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Minor League Recap Part 4: A and A+ Hitters Who Mashed

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Despite the paltry overall rating of the farm system by experts, said experts generally acknowledge that the Astro development system does great work with teaching pitchers how to maximize breaking-ball spin. Less credit is given to the development of hitters. That might be changing though, especially after Houston produced four centerfielders who look like they might stick at the MLB level, and even hold down starting jobs. They all came out of virtual nowhere (with the exception being Straw) and they all added something to their hitting profile that wasn’t on display earlier.

Who is the next Chas McCormick or Bryan de la Cruz? Where is a future Abraham Toro? We’ll profile 9 players below who spent a majority of their time in A ball.

Fayetteville

Only one player, a catcher, appeared in more than 65 of the team’s 120 games. Guys who hit got promoted... quickly. Counting stats were not accumulated; the team leader in HR had 11. Gone are the days when an org. would keep a group together and let them experience a playoff run for the sake of building a winning culture. Without further ado, then:

JUSTIN DIRDEN (24): Like Jonathan Sprinkle and Jim Crane, Dirden played baseball in Missouri at a school not known for producing MLB talent. Dirden was signed in the infamous 2020 draft year, when there were only five rounds. He got signed because, as a sophomore, he hit 16 HR for SE Missouri St in 2018. He missed all of 2019 because of injury and 2020 was a COVID wash (although he slugged 9 HR in 17 games). In 58 games at Fayetteville he slashed .267/402/535 while leading the team in HR. The only thing not to like was nearly 30% of his PA’s ending in a strikeout. After his promotion to Asheville he cut down on the K’s and the walks and maintained his power: 10 of his 24 hits were for extra bases. His wRC+ in Asheville was 143 and he swiped 10 bags across two levels.

He will technically be in his age-24 season in 2022 but the clock is ticking for Dirden. I expect he starts at Corpus or gets there quickly, and if he continues to crush pitching at the higher levels he will raise eyebrows. Until then, age probably keeps him around 50-70 in org. rankings.

JC CORREA (23): Our second-favorite Correa, JC entered as something of a mystery. He was a 33rd round pick in 2018, presumably as a nod of respect to the family. He went to Alvin JC, then a smaller school in Lamar, and was signed in 2020. He did nothing but hit in 2021, slashing 306/392/477 in Fayetteville over 56 games before hitting 314/334/449 in 45 games for Asheville. He also showed great plate discipline at the lower level, with a 28/30 BB/K ratio.

We like guys who hit .300 and Correa did that at both levels. Underneath the surface, the plate discipline dropped dramatically upon promotion. Still, to go from the Southland Conference, where one of your two years was basically cancelled, and to then hit over .300 across two levels of A-ball is worth noting, especially given how genetic baseball is. Guess which minor leaguer will have access to the nicest training facilities this offseason?

In 2022 JC will have to turn some of those 32 doubles into home runs but the bat-to-ball skills appear to be there.

LUKE BERRYHILL (23): Berryhill came over from Cincinnati in the Cionel Perez trade. Guys who come via trade are always intriguing because it says they caught someone’s eye. Berryhill spread out 81 games across three levels, with the plurality (35) in Fayetteville, before moving to Asheville (29) and ending in Corpus (9). The big catcher has a good eye, posting elite walk rates that allowed his combined OBP to rest at .406. He also showed power, hitting 15 home runs and posting an Ohtani-like ISO of .331 and .268 across the two A-levels. When a catcher plays 81 games and has an .OPS of 952, it’s notable.

Berryhill will spend most of 2022 at Corpus. In their writeup of the Perez trade, Fangraphs described Berryhill as having “a plus arm” and an “ugly swing.” After this season, he belongs in the top 30 and may form part of a Houston catching combo with Korey Lee in 2023.

JORDAN BREWER (24): No stranger to readers here, Brewer was a 3rd-rounder lauded as a tooled-up Big-10 outfielder, somewhat similar to Ronny Dawson. Brewer has struggled with some injuries and it’s not clear what development happened for him in the COVID year. The Astros kept him in Fayetteville all year, where over 65 games he slashed a yawn-inducing .275/375/410. He’s not getting to his power, but he did wreak havoc on the basepaths, going 21/23 in steals. In the 2019 Big Ten season, Brewer had 32 EBH and an ISO .228. Two years later he had 20 EBH in A ball, with almost an identical number of ABs, playing against younger competition.

