The Astros system has a knack for producing surprising risers- a couple years ago it was Jake Meyers, this year Justin Dirden and David Hensley, and those names are just the tip of the iceberg. This phenomenon has resulted in the Astros getting consistent rookie contributions throughout their recent run despite ranking near the bottom of national farm rankings all the while. Calling shots is risky business in the prospecting world, and offseason updates will offer greater clarity than we have now, but there are a few players who I’m feeling more positive about than the 2022 numbers suggest that I should. Here’s a quick list of names I expect to trend upward next season when play resumes:
Alimber Santa, RHP - This one is a bit of a gimme, as Santa generated serious preseason hype with his spring performances before going down with an arm injury that kept him out all season. Thickly built at 5’10”, Santa showed a high octane, vertically oriented fastball/breaking ball combination that should create plenty of swing and miss. He’s already regularly touching the mid-90s with the heater, and although it’s not a big frame, there should be a bit more velo in the tank. While the strike throwing will likely take a bit of time to come into focus, Santa’s operation is simple and athletic, so there’s reason for optimism on that front as well. He should be ready to rock for Fayetteville’s opening day next year and could help lead the staff.
Ryan Clifford, OF/1B - Again, I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, but Clifford was relatively impressive after being thrust straight into Low-A ball as a 19 year old this past season, and while he struck out a lot, his overall numbers were strong and he finished the season on a nice brief hot streak. With potential for at least an average bat, plus plate discipline and serious power, I feel that the industry was overly cautious in their initial rankings of Clifford and expect him to be one of the better young hitters in the low minors next year. That should be enough to push him up at least a handful of spots in the Astros’ rankings.
Andrew Taylor, RHP - The Astros kept Taylor at the complex for the balance of the 2022 season after selecting him 80th overall last summer, so he’s been forgotten a bit despite an appealing profile and great college track record. A fastball dominant starter for Central Michigan, Taylor shows potential for improvement on multiple fronts. Starting with the obvious, Taylor’s 6’5”, 190 lb. is plenty projectable. More velo is always welcome, but it’s especially appealing when it comes packaged with a plus fastball movement profile. Taylor’s heater has great vertical life, and he had little reason to use his other offerings in college thanks to its dominance, which might’ve masked his secondaries’ potential a bit. The changeup was his #2 option for the Chippewas, but while he doesn’t have standout breaking ball feel in the world, I’d be surprised if the Astros’ pitching lab couldn’t coax out a solid spinning option. I’m personally banking on the slider, and he has apparently already been working on a cutter as well. His college mix looked more back-end starterish, but if he can make a leap on either of the aforementioned fronts, there’s room for a bit of upside beyond that.
Michael Knorr, RHP - Coastal Carolina helped transform Knorr’s game in 2022- switching to a stretch-only delivery, he saw his fastball jump by around 4 MPH on average while also showing a vastly improved slider that absolutely terrorized Sun Belt competition. He has always been a good strike thrower, and the improved stuff seriously upped his bat missing ability. It’s a short track record of success, and while the fastball is firmer now it isn’t as lively as most of the top arms’ in the Astros system, but I’m really excited to see some further breaking ball refinement, which should come easily working with the Astros’ coaches. Like Taylor, he spent the remainder of the 2022 season at the complex after being drafted, but his pro debut should serve as a reminder of his potential to the prospecting media. The development plan isn’t quite as straightforward as Taylor’s, but again there are multiple avenues for improvement here and he landed in a perfect spot to maximize them.
Tyler Whitaker, OF/INF - I wrote awhile back about Whitaker’s midseason improvements, which were significant but not enough to right his season line, which finished at .187/.266/.313. It’s hard to present such numbers in a positive light, and I still have real concerns about his game, but he was left for dead by much of the media by midseason and I still feel that was premature. Whitaker’s hit tool lags behind the rest of his profile, and I’m not much more optimistic about it than the consensus, but his command of the strike zone and power utilization started to come around down the stretch, and he has real infield-outfield versatility and running ability to help balance out the weaker contact skills. It’s probably best that he return to Low-A to start next season, but several avenues to a big league role still remain, and I think the rankings overcorrected on him a bit. With a respectable offensive showing in ‘23, he should have little trouble climbing the ranks next year.
Will Wagner, 2B/3B - Wagner is six inches shorter than David Hensley, but shares some similarities with the big man as an older, bat-first utility infield type who has flown under the radar a bit despite great results. He will not blow you away with tools and the power is modest, but Wagner has a lefty bat packaged with some of the best command of the zone in the system, and there’s enough thump in the bat to make consistent meaningful contact. He has posted walk rates north of 11% at all three of his minor league stops to date, and held his own after transitioning to Double-A with a .251/.361/.386 that improved as he got more experience. There’s not enough power for him to project as an everyday guy, but with positional versatility and outstanding OBP skills, there should be room for him to rise another handful of spots as scouts grow more and more confident in his safety, much like Hensley did this past year.