The 2019 draft didn’t come with much fanfare in Astros circles, and for obvious reasons- due to penalties imposed in response to the club’s sign stealing scandal, they were without a first or second round pick, and thus had very little maneuverability. Once the selections actually came in, though, there was some excitement around the Astros’ third and fourth round picks, both of whom carried more upside than fans expected the team to come away with given their restrictions.
Those picks were a pair of center fielders- Jordan Brewer from the University of Michigan in the third, followed by norcal prep Colin Barber in the fourth, whom they signed away from what was viewed as a fairly strong Oregon commitment. The players were similar in some ways- both stood out for speed with some power to match, and both projected as future center fielders- but had followed very different paths. Brewer was old for the college class, after having focused on football in his younger years and spending some time at the JUCO level, whereas Barber was a bit young for the prep class at around 18.5. While evaluators were quick to point out that both still needed a lot of refinement, the Astros were generally praised for making the best of a bad situation.
The road has been a bit rocky for both players since draft day. Barber has struggled with a tasting platter of various injuries, which have derailed a few promising hot streaks. He has generally been effective when on the field, showing nascent game power and mature pitch selection, but his development has been slowed beyond what was already expected to be a fairly slow timeline when he was selected. Brewer has also had a bit of injury trouble, but prior to 2022 he had difficulty making an impact at the plate. Despite his older age, Brewer seemed to struggle with the jump to A-ball as a hitter- while he made his fair share of contact, much of that was of the incidental variety. He did manage something of a late season power surge, but it was difficult to know what to make of it given its brevity.
As a result, both Barber and Brewer entered 2022 with something to prove. Barber no doubt wanted to demonstrate that his body could hold up under the rigors of a full pro season while continuing to progress with the bat, and Brewer needed to offer some signs of life offensively to avoid being typecast as a pure glove/run guy off the bench in short order. Despite the big difference in age, their developmental paths had converged in some ways, and both would be assigned to High-A Asheville for the first time to open the new season.
Joining the pair in the outfield would be another interesting prospect with a center field profile, 2022 10th rounder Michael Sandle out of South Alabama. Like Brewer, Sandle was an older draft pick at 23 years old, but likely would’ve made the jump to the pro level earlier if not for the lost season in 2020. Sandle benefited from Ethan Wilson’s scouting heat throughout his college career, and seized the opportunity in a big way with massive sophomore and junior seasons that saw him hit .320/.397/.511 and .313/.389/.522 respectively with total K/BB mark of 63/37 in 475 PAs, totaling 17 HR and 22 SB in 25 attempts along the way. Despite impressing with his tools, Sandle would have a similarly short leash in pro ball due to his age, and was likely feeling some of the same sense of urgency as Barber and Brewer as the 2022 campaign got under way.
Through the first couple of weeks of the new season, it’s hard to find much that hasn’t gone according to plan for the trio. Brewer has enjoyed by far the best offensive stretch of his pro career to date, including a two-game eruption where he tallied 17 total bases between April 16th and 17th, and is currently hitting .375/.531/.875 with a 4/7 K/BB ratio. He’s extremely old for the level, but with impactful contact being the big missing element in his game prior to this season, the .500 ISO is just about the best marker we could see from him at this point. What adds intrigue to Brewer’s early season explosion is the fact that he has once again made significant changes to his setup in the box— these two swings offer an illustration:
I've probably been spending too much time on Jordan Brewer lately but Asheville finally played on TV last night so I'm back him. Once again, his setup has changed singificantly: https://t.co/VYklKwtF1T pic.twitter.com/wV9CxToY9d— Spencer Morris (@ProspectSpencer) April 20, 2022
The newer setup actually shares more similarity with his college days than the quiet, upright stance from late last year, but appears narrower than the Michigan look. Could these changes have unlocked something for him? That’s probably a bit optimistic, but it’s hard to argue with the early returns.
His fellow elder statesman Sandle hasn’t been quite as explosive, but has been similarly successful, slashing .294/.415/.529 with a homer and 4 walks against 5 strikeouts while handling the majority of the center field duties for the team. Sandle most stands out for his speed on the basepaths and center field acumen, but he has also proven at this point with his college and minor league successes that he can get on base and even offer a little bit of power. The broad range of skills makes him an ideal bench outfielder candidate at the highest level, and that’d be quite a prize to come away with in the draft’s 10th round. The outfield in Double-A Corpus is 5 deep right now, but the effectiveness of that group has been mixed and some are older players nearing the end of the line, so they’re surely feeling the heat from those hot starts in Asheville, and I’d expect moves to be made sooner than later.
Barber’s start hasn’t quite kept pace with Brewer and Sandle, but he’s nonetheless been one of the stronger bats in what has been a pretty paltry Asheville lineup so far this year (the team is just 1-9). The now-21 year old managed hits in 5 of his first 13 at bats this year before going 0 for 6 since, but has continued to show ultra-mature pitch selection with 5 walks against just 2 strikeouts in 24 plate appearances thus far. As long as he can stay on the field, he should continue to hone his quality of contact and could really solidfy a top 5 to 10 system ranking. Like both players discussed above, Barber has a chance to make some real impact with his speed and defense, but shows the potential for the most complete offensive package in the group with his mature approach, great bat speed and solid average power potential. If there’s an every day guy out of the three, the smart money is on Barber, and he might even develop into a long term table setter type.
Despite the lack of blue chip talent at the top, the Astros farm continues to be home to strong depth and a wide variety of potential major leaguers. There’s a lot to follow in the early going at all levels, but when opportunities arise to get eyes on Asheville, this outfield group should offer plenty of intrigue.