As updated prospect rankings trickle in to the Athletic, MLB.com, and ESPN, and as we inch closer to catchers and pitchers reporting, it’s worth looking at some of the players and storylines that will determine whether Jim Crane’s dictum will be true, that the competitive window never closes in Houston. Here are ten minor league plot lines to follow.
- Finding the next JP France. Last year a seemingly deep rotation was tested due to concurrent injuries of LMJ, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy. Out of nowhere JP France made 23 starts and three 136 innings for the Astros. For 2024, the Sugar Land Space Cowboys should have a rotation that includes the highly-regarded Colton Gordon, Spencer Arrighetti, and Rhett Kouba. All three threw over 120 IP in 2023 (meaning they can be stretched to about 160), flashed dominance in AA, and struggled a bit in the hitter-friendly PCL. They’re all in their mid-20s, were drafted in 2021, and look like potential BOR starters or swing-men. At least one of these starters will be called upon in 2024. Which one will stick? Or even surprise, like France did. It will be worth watching their Spring Training performances to see if a pecking order is established.
- Finding that bench bat, 1b/DH player. Some of us wanted the Astros to go cheap on bullpen help and divert the Hader money to find a Brantley replacement. The Astros didn’t do that, but they did trade for Trey Cabbage and they do have Will Wagner, who’s hit at just about every level. Can Wagner be what people hoped Justin Dirden could be last year? A hit-first LH bat, and who can get some starts at 1b when Abreu needs rest and at DH when Espada wants a max-offense lineup (Yordan in LF, Chas in cf)? Can Cabbage be that guy with more defensive versatility?
- Athletic left handed hitting OF prospects at the upper levels. The #1 prospect in the system is Jacob Melton, who snuck on some top 100 boards this offseason. He has power and speed, but a suspect hit tool. 2023 was partly stymied by injury, and might need some seasoning before he’s ready. Joey Loperfido had about 30 games at A+ under his belt this time last year, and was a four-year player at Duke. He spent 8 total games there in 2023 before getting promoted to AA, where he slashed 296/392/548 in 84 games, with 20 SB to boot. He struggled a bit in 138 PAs in Sugar Land, but he has a huge frame. He and Melton could both start 2024 in Sugar Land. Can either force Dana Brown’s hand with a big first half? The big league club lacks athleticism and these two would provide a jolt of it.
- The full-season debuts of the 2023 high schoolers. In the old days, the previous year’s high school picks would start out in the Florida Complex and gradually move to a league like the Appy League or another “short season” league. Now it’s not out of the ordinary to see transpire what happened last year, when Ryan Clifford started the season in Fayetteville. Last July Chase Jaworsky (5th) signed way over slot, as did Nehomar Ochoa (11th) and Anthony Huezo (12th). During the Click years the team went almost exclusively with college players, and so there hasn’t been an influx of this kind of young draft talent in quite some time. When will they appear in Fayetteville? This will give a big indication of what the front office thinks of each of them.
- The 2022 college pitcher draft class and the future of Astro pitching depth. The Astros struggled with college arms under Luhnow, but seem to have righted the ship under Click. Giving that the 2021 draft is close to hatching, it’s worth considering whether the 2022 class could be not just deeper, but better. If so, it will have huge ramifications for the farm system. That draft class was super stacked with college arms: Andrew Taylor (2nd), Michael Knorr (3rd), Trey Dombroski (4th), Nolan Devos (5th), AJ Blubaugh (7th), and Tyler Guilfoil (8th). Not to mention Brett Gillis (9th), who was injured last year and has only thrown 6 IP since being drafted. The first six have all experienced some level of success and have caught different scouts’ eyes. Taylor is the youngest and seemed to be working on a 3rd or 4th pitch rather than dominating the lower levels with his 4-seamer/change-up combo. ESPN put only one of these six in their top 17th (Knorr, 6th). The June writeup from Fangraphs had Dombroski 9th, Knorr 17th, and Taylor 27th. MLB.com has Knorr 12th, Dombroski 20th, and Taylor 23rd. But it was Blubaugh who reached AA and had a 1.26 ERA while K’ing 37% of the 51 batters he faced at Corpus. How many of these six will start next spring knocking on the door of Houston? Or as integral parts of midseason trades?
- The young, highly-regarded international signings. Luis Baez landed in A ball like a man on fire last summer, and while he cooled off, he showed enough to rank consistently in the top 3 of Astro prospects. Sandro Gaston, meanwhile, did not remotely deliver in his full season debut despite showing huge promise in the DSL. Waner Luciano, Kenni Gomez, Esmil Valencia, Alberto Hernandez, and Camilio Diaz have all generated buzz, either based on signing bonus or reports of exit velocities and tools flashed at the Complex. Yet one never really knows whether they’ll be the next Yordan Alvarez or another dud until they get exposed to the daily grind against older players. Can one or two have a Baez-like impact?
- Overall team success. When Luhnow took over in 2012 there was a focus on creating a winning culture in the minors. That’s been abandoned. 2022 was a true train wreck, with I believe the worst winning % in MILB. 2023 was better, with Corpus ending above .500. The other three full-season squad, however, were a combined 65 games under .500. The system’s catchers couldn’t control the running game and too many pitchers gave out walks like candy at the lower levels. It would be nice if the farm finished .500 or better
- The last chance guys. Cabbage belongs to this group. Even though he’s not that old, I’d include Colin Barber, who’s no longer an elite CF but has never hit enough or stayed healthy. Justin Dirden fell flat in AAA. What does a repeat year look like? Luke Berryhill went sideways in 2023. Can he be a viable third catcher on a 40-man? Pedro Leon has taken almost 1200 PAs in AAA. David Hensley had a great 2022 and was a train wreck last year but is still on the 40-man. Could he get back to form? Likewise, Corey Julks was getting starts over Chas last May and now he’s totally forgotten.
- The heir apparent. Zach Dezenzo has corner IF written all over him. If he can really hit, he’s probably a 1b. Nobody in the system produces EVs like Dezenzo. Jose Abreu looked very old last year but has two years on his deal. Alex Bregman is in his walk year. Dezenzo’s progress will play a large role in how the Astros FO thinks about staffing the corner IF positions in 2025.
- The forgotten pitchers. Nobody at the upper levels put together a stretch quite like what Ryan Gusto did from July to mid-August at Corpus. I thought it was special enough to wonder whether he’d get plucked in the Rule 5 draft. Likewise, such previously touted arms as Jaime Melendez, Miguel Ullola, Julio Robaina, Misael Tamarez could either force their way into the conversation or come to be regarded as org. depth. 2024 could be make or break years.
Much more could be said about the farm, and there will be plenty of time for that. These are some storylines to consider if you’re eager to know more about the farm system.