Due to his tools and draft status, he’s always been in the org. top 30 but I can’t see him staying there after his 2021. Let’s hope he can unlock the talent the Astros saw in him in 2022.

Asheville

This was a hitters’ league. The team OPS was .807, much higher than Fayetteville (.740) or Corpus (.742). So if you deep-dive, watch out for inflated numbers. Still, five players stood out:

ALEX MCKENNA (24): Another high-pedigree OF, McKenna was a 2018 4th-rounder who came with a defensive reputation. McKenna was sub-par at the plate in A-ball in 2019 (.303 SLG), but busted out a bit in 2021. In 41 games he slashed 305/389/616, while swiping 7 of 8 bags. That earned him a trip to Corpus, where in 38 games he struggled mightily, hitting .206/314/305. There’s some fairly extreme swing-and-miss to his approach, as he struck out over one-third of the time across two levels. The OF defense and speed will continue to make him intriguing but I suspect he needs to approximate the success at Asheville into the upper levels if he is to stay in the org.

Emmanuel Valdez (22): Signed in 2015 out of the Dominican, Valdez has been with the Astros forever. He showed some flashes at QC in 2019, at age 20. At age 22 in A+ ball he showed massive power, putting up a .287 ISO in 75 games that included 21 long balls. He appeared to sacrifice some of his 2019 plate discipline for that power. His exploits earned him 23 games at Corpus where the power held up and the walk% skyrocketed to 13% in 98 PAs. A middle-infielder hitting 31% over league average in AA is nothing to sneeze at, especially at age 22. Think of him as a less-tooled up Joe Perez, and put him on the edge of your off-season top 30

MATTHEW BAREFOOT (24): Everyone’s favorite May prospect deserves a little love here, despite his late-season swoon. Like Meyers and Chas, Barefoot throws left and hits right. As a 2019 6th rounder, he carries some pedigree; he destroyed the Big South in his junior year at Campbell. In his first full minor league season over three levels, he hit 20 HR and swiped 22 of 27 bases. His slash at Asheville was .287/341/554 across 49 games. These came after blow-torching the competition in low-A like he did the Big South. Unfortunately, AA ball was his kryptonite,. Across 36 games he slashed /175/226/299, striking out 34% of the time. Before cratering, Fangraphs gave him some extended love in their Sunday notes. I like Barefoot, and it’s reasonable to think he just was tired at Corpus. He played more games (101) than almost anyone in the org. He’ll go back to Corpus next April and I predict that he rakes. But he’ll need to improve the contact skills or start walking more. Even in Asheville his walk rate was under 6%.

YAINER DIAZ (23): Now we’re having fun; the other piece of the Myles Straw trade, Diaz came over at the trade deadline and initially tanked over 12 games at Fayetteville (.558 OPS). He must have liked the water in Asheville though, because his slash was .396/438/781 across 25 games. That last number isn’t OPS, it’s SLG. He hit 11 HR and only K’d 17 times. That’s almost Ruthean!

Already 23, Diaz will either stay at A+ in 2022 to work on defense (strong arm, but the rest of the reports are middling), or go to Corpus and see what the bat can do against better competition. MLB’s rankings reflect the hot streak and put him at 13th on their list. I personally don’t think he’s a top 20 prospect until he shows he can catch or that he can be an elite hitter at the upper levels. Still, one of the better sub-plots of the 2021 season

SCOTT SCHREIBER (25): Scott spent almost as much time at Corpus (39) as at Asheville (41), the 2018 9th rounder really busted out, slashing 319/382/575 before leveling out in AA, posting a 264/325/471. The power his real, with 17 HR in 80 games. He’s turning 26 next month so this is a very old-minor leaguer. Even despite his big year, he’s not on a top 30 that I would make. He got a lot of love, though, in Fangraphs’ Daily Prospect Notes. After his injury in Corpus, he struggled to find his form again.

This is a nothing to lose guy, and it’s not inconceivable that injuries in 2022 lead Schreiber to spend time in Houston, somewhat akin to the role that Taylor Jones played.

Conclusion

In the next two installments we will look at performances in the upper levels, probably dealing with more familiar names. Stay tuned.