An eighth round selection in the 2018 draft, Corey Julks was quickly a popular follow amongst Astros fans thanks to his alma mater- The University of Houston- but wasn’t really on the national radar. He was a very accomplished college hitter, slashing .324/.408/.497 across three seasons with the Coogs while stealing 28 bases and socking 17 home runs in 690 plate appearances, but middling secondary tools (just a .107 ISO on the Cape with wood) and outfield tweener status pushed him into the middle round range.
The Astros secured his services for a $140k bonus, and for much of his minor league career his performance fell in line with what he did at the college level. He had a brief debut with now-independent Tri-City in 2017, hitting .177/.312/.235 in 32 games, and would be pushed to full season ball the following year. Starting out with Quad Cities, Julks showed his typical blend of solid contact rates, healthy walk totals and limited power with a .259/.341/.379, which was enough for the Astros to push him to High-A Buies Creek midseason. Playing in a better hitters’ park, he was a bit more productive, upping his power production with a .282/.362/.458 slash and 6 bombs. He also impressively swiped 30 bags across the two stops, and took just 41 attempts to do so.
At this point in his career, Julks’ ceiling looked like that of a reserve outfielder. The on-base skills and baserunning value were impressive, but he was also taking most of his defensive reps in left field where the power bar is much higher. Hoping to see more power production, the Astros elected to return him to Buies Creek to open 2019, and his numbers actually ended up backing off a bit. He did improve his contact rate significantly, trimming his strikeout percentage from 22.3 to 18.4, but his ISO dipped from .176 to .123, and his stolen base success rate also regressed as he went 10 for 15 on the basepaths. The Astros did give him a 10 game test with Double-A Corpus to finish the year, and while that isn’t enough to judge much of anything, it didn’t go very well as he struck out 16 times in 41 PAs and hit just .162.
From there, he lost a season to COVID-19, and things were looking a bit bleak, but neither he nor the team were ready to throw in the towel on a potential major league future. Apparently, his work during the lost season helped unlock something for him at the plate, as when he returned to Double-A in 2021, he was a new man. Appearing in 85 games and totaling 372 plate appearances, Julks nearly doubled his minor league career home run total of 15 with 14 round trippers. He added 15 steals in 20 attempts, and maintained a tidy strikeout rate of 22.6% to go with a .287/.349/.491 slash. The power outburst was a revelation, and better yet, he took the majority of his defensive reps in center field. Reviews on his work out there were mixed, but he showed that he might be able to handle the position on a part time basis, at the least. This was his age 25 season, but that wasn’t entirely his fault, and his prospect stock was off life support in wake of the big improvements.
With a bit of momentum now, Julks entered 2022 with the potential to play his way onto the big league bench if circumstances created a need. Unfortunately, he’d stumble out of the gates a bit, hitting a paltry .188/.242/.259 with just one home run in 85 April PAs, but the struggles would be short-lived. The calendar turning over to May seemed to wake up Julks’ bat, and the results reached heights we hadn’t yet seen from him. Not only did he go 31 for 91 with a 7/18 BB/K ratio, he connected on a silly 10 home runs, nearly matching his 2021 total in roughly a 3 week span- good for a .769 slugging percentage. He’s yet to show any signs of slowing down, either, as he’s currently 5 for 14 in June with another pair of jacks, bringing his season total to 13.
When Julks showed some new pop in 2021 it was a welcome sight, but it’s tough to draw any big conclusions from two thirds of a Texas League season as far as power is concerned. Triple-A is similarly easy on offense, but Sugar Land actually depressed power a bit compared to other parks in the league last year, and 7 of his bombs have come at home. One less positive development is that he has completely moved off of center so far this year in favor of left and, surprisingly, third base, but that could be circumstantial as he has some noteworthy competition for those reps. Even if center isn’t in the cards long term, he’s showing enough versatility to add to his value as a bench piece, particularly if his stick continues to look this threatening.
At age 26 with gaudy Triple-A numbers, it feels like Julks should be about due for a look at the big league level, but there are a couple of obstacles in the way of that happening in Houston. For one, any role he could fill defensively with his current skillset is pretty well spoken for, and with Jake Meyers soon to return, there may not be much room in center even if the Astros were comfortable sliding him back in there. Additionally, he’s not yet on the 40-man (though he will be Rule 5 eligible this offseason), so it’s quite unlikely we’ll see a move in the short term. To me, that makes Julks an interesting trade candidate as we approach the deadline- he’s not going to pull in any huge names given his age and short power resume, but teams nearing the end of their rebuilds could certainly be interested in a player who can step into a big league trial right away with the ability to handle a couple of different positions, potentially across both infield and outfield. It would be tough to see a hometown kid go, but it’s best for his career if he can get an opportunity sooner than later, so a deal could be beneficial for both sides. In any case, the Astros have to be thrilled to see him powering up in such a major way, and he’s an excellent example of the nonlinear nature of player development.