My first trip to see the Hooks this year was mostly about getting first look at the Astros newest, shiniest prospect, Pedro Leon. This time around, I wasn’t lucky enough to catch him, as he was dealing with a minor finger injury, but naturally he returned the day after the second game I attended and hit a grand slam, which is typical of my luck when going to see hitters. Despite the mild disappointment that created, it was nonetheless a great information-gathering opportunity, as I was able to see several prospects who weren’t on the Hooks roster earlier this season. Even though offense was light in both games, many of the new Hooks stood out, so let’s get into what I saw:
Jimmy Endersby, RHP
A member of the Astros’ 2020 undrafted free agent crop, Endersby has already started to look like a steal with his outstanding performance this season. The 23 year old righty started his pro career with High-A Asheville to open the season, and while he only managed a 4.85 ERA overall at that stop, he posted several dominant outings and struck out 33.6% of the hitters that he faced, which was enough to earn a promotion to Double-A late last month. He dominated in his Hooks debut, striking out 10 in 6 innings against a single walk, and was taking the hill for his second start at the level on Wednesday.
His line was a bit ugly, as he walked 5 batters in his 5 innings of work, but it was a gutsy performance that wasn’t without its positives. As the box score suggests, Endersby never really had his best command, as he seemed to lose his curveball low and fastball up with regularity during the start, but he lived in the 91-94 range (mostly 92-93), and avoided missing over the plate. His stuff is not explosive, but is quality nonetheless. The fastball has some solid hop to it, and Endersby throws it up in the zone with conviction. Its ability to play there helps the effectiveness of his old school curveball, which has outstanding shape but only mid-70s velocity, which is on the fringes of palatability by big league standards.
There’s a changeup here too, but it’s a very small part of the mix, so it’s mostly a pure two pitch look. Combine that with his smaller size and in-and-out command, and it’s easy to start funneling him towards the bullpen mentally, but I’m not ready to rule out a back-end starter outcome here. I was pleasantly surprised by the juice behind his fastball, and his control has looked better to me than the raw walk rate might suggest. For my money, with his performance thus far, he’s earned himself a spot on the organizational rankings.
Korey Lee, C
The man of the hour, Korey Lee has been on an absolute tear at the plate for weeks now. While he did make some pretty good contact on a few occasions, I wasn’t able to witness any significant offensive fireworks from him, but I came away impressed with his performance nonetheless. He caught both games that I attended, and did a very good job of defending the plate. As mentioned above, Jimmy Endersby gave him several curves in the dirt, and Lee was able to keep them in front of himself. He also flashed his arm with a textbook caught stealing, and looked the part of a big league catcher on the whole.
What was perhaps most impressive about Lee to me, however, was his plate approach. He showed an incredibly discerning eye, fearlessly taking close balls early in counts and fighting off pitches effectively with two strikes. It’s not the most explosive swing you’ll see, but Lee’s command of the strike zone and power utilization allow it to really play, and he lofts the ball in games with seemingly little effort. The numbers were already pointing toward Lee as the new top dog in the Astros farm system, and in my view the eye test backs that up. He’s a remarkably complete player at the game’s most demanding position and is tracking towards becoming the Astros’ future behind the plate.
Joe Perez, 3B
I didn’t know I’d be seeing Perez until the day before the first game, and couldn’t have been more excited to get eyes on him. A recipient of a seven-figure bonus out of high school, the start of his career has been slowed by injuries and we haven’t really had a chance to get a feel for where his game is at until this season. The results have been nothing short of outstanding, as he posted wRC+s of 152 and 197 in his stops at Fayetteville and Asheville, earning him a promotion all the way to Double-A after just 37 games this season. He’s been a little slower to get off the ground with Corpus, and I wasn’t fortunate enough to see much offense from him, but that’s sort of to be expected for a 21 year old making the jump to the upper minors. He has a power over hit approach, but has looked much more discerning at the dish in 2021 than in his rookie ball stints, and I expect to see the offensive results materialize for him in time.
