The Astros are a bit of a draft day wild card- for one, their philosophy on amateur talent acquisition tends to depart a bit from that of the rest of the league, and further, GM James Click is approaching his first draft at the helm with a full complement of picks. Despite these factors, we still have a rough idea of where the team might be looking- much of the Luhnow-era front office staff was retained, and the draft preferences of the Tampa Bay front office that Click came out of are well-established.
The team’s draft slot- 28th overall- further increases the difficulty in forecasting. The first round of the draft tends to throw us at least a few curveballs each year, so one can never be fully sure who might be available this far out- or even on the afternoon of the draft. With those disclaimers out of the way, here’s a look at some best guesses for potential matches in round one.
Jud Fabian, OF, University of Florida
Fabian was an electric underclassman for the Gators and entered 2021 as a candidate for the first overall pick, but concerns about his contact skills were exacerbated by a backslide in the strikeout department as a junior. He was still offered $2 million by the Red Sox in the second round last year, but surprisingly opted to return to school to improve his stock. Some questioned the move, but it has largely been a success. While his batting average is just .245, he still sports a career high 1.019 OPS, and his K rate has returned to its usual levels with 53 punchouts in 244 PAs, against 51 walks.
At 6’2”, 190, Fabian fills out the uniform well and pairs his power at the plate with some very strong defensive tools. He’s a borderline plus runner, sports above average arm strength, and projects very well all-around in center field. He has a steeper, power oriented swing that will always limit his batting average upside, but in 2022 he has looked much more composed and engaged in the batters’ box, which is a key to his long term success. It’s also worth pointing out that he’ll still be 21 years old on draft day despite being a senior, so he won’t be dinged by the models too much.
In summary, Fabian has some definite holes in his game but still carries every day center fielder upside with his ability to impact games with defense, power and speed. He has a ton of reps against high level college pitching and should be able to adapt quickly in the pro game, which could appeal to a competitive big league club like Houston. MLB.com gave the Astros Fabian in their first 2022 mock draft.
Cooper Hjerpe, LHP, Oregon State
Last year’s first round was absolutely loaded with college arms, and 2022’s crop marks a stark contrast, largely thanks to an epidemic of arm injuries. Of those left standing, there’s some healthy debate about who deserves to be the top dog, but one who figures to top at least some boards is Oregon State’s Cooper Hjerpe (pronounced ‘Jerpy’). For those unfamiliar with the Beavers’ ace, it might be a bit surprising, at least at first blush, to see a low-slot lefty discussed in this portion of the draft, but Hjerpe is a true mold breaker.
He really stands out on the spreadsheet, offering a combination of low release and riding life that is perfectly tailored to get swing and miss on the heater- aided by his velocity, which tops in the mid-90s. Typical of most pitchers with this type of delivery, Hjerpe’s primary breaking ball is a sweeping slider, which college hitters have been largely helpless against. The pitch may be a bit more effective against lefties, but it’s in his bag against righties too, and any potential platoon split concerns have been ameliorated by the rapid development of his changeup over the past year- the pitch offers some unique movement and has looked like more of a true secondary in 2022 rather than the clear third option.
Hjerpe is funky, but one should be careful not to underrate his upside. He’s a novelty, but far from a gimmick, and both the eye test and data back up a first round selection, perhaps even in the top half. There are going to be a wide range of opinions on this type of arm- the Astros might be fortunate enough to take advantage of that spread at 28th overall.
Connor Prielipp, LHP, Alabama
The 2022 class is going to really test teams’ value adjustments based on medical concerns. As alluded to above, the pitching class is chock full of currently-rehabbing arms, and given the circumstances a few are likely to sneak into the first round despite their status. One who may be positioned advantageously compared to his peers is Alabama’s Connor Prielipp, as while he has lost much of his college career to Tommy John recovery, he’s nearing a return to the mound and is expected to throw for teams before the draft.
Like Hjerpe, Prielipp is a lefty who really stands out for his pitch data, though the shape of his stuff is a lot of more traditional. He was in the mid 90s in the spring of 2021 before the elbow issue arose, with big spin and life to match. The heater is backed up by a hellacious power slider capable of touching 90, with both offerings more than capable of racking up whiffs. His strike throwing will need to develop a bit further, and while he does throw with a lot of intent, his delivery is quite simple and many believe that he can stay in the zone enough to start long term.
With a longer track record of SEC performance, Prielipp likely wouldn’t have any chance of making it to the end of the first round, but circumstances may change things. I think the Astros would be very excited by the opportunity to select this kind of vertically-oriented, high-octane lefty at any point in the draft, including their first pick.
Eric Brown, SS, Coastal Carolina
Brown might use the single weirdest pre-pitch setup in all of college baseball, and that’s saying something, as there tend to be some awfully interesting looks at the amateur level. He starts with his arms fully extended above his head with the end of the bat facing the mound before lowering the hands into hitting position as the pitcher starts his delivery. It’s a unique move, but looks second nature to Brown, and even if it does get him into position a bit later than some of his peers, he has the A+ pitch recognition and bat speed to compensate.
The unorthodox hitting style is not the only reason that Brown stands out, though. The primary reason is that his hitting metrics have consistently rated near the top of the NCAA game for two years running in all facets- be it plate discipline, quality of contact or frequency of contact. The Chanticleers star has struck out just 26 times against 33 walks in 224 PAs this season, and things look even better under the hood. There hasn’t been a ton of over the fence power yet (13 career HRs in 529 college PAs), but Brown hits the ball hard, projects to hit for a high average, and has the potential to get to a bit more lift with some adjustment to his approach.
In addition to the offensive ability, Brown offers some nice secondary tools to round out his profile. At 5’11”, 190, he has a classic up-the-middle build, with explosive hips and good lateral mobility. While he has primarily played shortstop at Coastal, he has also handled second and third base at times in the past and could even be a potential center field fit as he also runs very well. His broad base of offensive skills and promising defensive versatility are going to check a lot of boxes for the Astros’ front office.