff that can produce strikeouts and grounders at decent rates, and with refined command and perhaps a more reliable changeup, he could fit into the back of a rotation. Given his age, though, I think it’s more likely we see him transition to a relief role.
  20. Jordan Brewer, OF - An ex-football player who starred in the JUCO ranks before transferring to Michigan and winning Big 10 newcomer of the year, Brewer’s tools are huge but he’s an older prospect and it may be optimistic to expect that he can truly capitalize on them. A muscled-up 195 lbs, Brewer does have some significant raw power, but his swing is more tuned for liners, and less than ideal pitch selection led to a lot of weak contact in his brief pro debut. He does some good things in the batter’s box, but there’s some extra motion in his swing, it’s not elite bat control and his approach could use a good deal of work, which gives him a development plan that looks more like a prep player’s than an older college prospect, which Brewer, already 23 years old, is. I love the toolset here, and Brewer improved gradually as an amateur so there’s a chance he might be able to tap into more of his offensive potential with further adjustments, but I think most of the outcomes here end with a below average hit tool.
  21. Chas McCormick, OF - Not the most toolsy, McCormick makes up for it with enough skills to project for a reserve outfield role. He’s got a bit of speed, and that combined with his excellent outfield actions make for a very robust defensive profile. He has ample range for any outfield spot and enough arm, and has made a bit of a name for himself with highlight reel catches in the minors. At the plate, he’s adapted well as a pro, transforming his approach, previously rather aggressive, into a much more patient one, and making more line drive and fly ball contact. The power is modest, but he utilizes it well and should hit for enough average to return a strong on-base percentage, which can allow him to use his solid speed on the basepaths. It may not be a ton of ceiling, but McCormick should have a big league career, and potentially a pretty long one.
  22. Brett Conine, RHP - A former college closer for Cal State Fullerton, Conine exploded onto the radar in 2019, dominating three levels of the minor league ladder. His relief background doesn’t really jive with the pitcher we’ve seen in the pro game, as he succeeds mostly with finesse and uses a broad arsenal. He has posted big strikeout numbers in the Astros system, mostly thanks to his ability to set up hitters by consistently commanding his fastball, though his changeup has also emerged as an impressive pitch and go-to secondary. While his pitchability is impressive and he has decent velocity, there’s not great life on the fastball and his breaking stuff isn’t especially impressive, so I see him as a #5 or bulk relief type.
  23. Jojanse Torres, RHP - Probably the biggest fastball in the system currently, Torres has touched as high as 102 with his explosive four seam, and backs it up with a hard slider. The breaking ball doesn’t have a ton of raw movement, but it does the job playing off of triple digit heat, and when Torres is able to locate effectively enough, he misses a ton of bats. Unfortunately, he’s prone to control issues, and those may prevent him from hitting the late inning relief ceiling that his stuff suggests. He’s very athletic on the mound and has worked long outings in the minors, but may need to tone down his delivery some to succeed even in short stints at the highest level.
  24. Luis Santana, 2B - It’s been a rough ride for Santana in the Astros system after a fantastic debut in the Mets organization. He has a thick 5’8” build and an unorthodox setup in the batter’s box, starting from a wide, open base. At his best, Santana’s unique swing produces consistent, hard line drive contact, but in 2019 he seemed to be a little off at the plate and was putting a lot of pitches on the ground. He’s limited to second base defensively, doesn’t project to be an outstanding defender and doesn’t have much raw power, so his profile puts a lot of pressure on his bat, but I’m not giving all the way up yet because he’s still young, his plate discipline isn’t bad, and some minor tweaks to his unique setup at the plate might help him drive the ball more consistently.
  25. Pete Solomon, RHP - Solomon has a great pitcher’s frame and an athletic delivery out of which he throws a wide variety of pitches. He made great strides with his command in pro ball and looked to be tracking towards a back-end rotation future, but numerous injuries have prevented him from throwing enough innings to progress as hoped. Nonetheless, he was added to the 40-man this year and should be a full go for 2021, and I’d expect he’ll get another go as a starter before being shifted to his likely long term role of setup man. His fastball is firm and would play up further in relief, he has a couple of unique and solid breaking balls, and he’ll show a decent change at times also.
  26. Manny Ramirez, RHP - After a brilliant 2018 season in which Ramirez showed solid command of a high octane fastball-curveball combo, his command backslid hard in 2019 leaving his future role in doubt. The raw stuff is on par with someone like Jairo Solis, but he’s on the small side and had trouble repeating last we saw him. If he can make the right adjustments to rein himself in and land his stuff more consistently, there’s a mid-rotation ceiling in the best case, but he’s looking like a bit of a lottery ticket at this stage.
  27. Shay Whitcomb, 2B/3B - A big bodied college infielder, Whitcomb represented an excellent value for the Astros when they plucked him at the very end of the 2020 draft. A three year starter at UC San Diego, Whitcomb was a career .315/.415/.531 hitter for the Tritons while playing around the infield, primarily at shortstop. He may not have quite enough range to stick at short in the pro game, but he’s a coordinated player with good hands who should be able to man either second or third base. His bat is the most appealing part of his profile to me- he does a good job of utilizing his power and his swing is very balanced throughout. It’s not explosive bat speed and I’d expect some swing and miss, but he has solid pull side pop and a mature plate approach that could make him a useful infield stick.
  28. Nate Perry, C - It has been a slow burn with Perry, who was signed to an overslot bonus back in 2017 but is still yet to make his full-season debut. He should be in position to do so in 2021, and the last time he saw live action, he put up a strong offensive performance as a 19 year old in the NYPL league against competition that was 2+ years older. He has a big frame and some notable raw power, and has shown a patient plate approach that could make him an intriguing offensive weapon at the catcher position. He doesn’t project to win gold gloves back there, but the team reportedly likes him there and plan to give him every opportunity to stick. He should take the majority of the starts behind the plate this season for Low-A Fayetteville, and should garner some attention if he can continue to slug the baseball.
  29. Austin Hansen, RHP - Another ex-college reliever, Hansen is an older prospect but has been downright dominant in pro ball. He has a tanky build at 6’0” and will show a variety of pitches, but the fastball and slider are most appealing. The former has an explosive quality and impressive life, and the slider plays off of it nicely with good bite. His strikeout rates as a pro have been stratospheric and he would’ve had an opportunity to jump to Double-A in 2020 had the season not been cancelled, but his command is below average and projects as such long term. As a result, I have him as a single inning reliever, but the stuff is of a high enough quality that he could be a setup man.
  30. Blair Henley, RHP - A fairly pedestrian performer at the University of Texas, Henley was the Astros’ 7th round pick in 2019 largely because of his measureables. He employs a simple delivery that can create low-90s heat with the Astros’ favorite spin profile, and backs that up with a very high spin curve with hard, bending action. He made a point of throwing the heater to the top of the zone more as a pro, and the results thus far have been excellent, as he struck out 50 batters in 36 and ⅔ innings in 2019. This is a likely relief profile, but with some progress from his changeup his arsenal and delivery could be compatible with a back-end rotation role in a best case scenario.