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Potential Rookie Role Players

This season should give us our first look at top prospects Jeremy Pena and Korey Lee at the big league level, but who else might be able to contribute in their first taste of the bigs?

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Despite dipping in the farm rankings in the wake of a slough of win-now trades, the Astros have consistently gotten meaningful contributions from rookies throughout their recent run of success. The club had a rookie of the year candidate yet again last season in Luis Garcia, and could well be in that mix again this year with projected starting shortstop Jeremy Peña. The path to playing time isn’t quite as clear for fellow top prospects Korey Lee and Pedro Leon, but it’s also reasonable to expect that fans will see them take the field for the big club at some point this year as well.

The Astros’ success rate on top prospects has been a key factor in their success, but so has their ability to develop home grown role players a la Chas McCormick, Cristian Javier, et al. Even as we’ve seen the top-end talent in the system dwindle to some extent, the organization has been able to maintain very solid depth. The big league club is still quite deep even in the wake of Carlos Correa’s departure, but I’d expect there to be a couple of surprise first-year contributors in the mix once more during the upcoming season. Here’s a rundown of a few of the names I feel are most likely to make the jump:

Jonathan Bermudez, LHP, Age 26

A scouting/development success story, the Astros plucked Bermudez from NAIA Southeastern University in 2018 and have since watched him dominate three levels of the minor league ladder. His control was still a bit shaky early in his pro career, but he managed to make big improvements in that facet between 2019 and 2021 despite losing 2020 to COVID. The big-bodied southpaw thrives on deception, with a simple, if slightly stiff, delivery. He’s consistently in the low-90s with his fastball, but his command of the heater and its solid life make it an effective pitch. The go-to secondary is a changeup but he also makes liberal use of a slider with some two-plane action.

Bermudez projects as a spot starter or long reliever so the hope will be that they don’t have much need for him at the big league level, but that’s seldom how things go. At season’s start, he’ll be among the first in line to fill in should there be an unforeseen opening in the major league rotation. There has also been some hope internally that the club might be able to help the big lefty squeeze out a bit more velocity, so he’ll be one to keep a close eye on early in the season. If that ends up happening, he could get into long term #5 starter territory.

Shawn Dubin, RHP, Age 26

I’m surprised that Dubin is still eligible for this list in some respects, as I felt that he was positioned to make the leap last season, but my expectation was that he would be shifted to short relief and the Astros have been firm on using the wiry righty in longer stints. A breakout star in 2019, Dubin struck out 151 batters in just 110 and 23 innings between Low-A and High-A and shot into organizational rankings. He was at the alt site during the shortened 2020 season, but hadn’t earned quite enough trust to get his first look at the big league level then.

The Astros pushed Dubin straight to Triple-A in 2021, where unfortunately a couple of injuries limited him to 49 and 23 innings on the year. He was, however, again very effective in his first taste of the upper minors, striking out another 69 hitters across 16 appearances. Dubin’s fastball can get into the upper 90s with life, and it probably isn’t even his best pitch- that would be his devastating, hard-dropping slider, which many rate as plus. He’ll also mix in a curveball and the occasional changeup, but the 1-2 punch is his bread and butter. At 170 pounds, Dubin doesn’t really have the look of a starter, but he has been able to maintain his stuff through longer stints when healthy as a pro thus far, and there’s enough diversity in his arsenal for him to turn a lineup over a couple of times. He’ll need to improve his command consistency a bit further to get a real look in that role, but could conceivably contribute as either a starter or reliever in 2022.

Corey Julks, OF, Age 26

Another older prospect, Julks developed much more quickly as a defender than as a hitter. A product of the University of Houston, he has the potential to become a fan favorite with his high motor style of play. Julks’ first few years in pro ball weren’t much to write home about. He put the ball in play a lot and drew praise for his outfield work, but he sent a lot of knocks the other way and didn’t make a ton of impact at the plate despite good discipline. From 2017-2019, Julks hit just 15 home runs in 264 games, mostly at the High-A level. In 2021, after over a year away from live action, he nearly doubled that figure in just 85 games with 14- this time all at Double-A.

The primary catalyst for Julks’ step forward was an improved ability to elevate the ball to the pull side, which is hopefully something he can carry forward to 2022 in Triple-A. He has bankable skills in the form of more than playable defense across all three outfield spots and his base stealing ability, and while he’s probably not going to be at the top of the lineup card in Minute Maid, the improved offense in 2021 had him looking like a legitimate bench outfielder. I don’t think he’s quite the next Jake Meyers, but he could certainly help the team out in CF in a pinch.

Jonathan Sprinkle, RHP, Age 23

The Astros were aggressive in the 2020 NDFA market, which made a lot of sense given their draft pick penalties. They came away with a few interesting names on both sides of the ball, but in my eyes Sprinkle is the closest to making big league contributions. In a normal draft, it’s hard to see a pitcher with Sprinkle’s size and velocity going undrafted. The big righty from Overland Park, KS is listed at 6’6”, 237 lbs., and it doesn’t look generous by any means. While not a premium athlete per se, Sprinkle does a good job of using his length and consistently sits in the low-to-mid 90s with the fastball.

He specifically favors a cutter within his fastball mix, and gets some funky movement on the pitch that helps it pick up a lot of swings and misses- like, a lot. In 2021, Sprinkle struck 79 hitters in 49 innings across 3 levels while walking 27. In addition to the huge strikeout rate, Sprinkle also sported astronomical infield flyball rates, giving him some truly dominant out-generation abilities. The approach is pretty simple- he pitches off of heat, and favors a slider against righties and changeup against lefties in terms of secondaries. The walk rate is obviously too high, but it improved over the course of the season and should hopefully settle into a range that is at least compatible with big league short relief as he develops a bit more consistency with the big moving parts in his delivery. He’s likely to return to Double-A to start 2022, but if the strike throwing continues to track, little separates him from a major league middle relief role.

Marty Costes, OF, Age 26

Costes is a bowling ball at 5’9”, 200 lbs., and hits the ball as hard as anyone in the Astros’ farm system, regularly posting EVs north of 110 MPH in game action. He also has plus contact rates that have been over 80% at every stop of his minor league career, he consistently has a walk rate north of 10%, and he’s playable in an outfield corner. Why hasn’t he been in the big leagues for 2+ years already with that kind of a profile? He hasn’t been able to lift or pull the ball. Despite the monumental raw power, Costes has only been able to post ISOs around .150 thus far as a pro- the issue seemed to arise after a wrist injury he suffered in college, as the prior season he was one of the ACC’s best young sluggers with a double digit home run total.

In large part, 2021 was more of the same for Costes. He started the year in Double-A and hit .332 with a .436 OBP, but 57 of his 69 hits were singles and he slugged just .409. The Astros decided to promote him to Sugar Land anyway because of the way he controlled the strike zone, but it obviously wasn’t quite what they were hoping to see from him in his return to action. Towards the end of the year though, it looked as though something might be clicking for Costes, who managed 4 home runs in just 40 games for the Skeeters after hitting no more than 3 at any stop prior, while also adding 8 doubles and 2 triples for a .197 ISO, another career best.

There wasn’t an obvious mechanical change that triggered the mini power surge, so it’s possible it was a blip, but if Costes is ever able to get the launch angle up consistently, his power could really explode. Even if that never happens, his ability to take good at bats could earn him a bench spot if the Astros find themselves in need.