Much like Lee, he still managed to impress despite a couple of fairly quiet performances with the bat. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Perez at third base, as I’ve had very sparing opportunities to see what he looks like over there. We know that he has plus arm strength (most clubs preferred him as a pitcher during his draft year), but his hands and footwork had an incomplete grade in my notes. My first impression of both was quite positive- he got several fielding chances in my time at the park, and handled them with aplomb, fielding balls to either side of his body cleanly including a nice backhand stop on a fairly hot shot. As of now, I have confidence the glove will play at the hot corner, and while he’s not going to be the rangiest player in the world, he could be quite a solid defender over there.
Alex McKenna, CF
As was the case with Perez, I came to the ballpark very curious about what I’d see from McKenna in the field. I knew that he was a quality outfielder with above-average speed, but his ability to hold down center field at a big league level is very important to his future, so I was pretty focused on his play out there while the Hooks were on defense. Almost immediately, he rewarded my attention with one of the best catches I’ve seen this year at any level, making an outstanding break on a ball in the gap and fully extending for a diving snag. Diving catches do not a great outfielder make, and in fact they can often evidence shaky routes at lower levels of play, but that wasn’t the case on this grab. That would be the most difficult chance he got in either game, but he handled the rest of them smoothly as well, and I left the ballpark with a greater level of confidence that he can be depended on at any outfield position.
There’s more for McKenna to prove before he really forces himself into the Astros’ long term plans, as there are questions about how much contact he’ll make, but his combination of speed, power and defense buoy his value. At the plate, he looked like he was still adjusting to the new level of pitching, and he has been prone to adjustment periods in the past, so that’s not a shock. He showed a decent two-strike approach, and while I’d rate his hit tool somewhere in below average territory, it’s somewhere in the 40s rather than truly lagging. With his combination of tools and skills in other areas of his game, that should be enough for him to develop into a useful fourth outfielder at the big league level, and there’s always a chance that there’s a bit more offensive upside than we might expect given how much time he’s spent on the shelf thus far as a pro.
Norel Gonzalez, 1B
A unique prospect, Gonzalez was signed in early 2021 out of Cuba as a 26 year old. Now newly 27, Gonzalez has been one of the better hitters in the Corpus lineup all year, currently sporting a .306/.388/.573 batting line. His barrel feel and variability are both positive traits, which allows a slightly aggressive approach to work for him very effectively. Defensively, he doesn’t offer nearly as much as the players mentioned above. The Astros have been giving him some run in right field, but for my money, the range just doesn’t really play out there. He has a massive, 240 pound build, and while he does move pretty well for that size, I see him as first base only. That clouds his path to Houston, as he’s not going to supplant Yuli Gurriel, and at his age, he doesn’t really have time to wait for his spot to come open. As a result, I see him as a likely trade candidate, much like Lorenzo Quintana earlier this season, as the Astros are pretty light on fungible assets ahead of the tread deadline.
Scott Manea, C
I wrote a bit on Manea in my last Hooks report, and I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to do so again here. One of the more unsung prospects in the system, Manea continues to slowly develop his game, and at this point I have a high degree of confidence that he’ll have a long career in the majors. With Korey Lee in town, Manea has gotten little of the catching duties, but it’s not especially necessary for him to as he’s already proven his defensive chops. The extra time to focus on hitting has seemed to do him well- Manea’s approach has always been patient and strong overall, and he offers some solid raw power, but he has historically made a lot of weaker contact. This season, that has begun to change, and he currently holds a sizzling .283/.363/.525 slash line with 7 bombs. Watching him hit, his outright refusal to expand the zone stands out, and he has a pretty efficient swing that helps to avoid whiffs. While he may not have the raw juice to be an impact offensive performer, he looks like he may clear the bar for a backup catcher with lots of room to spare. This isn’t the kind of player who gets a lot of publicity, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t pay close attention to him in my opinion.