Yesterday I made the questionable decision to drive down from Austin to Corpus Christi to bake in the sun and watch the Hooks and Travelers. It was a lot of driving to do to see a game that was overall pretty light on prospect talent for the level, but it was my last opportunity to see a game at Whataburger Field for some time, and after CJ Abrams left Saturday’s game with an injury, my backup plan in San Antonio didn’t look nearly as good, so I went for it.
Most of my interest in this contest was tied up in Pedro Leon- the Hooks roster isn’t especially stacked at the moment, and the Arkansas roster even less so. I’ve been to a fair amount of Double-A games over the years, and I’m pretty confident this one had the highest average player age of any I’ve attended. However, that’s not to say there weren’t some interesting, potentially overlooked players in the mix, and I came away from the game with better feel for a number of guys.
I’ll start by digging into my impressions of Leon. The posted lineup at the ballpark listed him at shortstop, which I was intrigued to see, but he ended up playing in center field in the end, with Grae Kessinger manning short. He batted second, and had a 1 for 4 day at the plate with a pair of Ks, and in my view looked uncomfortable at the dish. After coming out of the gates with some serious swing and miss issues, Leon has been employing a noticeably more passive approach, which has helped his numbers trend in the right direction a tad, but doesn’t appear to be one that he’s settled into fully just yet.
In Leon’s first at bat, he looked hesitant to swing, and took a couple of hittable offerings before eventually going down looking. His next time up, he jumped on a first pitch heater with what was easily his most confident swing of the day, a quick trigger cut that produced a loud line drive into right for a base hit. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to build on it, as his third plate appearance was particularly ugly, and included a swing at a totally unconvincing slider in the dirt. Leon continues to show superlative bat speed and nimble hands, ingredients that could help him to hit for solid average if he can dial in his pitch selection, but it still needs a lot of work. I’m not particularly surprised by this, as the jump from Cuba to Double-A is a large one, and Leon is making it after effectively a two-year break. His situation demands a ton of patience, so I’d advise that Astros fans give it to him and focus on the positives for now.
The high point of Leon’s day, and perhaps of the game as a whole, came in the top of the 4th inning when Travelers outfielder Brent Honeyman lifted a lazy fly into left center field that looked like it was destined to drop in for a cheap single. Leon had other ideas, and took off on a nearly perfect angle, eventually making a diving snag deep in the gap.
While that would be the most interesting fielding chance that Leon got on the day by a good margin, he handled the simpler ones with equal aplomb. He also got a couple of opportunities to show off his arm, which has gotten some plus-plus grades, and it didn’t disappoint. While the game never demanded that he make any particularly long or rushed throws, he did show some pretty impressive arm strength on one occasion when he fielded a ball on the ground and fired it into the relay man without setting his feet whatsoever, delivering a strike with zip. The Hooks have been moving Leon around the diamond, and this was just his second start in CF with the club, but he looked like an experienced professional out there on Sunday. We’ve long known that Leon possesses the athletic makeup to be a standout defender in center field, but the finer points of his defensive game were something of an open question- from my perspective, it’s one that’s being answered in a hurry.
Leon was not the only player to impress defensively. The aforementioned Kessinger had a terrific game at short, and made one of the better plays I’ve seen in person this year when he made a diving stop up the middle, and then nailed the runner at first with a pinpoint throw from his butt- a throw that very few infielders can make in my observation. Kessinger has shown outstanding defensive polish going back to his Ole Miss days, and while his range is certainly below average at short by big league standards, his particularly deft hands and instincts could allow him to fill in there on a part-time basis, perhaps in a utility role. He also took a series of good at bats on Sunday, and got pretty good wood on a flyout to CF that might’ve gone for extra bases had it not been on a straightaway trajectory. Adding loft to Kessinger’s contact profile is presumably the Astros top priority, as the rest of his game is pretty polished already. His start with Corpus has suggested he might be starting to make a bit of progress in that department, even if it hasn’t really translated to surface numbers yet, and I liked what I saw from him.
Marty Costes, who has been the team’s hottest hitter to start the year, departed the game early and finished 0 for 1, so I didn’t get much of a chance to focus on him. The nearly-as-hot David Hensley looked solid but mostly unremarkable at the plate, managing a hard single in four plate appearances while manning third base. He’s another potential bench infielder type with a simple offensive approach and decent contact skills. Scott Manea, an overlooked catching prospect who is highly likely to have a big league career, was playing first base, but I’ve seen enough of him behind the plate to know that he’s nails back there, and I was more interested in his day at the plate anyway. He went 0 for 3, but I was impressed with the approach, and continue to see him as a long term backup catcher at the highest level.
On the pitching side, the Hooks went with Chad Donato and Parker Mushinski in a tandem, and the pair recorded 26 out of 27 outs on the day. Donato got the start, and looked totally in control for most of the afternoon, maintaining solid low-to-mid 90s velocity throughout the outing with rock solid fastball command. He made one bad mistake to Dom Thompson-Williams, missing inside with a changeup that was promptly golfed into the right field swimming pool for a two run shot, but that would be the only damage on the day. Donato’s tanky build, simple delivery and pitch mix are all startery, and the slider was a pretty reliable weapon for him on Sunday. I’m not sure if there’s quite enough stuff here for him to take the ball every fifth day in the bigs with consistency, but there’s a great deal to like about Donato and I think that, at the very least, he’s showing swingman potential right now, and he could also be an intriguing short relief fit.
Mushinski came into the day with an ERA north of 12, and while he still didn’t blow the doors off of anyone, his outing was surely a step in the right direction. He was mixing a fastball that sat around 88 with a cutter and curveball, both of which showed solid movement. On a couple of occasions he did reach back and deliver heaters up to 93 on the stadium gun, but they both sailed on him. He’s working back from both injury and the long layoff between minor league seasons, and it doesn’t appear that his stuff is all the way back yet. He has intriguing short relief potential assuming that the velo tracks in the right direction going forward, but the clock is ticking.
While it was a bit unfortunate that the Hooks were shut out in my first live look at an Astros affiliate this season, a trip to the ballpark always provides valuable context to prospects’ play regardless of results, and Sunday was no different. I hope to have more to share soon when the Skeeters come to Round Rock.