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Projecting the Rookies on the Opening Day Roster

Six players on the Astros’ 26 man roster for game 1 still have rookie eligibility. What should be expected of them in their first full seasons?

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at New York Mets Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a common refrain in recent years that the Astros seem to get big rookie contributions every season despite ranking poorly in media farm system rankings for the better part of a decade now. This year, six rookies with sparing big league experience have broken camp with the big club, with more likely on the way as soon as early summer. It would definitely be a surprise for any of them to produce to the level that Jeremy Peña did last season, each of them project for meaningful contributions in their own ways. Let’s take a quick look at each and what can reasonably be expected of them in 2023:

Yainer Diaz, C/1B/OF, Age 24

ZiPS projection - 460 PA, .266/.302/.432, 16 HR (108 wRC+)

Acquired along with Phil Maton in the Myles Straw trade at the 2021 deadline, Diaz is an aggressive, punishing hitter with enough defensive chops behind the plate to soak up a fair number of starts. Martin Maldonado’s presence should limit his time behind the plate in 2023, but Diaz also has plenty of experience at first base and the outfield corners, spots where the Astros have older players projected to start, so I expect him to take about as many PAs as his production will support.

Diaz has hit at a high level throughout his minor league career, and wasn’t slowed down much by his transition to the upper minors in 2022, posting 121 wRC+s at both Double-A and Triple-A, totaling 25 HRs along the way. He has never struck out in more than 17.8% of his PAs at any minor league stop, which is highly impressive for a hitter with significant power like Diaz. His approach is very aggressive, but his barrel skills allow this to be effective- many of his plate appearances end with hard contact early in the count. He’ll likely have to do some tinkering in the pitch selection department against big league stuff, but the hitting skills are good enough that I’m confident he’ll be able to find something that works for him. There should be plenty of opportunity for Diaz this season, and if any of the rookies are to really step up and create some individual excitement, he’s the smart money. I think the projection systems’ predictions for his season look reasonable.

Hunter Brown, RHP, Age 24

ZiPS projection - 109 IP, 26.8% K, 10.7% BB, 3.77 ERA

The organization’s top prospect, Brown opens the year in the big league rotation, at least partially due to Lance McCullers’ latest injury. One of the best strikeout generators in the minor leagues the last few seasons, Brown has some of the best pure stuff in the sport. His arsenal is headlined by a riding, mid-to-upper 90s fastball, which is backed up by a pair of plus or better breaking balls. The slider was his go-to for much of his career, but over the last few years the curveball emerged as perhaps the best pitch in his bag. There’s an occasional changeup as well, but Brown is generally content to attack with velocity and spin, and there’s really no good reason for him to deviate from that plan.

There’s no question that Brown has the stuff to be a frontline starter, but he hasn’t quite gotten over the final hump with his command to dispel any doubt that he might end up transitioning to the bullpen at some point. I’d still bet on success in the rotation, but he’ll need to throw strikes more consistently than he has to date. Given the quality of his stuff, that’s all he really needs to do- he doesn’t need to hit pinpoint spots within the zone to miss bats. There will likely be some ups and downs for him as he acclimates to big league life, but there will be few dull moments when he’s on the bump.

David Hensley, Util., Age 27

ZiPS projection - 477 PA, .244/.321/.371 (100 wRC+)

A 26th round pick in 2018 out of San Diego State, Hensley is a very unique player at 6’6” 190 lbs. with an ability to play more or less anywhere defensively. He really broke out after returning from the pandemic, batting .293/.369/.439 in Corpus in 2021 before improving his line to .298/.420/.478 in Sugar Land last season, earning him a late season promotion to Houston where he would impress with a .345/.441/.586 line in 34 PAs. The small big league sample was a bit deceptive, as virtually all of his appearances came after roster expansion, but it was impressive nonetheless.

Hensley’s defensive versatility should help him fit on big league benches for the foreseeable future, but he may be behind Mauricio Dubon in the early season pecking order. Hensley is capable more or less anywhere but catcher, but isn’t especially strong at any individual spot, while Dubon is at both 2B and CF. To create a permanent role for himself, he’ll likely need to do so with the bat, but that remains a distinct possibility. Hensley is a patient hitter, and has more than enough raw power to do damage, which he did at an increased clip in 2022. His power production, however, is limited by a lack of lift, and the last step in his development will be to catch the ball out in front more often. At age 27 it is fair to wonder if there is more in the tank, but Hensley has already experienced a lot of late growth, so don’t rule it out. I think ZiPS has undersold his power potential, while vastly overestimating the amount of playing time available to him unless injuries ravage the infield.

Ronel Blanco, RHP, Age 29

ZiPS projection - 45 IP, 26.3% K, 10.8% BB, 4.20 ERA

A legend in the DWL, where he hasn’t allowed an earned run in multiple seasons, Blanco has experienced a slow, gradual ascent through the system since debuting in rookie ball at age 22 in 2016. A maxed out 6’0”, Blanco’s strength allows him to repeat a high effort, power oriented delivery and generate consistent mid-90s heat. The fastball’s movement is more solid than standout, but when combined with the velocity, it allows the pitch to miss bats and generate weak contact. It’s a similar story with his go to secondary, a short slider, which has subtle movement but mid-to-high 80s heat that allows it to sneak up on hitters.

Blanco impressed the team brass in spring, prompting a decision to stretch him out for longer outings, in contrast to his history as a pure single-inning guy. Blanco should have the endurance for the role, and his command has come on a bit recently, but he may need to work in his tertiary offerings a bit more to thrive. His changeup hasn’t shown much yet, but there’s some promise in the curveball, which he threw a bit more frequently this spring. He may end up back in short duty, but it’s an interesting and worthwhile experiment. Whatever the eventual role, he should be able to contribute meaningfully in middle relief this season.

Corey Julks, OF, Age 27

ZiPS projection - 117 PA, .241/.307/.409 (104 wRC+)

An 8th round selection back in 2017 out of U of H, Julks has consistently performed at an above average level in the minor leagues, and really exploded in the power department down the stretch in 2021. He followed that late season homer barrage with a 31 bomb campaign this past season, to which he added 22 steals in 5 attempts. Defensively, he mostly fits in left field, but could potentially fill in at the other outfield spots, and has even played some 2nd and 3rd base in Triple-A. His offensive approach is simple- he patiently waits for pitches he can pull, and has shown an ability to do so often enough for this attack plan to be sensible. He’ll strike out a fair amount thanks to his penchant for deep counts, but if playing time opens up for him he could develop a fruitful relationship with the Crawford Boxes. It’ll likely be tough for him to crack too many lineups early in the season, but he is a capable pinch hitter or injury fill in who can impact games with power, and perhaps even speed under MLB’s new rules.

Cesar Salazar, C, Age 27

ZiPS projection - 351 PA, .233/.393/.371 (90 wRC+)

A surprise inclusion on the opening 26 man, Salazar was a 2018 7th-round pick out of Arizona, by way of Mexico. His calling card is strong defense behind the plate, where excels as a receiver and is solid in the run game. While he’s not on the roster for his offensive prowess, he was a capable minor league hitter, hitting .277/.350/.489 with just a 16.5% K rate for Corpus last season before a late season promotion to Sugar Land. It’s likely that Salazar will be optioned back to Triple-A if the Astros get healthier, as most of Yainer Diaz’s playing time would need to come behind the plate at that point, but he’s certainly valuable depth for the organization, as capable defenders who can handle the bat a little at backstop don’t exactly grow on trees.