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DWL Star Ronel Blanco Poised for Big 2023

Still a rookie at age 29, Blanco showed the stuff to stick in the majors in his first taste of the bigs last year, and enters the season with an opportunity to break camp with the big club.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Ronel Blanco’s career started humbly at age 22, when he was signed primarily for his arm strength despite inconsistent feel and a limited secondary arsenal. He rose the minor league ranks slowly, but from day one displayed an ability to miss bats with his lively fastball, keeping him in the Astros plans. In 2018, that skill really started to pop, earning him his first taste of the upper minors after a late season promotion to Corpus Christi. Double-A wasn’t easy on Blanco in his first crack, as he struggled with hard contact, but a 30.9% K rate showed that there was still plenty to work with.

Blanco was much more effective in his return to Double-A the following year, and eventually earned himself another midseason promotion. Again, the transition to a new level was rocky initially, but there was some momentum for him going into the offseason. That was unfortunately dashed when the minors lost their entire 2020 season, which was particularly problematic for older prospects like Blanco, who had turned 26 at the end of the 2019 campaign. While missing out on valuable experience was certainly suboptimal, Blanco clearly did plenty to develop his abilities during the layoff, as he would return to Triple-A with a vengeance in 2021, striking out 58 against 19 walks in 44 and 23 innings for Sugar Land. He continued to have some trouble with homers, but more consistent strike throwing alongside further improved strikeout rates represented significant progress.

After a successful return, Blanco headed out to the DWL, where he had pitched briefly in 2019 and 2020, totaling just 5 and 13 innings across the two seasons. This time around he played a more significant role, notching 18 innings over 17 appearances, and didn’t allow a single run while striking out 21 against 18 walks. While the talent level in the DWL isn’t quite as high as Triple-A on the whole, it’s a very competitive league and the dominant run evidenced Blanco’s moxie and put him in a good spot entering 2022. He would open the year with Sugar Land again, where his 2021 rates more or less held stable, but he did get an opportunity in the majors in April when injuries hit the Astros bullpen. He faced some struggles there, allowing 5 ER in 6 and 13 innings, but he did show that his stuff could play. Unsatisfied, he would once again pitch in the DWL over the winter, where he bettered his 2021 stint- incredibly, he would once again post a perfect 0.00 ERA, this time across 20 and 23 innings, striking out 27 against just 5 walks with only 7 hits allowed. Not only was the continuation of his scoreless streak obviously very impressive, the low walk total was a very welcome sight, as that has been the biggest blemish on his record to date.

In that major league trial, Blanco logged some very solid pitch data, showing 3 offerings with above average Stuff+ in his fastball (103.2), slider (111.8) and seldom-used curveball (103.4). He threw a handful of changeups as well, but seemed to abandon that pitch along with the curveball by the end of his time on the roster. I’d be surprised to see the changeup come back in any significant capacity, but the curveball could be an interesting tertiary option for him if he can find more feel for locating it as the attributes are intriguing. The bread and butter will undoubtedly be the fastball/slider combination, though. He has plus velocity on the heater, averaging 95 MPH, and that comes packaged with elite extension and solid movement attributes that allow it to play up in the zone. The slider isn’t a wipeout offering, but pairs well with his fastball thanks to its verticality, and is thrown very hard at an average of 87 MPH. It’s an effective pitch against both righties and lefties, so he probably won’t need to deviate from the 1-2 punch much at all as a short reliever. If Blanco can tighten up his release points a bit, he is ready to contribute in middle relief for the big club this year, and his most recent DWL stint suggests that could be fair to project entering 2023. He’s definitely a player worth monitoring this spring, and is scheduled to pitch in the Astros first game later this week.