The 2019 Astros draft class holds some dubious distinctions— it was the last one handled by Jeff Luhnow and his front office, and also the last before the team was hit with significant draft pick penalties which hamstrung them in the next two drafts. Picking at the end of the first round, the Astros had limited money to work with compared to their competition, and played things mostly conservatively early on. This was facilitated by the selections of Korey Lee and Grae Kessinger, both of whom came off the board before public-side evaluators expected, and eventually signed underslot deals. Most of these savings went to fourth rounder Colin Barber, a current top-10 organizational prospect, who got the second largest bonus in the class at an even $1 million.
Even after going overslot to secure Barber, the Astros’ strategy left them with a bit of extra cash to spend entering day 3. The team would eventually end up handing out several overslot bonuses post-round 10, but the majority of the extra pool money went to their 11th rounder, as is typical in most classes. The selection? Florida JUCO righty Ryan Gusto, a promising under the radar arm who had exploded onto the scene from complete unknown status a couple of years prior.
Hailing from Charlotte, NC, Gusto followed a strange path through the game in his early years, which he detailed in a 2019 interview with Athletes in Motion. After declining to play middle school ball based on advice his family received, Gusto struggled to make inroads with his high school coaches, and was unable to crack the varsity roster. Despite the obstacle, Gusto remained highly committed to the game, and ended up playing with the Carolina Royals, which started as a homeschool club before eventually opening to players of all academic backgrounds. He saw some success at this point, but was still a two-way player and those who believed in his future mostly thought better of him as an outfielder, which didn’t align with his view of himself. Despite some interest from four year programs in a position player role thanks to his size and speed, Gusto was completely focused on pitching.
As he neared high school graduation, Gusto made a concerted effort to find a college destination for himself on the mound. While he did have some traits, primarily a projectable 6’5” frame, that coaches covet, he was still only throwing in the low-to-mid 80s, which limited interest. Understanding the situation, he turned his attention to the JUCO level, eventually trying out with Broward College who would end up taking him on as the last pitcher on their roster, as Gusto tells it. Despite long odds to make an impact, Gusto worked his way into a bullpen role, and eventually became a trusted option for a team that went on to win its conference.
He wasn’t exactly at the pinnacle of the game yet, but this represented a high for Gusto’s stock- few expected him to latch on as a pitcher at the college level at all, so he had already beaten the odds. His coach at Broward ended up moving on to Florida Southwestern, another JUCO, the following year, and Gusto followed him as the promise of a continued role at a school with better facilities was too good to pass up. His upward trajectory continued there- his velocity had started to creep up at Broward, and that continued at his new home, culminating in him topping out at 93 in fall practice prior to his sophomore season.
After training through the winter, Gusto came out sitting 94 in the spring, and all of a sudden projected as a central cog in Florida Southwestern’s roster. He’d reprise his bullpen role to start the year, but left coaches little choice but to move him into the rotation once they saw what he was capable of with the newfound heat. He worked as a starter through the last two-plus months of the season, and was utterly dominant, even as he started to pick up some scouting heat. By season’s end, he had worked 75 frames and posted a 110/22 K/BB mark with 70 hits allowed and a 2.88 ERA, and perhaps most importantly, he was touching as high as 96 with the fastball.
Perhaps the Astros found him the old fashioned way, perhaps he stood out in their models, or maybe they were alerted to his talents when their extended spring training club scrimmaged against Florida Southwestern in May of 2019, but in any case they were clearly very impressed with his potential by the summer following his sophomore year. They’d end up selecting him in the 11th round that June, which is where teams pop their priority overslot targets as it is the earliest round in which teams can fail to sign a player without losing bonus pool money. There was certainly interest from four year programs to contend with at this point, but the Astros’ early round strategy left them with enough money to reel Gusto in for a healthy $421k bonus, significantly more than the $325k that 5th rounder and current top prospect Hunter Brown received.
Gusto looked ready to begin a quick rise through the system post draft, pitching very effectively in a 14 and 2⁄3 inning debut between the GCL and NYPL in his draft year, accumulating 19 strikeouts. From there, however, he would unfortunately receive a fresh dose of adversity. After losing a season in 2020 to the COVID-19 situation, Gusto would miss a second consecutive season in 2021 with an elbow injury that would eventually require Tommy John surgery. Despite the significant promise that he had showed in his sophomore season and brief pro debut, it’s hard to stay in the front of people’s minds when you haven’t thrown live innings in two years, and he didn’t receive much consideration on organizational rankings entering 2022.
Observers were still kind of in the dark on his status entering this season, but those questions were quickly answered when he surfaced on the opening day roster for Low-A Fayetteville. Better yet, he had a spot in the opening day rotation, and took his first turn on April 12th, striking out 6 across 4 and 2⁄3 in his return to professional action, walking two and allowing two hits including a homer. He perhaps showed a bit of rust, but it was a highly impressive return to the mound, with his fastball/slider combination showing just as much juice as evaluators remembered from his sophomore season. After allowing 3 runs in 5 and 1⁄3 his next time out, Gusto seemed to really find his groove again, allowing just 2 runs and 12 total baserunners across 14 innings in his next 3 appearances, striking out 15 along the way.
Despite there being just 24 innings separating Gusto from a two year break, the Astros were already sufficiently impressed and decided to bump him on up to High-A Asheville, where he will make his next start. Despite the long layoff, it’s important to remember that as a JUCO selection he was a younger draftee, and even now he’s only just turned 23. If he can carry his momentum up to High-A, there’s room for him to earn a second promotion, or at least line himself up for one to start 2023, by season’s end, at which point he’d be back to age appropriate for his level.
Ryan Gusto (read the article) pic.twitter.com/wdZl4rr2CI— Spencer Morris (@ProspectSpencer) May 11, 2022
Gusto’s rising stock goes beyond statistical performance- his return to the mound has been impressive to the eye, to boot. Despite missing two years of game action, his delivery has a fresh look vs. where we saw him at Florida Soutwestern back in 2019. The entire operation is a bit quieter with some simplified lower body movements, but the change that stands out most is the significantly shortened arm action, a look that has become a lot more popular over the last few years. The delivery looks a bit more command-friendly on paper now, and he’s been able to implement those adjustments without losing any juice. His fastball continues to show impressive ride while touching the mid-90s, and he shows two distinct breaking ball shapes, capable of generating high degrees of both sweep and drop. He may be fresh off of a Tommy John and 23 years old, but he looks like a potential starter or multi-inning guy with his ability to throw strikes and attack with a variety of looks.
Gusto has beaten incredibly long odds to get to where he is today, but his early season performance has demonstrated that he’s not done rising yet. The elbow injury had incredibly poor timing for his prospect stock, but that now looks like a simple bump in the road on his way to new levels of notoriety. Were I making an Astros prospect list right now, it’d be impossible to leave an arm like his off, and he has a chance to reach heights that would’ve been dizzying just a few years ago by the end of the year.