The Astros signed Cristian Gonzalez in 2018, when they were still under restrictions on the international market after blowing out their bonus pool in 2016. During this time, they were prohibited from giving any individual player more than $300k to sign. One of the players they decided to hand the full bonus amount to was 16 year old Dominican infielder Cristian Gonzalez, a lanky, right-handed lottery ticket who demonstrated upside in more or less all phases of the game- a sensible target given the circumstances.
Gonzalez’ career would get underway in the 2019 Dominican Summer League, where he hit just .214/.289/.286 and struck out 56 times in 225 plate appearances while playing all four infield positions, primarily shortstop. It wasn’t the best debut, but Gonzalez’ wide array of tools was on display with 10 XBH and 11 SB, and he was on track to make his stateside debut in complex ball the following year. Thanks to COVID-19, that would not happen, but Gonzalez was able to minimize the developmental delay that could’ve resulted by hitting the ground running in 2021.
The Astros wouldn’t deem him ready for full-season ball from the gun this season, but that was far from a surprise- Gonzalez won’t turn 20 until after the minor league season’s conclusion, and only the most advanced teenagers go straight to A-ball, so it would’ve been a big surprise to see him there that early on. Instead, the Astros waited for the start of the complex league season, and let Gonzalez get his feet wet there. He proved to be more than up to the challenge, hitting at a torrid .310/.383/.500 pace in a 13 game sample before earning a swift promotion to Fayetteville in mid-July. Not only did the surface numbers look outstanding, Gonzalez was also posting some sizzling exit velocities in live action. The Astros excitement was palpable when they inserted him straight into leadoff duties upon his arrival with the Woodpeckers, and he announced his presence with a multi-hit performance in his first game. He wouldn’t go on to dominate the level— he currently holds a .245/.297/.314 slash line through 25 games— but he has put a lot of good plays on film and has shown the makings of a high-upside offensive skillset.
On a Low-A ballfield, upside like that of Gonzalez immediately stands out. He’s among the most athletic movers on the diamond every time he takes his position, and that’s at a 6’3”, 180 lbs. with significant room to grow into his body yet. His power is already borderline average, making that remaining projection all the more tantalizing. Despite the size, Gonzalez also plays a convincing shortstop for now. His hands aren’t big league ready, but he has a quick, buttery smooth first step and good underway speed that help to create nice range on the dirt. He’d need to sharpen the finer points of his game pretty significantly to stick at the position long term, and his size could also push him to third base anyway even if he does so, but his defensive value is buoyed by standout arm strength. The arm will draw some plus-plus grades, and would be a plus trait even by the standards of the hot corner. In any event, there should be a defensive home for Gonzalez where he can return some positive value.
Cristian Gonzalez rips a solo shot to LF! 5-0 Woodpeckers! ☄️ pic.twitter.com/KvzKwIY1xI— Fayetteville Woodpeckers (@WoodpeckersNC) August 3, 2021
At the plate Gonzalez is similarly green, but he shows a lot of enticing ingredients there too. His swing is very efficient— his timing mechanism is exceptionally simple, but he has no issue involving his lower half in his swing and generating significant power with his legs regardless. The hand path is similarly simple, with a quick trigger and muted pre-pitch movement. Since his days in the Dominican, he has made some changes to his setup— most visibly, a pronounced hip hinge— that have helped coax out more of his raw power. His bat speed is above-average at a minimum, and his feel for elevation in games is ahead of schedule compared to the typical 19 year old. The biggest obstacle between Gonzalez and consistent success at the dish for now is pitch recognition— he does a good job of laying off of fastballs off the plate, but is often seen swinging well over the top of well-executed breaking balls. That’s concerning, as its an area that a good deal of players never really improve in, but historical data suggests that it’s much more reasonable to expect improvement from a player as young as Gonzalez than, for instance, a four-year college guy, and the bat speed affords him some margin for error adjusting to breaking balls as well. For now, he seems to be most comfortable hunting high fastballs, which isn’t a bad plan in pro baseball these days, but he’ll need to expand his approach a bit to see continued success up the ladder.
Astros fans probably feel as though they’ve heard this song before— the organization has had a number of high-upside infielders flame out over the last decade— but Gonzalez deserves their attention. Few position players in the system have such a wide array of abilities, and while his numbers don’t jump off the page yet, most teenagers would have a lot of difficulty replicating his performance. He won’t be a plus hitter, but there’s very little else that we can definitively say he’s not capable of on the diamond. The way things are aligning as the system winds down, he looks to be one of Houston’s biggest potential risers entering 2022.