With the international signing period opening tomorrow, baseball fans are set to receive some surely welcome transaction news as we continue to wait out a contentious lockout. While officially, tomorrow is supposed to open negotiations between players and clubs, the reality is that those have been going on for some time now, and that signings will roll in early and often once MLB sounds the bell on Saturday. At this point, we already know the destinations of most all of the class’s most highly-touted players, with only bonus dollars left to be finalized.
The Astros aren’t expected to come away with any of the tip-top names in this year’s crop, but that allowed for increased activity in the middle tiers, where they’ve been linked to a foursome of exciting young talents, with more names expected to follow as information on the lower tiers continues to become available. Continuing recent trends, maintaining a strong presence in Cuba was again a point of emphasis for Houston, with three of their highest-ranked new players coming with players from the island. Let’s take a quick look at the names we’ve learned so far:
Luis Baez (18), OF, Dominican Republic
Uniquely, Baez is the Astros’ highest ranked prospect despite being older for the class, as he was eligible to sign previously but ultimately didn’t come to an agreement. The Astros kept tabs on him, and came to a handshake deal back in July for a reported seven figure bonus which has held up to present day. Already tipping the scales at 190 lbs. with a 6’3” frame, Baez has standout physicality and power potential to match. He’s already very physically advanced and may not be too projectable compared to most 18 year olds, but already sports standout strength.
His present power is up there with that of any other player in the class, and it comes with some loose athleticism and feel to manipulate the barrel. There are some busy elements to the swing and some opportunities to utilize the power more efficiently, but being ahead of schedule physically should afford him plenty of opportunity to iron out any offensive kinks. There may be a bit of a learning curve as he acclimates to stateside ball after a long layoff, and defensive value is a question mark despite his strong arm, but Baez is an exciting offensive talent who could make waves a bit earlier than international free agents thanks to the physical maturity. He’s a right field or first base fit long term with heart of the order upside if his approach can support the power potential.
Kenni Gomez (16), OF, Cuba
Joining a very strong group of Cuban talents across all levels of the Astros system, Gomez ranked 47th on the Baseball America top 50 and is expected to sign a deal that includes a bonus just under $1 million. In contrast with Baez, Gomez stands out more for his skills than his physicality, drawing high marks for his hitting feel and outfield instincts. Reports praise his advanced approach and bat-to-ball skills, and some are even optimistic that significant power could follow despite an unremarkable 6’0” frame.
The Astros are expected to sign 16 year old Cuban outfielder Kenni Gomez when the International Signing period starts on Saturday, per @francysromeroFR.— Michael Schwab (@michaelschwab13) January 12, 2022
He's ranked 42nd on top international prospects. Listen to his scouting report below. pic.twitter.com/mD8K8ldxQ2
The youngster gets on plane early and shows some solid bat speed, lending credence to the optimism around the hit tool. While he doesn’t have standout athleticism, his foot speed and arm strength are solid or better, which gives him a puncher’s chance at holding down center field long term. He’ll need to maximize his skills to project as an everyday outfielder, but he has the markers of a player who may be able to outperform his raw tool grades. Despite being advanced for his age, it will likely be some time before we see Gomez in full season play.
Alberto Hernandez (17), SS, Cuba
Barely squeaking onto Baseball America’s rankings at #50, Hernandez is another player who was eligible to sign previously, so he comes to the Astros with a bit more seasoning than the baseline 2022 name. At 6’1” with a narrow, athletic build, Hernandez has the look of a natural left side infielder, and that’s exactly where he has played thus far. A primary shortstop, some scouts have opined that he may need to move to third long term, but he’s more developed physically than some of his peers and may not slow down much between now and maturity. Video of Hernandez’ swing doesn’t seem to have leaked out to the public yet, but the reports we have available praise his bat to ball skills— it doesn’t sound as though power is a big part of his game just yet. A switch bat, Hernandez hit .442 with 18 extra base hits in his last live action, a U16 national tournament in Cuba, and has a chance to offer impact on both sides of the ball. Hernandez’ bonus is tentatively projected at $1 million.
Carlos Espinosa (19), RHP, Cuba
The Astros have had great success with both Cuban players and older pitchers in the international market, so they really have their bases covered with the 19 year old Espinosa. Reporter Francys Romero, who is consistently all over this space, previously reported an agreement between Espinosa and the Pirates, but the Astros were able to take advantage when that fell apart:
Last May I published that Espinosa and the Pittsburgh Pirates had a pre-agreement, but it ultimately fell through and now the Cuban righthander will belong to the Astros next year. pic.twitter.com/D0bBnKpf3X— Francys Romero (@francysromeroFR) August 16, 2021
I don’t have height/weight figures on Espinosa yet, but the above clip includes a bit of promising pitch data— his fastball can touch 95 MPH with some solid spin to boot. He also reportedly shows feel for two different breaking balls as well as a changeup, and shows some nice mechanical ease including very aesthetically pleasing arm action. Given his age and physical maturity, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Astros pushed him to full season ball quite early in his pro career.