|Original Published Date: January 2, 2018|
The plan worked.
It was ugly at times, but building a Championship team through acquiring and developing young players is a proven process. It’s funny though…would the Astros have won the World Series without the acquisition of Justin Verlander with three minutes to go before the Waiver Wire trade deadline? While we will never know, I think it’s safe to say it would have been a whole lot more difficult. So, while you build your core with young talent, adding key veterans at the right time is equally important.
So how is the Astros farm system now? While it’s not what it once was, it’s still very good and very deep. In fact, they have two of the best young players in the minor leagues in Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitely. Despite a swing that I just don’t like, I’ve ranked Tucker as the number one player in the system. Forrest Whitely might even have a higher ceiling after making impressive strides since being drafted in 2016. His ceiling is a high-end number, two starting pitcher.
Goodness continues after that with Cuban émigré, Yordan Alvarez, J.B. Bukauskas, and David Paulino. All are Top 100 prospects. The Astros have even made Colin Moran relevant again…not a star, but I think he could be a major league player.
I know I’ve been criticized for being an Astros fan…I’m actually really not, but I do appreciate the structured methodology they have put in place. Let’s face it, it worked. Yeah, having the little guy also helped but that’s a topic for another, much longer article.
Highest Level: Double-A, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 OF
Kyle Tucker posted a really nice stat line in 2017. In 120 games across High and Double-A, he slashed .288/.379/.554 with 25 home runs and 21 stolen bases. His 20/20 stat line was one of the best in all of minor league baseball last year. In strictly looking at the stat line, all looks good; a star in the making.
But, when you see him play live, that ugly swing is hard to ignore. In fact, if it weren’t for the results he was putting up, the Astros would have addressed the definitive hitch in his swing a long time ago. I’m not sure how it will be sustainable, but it’s working, so the Astros and rightly so, aren’t inclined to change anything.
Scouting Report: Let’s park the funky swing for the moment and look at all the goodness that Tucker brings. There is great bat speed, a very good understanding of the strike zone, plus raw power and above average foot speed. He’s got easy 25 to 30 home run power and while I don’t see a 20 to 25 stolen base guy long-term, he could steal low double-digit bases annually.
He feels like a left-handed version of Wil Myers. Plus power and above average speed with enough athleticism to play an average outfield. In fact, and again ignoring the funky swing, he has a better approach at the plate.
Now back to the swing…I know I can get caught up searching for the perfect swing mechanics. However, in the end, it’s more about the player’s ability to make contact and control the strike zone. Hunter Pence pretty much did everything fundamentally wrong but made multiple all-star appearances and had a great baseball career. Tucker could as well. But if he stumbles and struggles across better pitching, you can point back to his swing that in my opinion needs a lot of work.
Fantasy Impact: Tucker continues to be one of the best prospects in the game. The upside for me is a .260/.340/.500 player with 30 home run upside and 10 to 15 stolen bases annually. He’ll likely stay in the minor leagues all of next season but if Derek Fisher doesn’t take hold of left field by mid-season, don’t be surprised if you see Tucker.
Highest Level: Double-A, ETA: 2019, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 SP
The Astros scored a big win when they selected Forrest Whitely with the 17th pick in the 2016 MLB Draft. The 6-foot-7 right-hander blew through three levels last season while posting some of the best numbers in the minor leagues.
In 23 games (18 starts), he posted a 2.83 ERA, striking out 143 while walking only 34. His 14 strikeouts per nine were one of the best in all of minor league baseball and his walk rate improved at each level. The only negative, if you want to call it a negative is that he only threw 92 innings. The primary reason for the low total is that the Astros wanted to keep his innings down. They only allowed him to pitch six innings in one outing – a two-hit, 11 strikeout performance in his debut performance in Double-A.
Whitely just turned 20 and will likely start the year back in Double-A. The Astros want him to pitch the entire season in the minor leagues and to increase his innings by 30 so that he can be primed for 160 innings in 2019. However, if August hits and the Astros are once again in the thick of things, don’t be surprised if Whitley gets the call.
Scouting Report: Whitley has all the characteristics to become a front of the rotation major league starter; size, a solid arsenal and the ability to throw strikes. His fastball sits 91 to 94 MPH and because of the plane he gets, is a tough pitch to square. His best off-speed pitch is a slider that with more repetition could become a real weapon.
Finally, Whitley is just a big dude – 6-foot-7 and a listed 240 pounds. There’s no physical projection remaining, so gaining another tick or two on his fastball will have to be accomplished through improved mechanics. While I think he could experience a slight velocity improvement, I would not count on an upper nineties fastball. That said, the overall package is plenty good and given the ease of which he has progressed through the minor leagues, it won’t be long before Whitley makes his major league debut.
Fantasy Impact: There’s a lot to like with Whitley and should rise significantly in our Top 100 list. We thought he would move quickly and he has. Expect one more year in the minors and then his ticket to Houston should be set. The upside is a Top 20 fantasy pitcher with more than a strikeout an inning, three walks per nine and significantly better than league ratios.
Highest Level: High-A, ETA: 2019, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 1B
One of the breakout players in the Houston system was Cuban émigré, Yordan Alvarez. He was originally signed by the Dodgers in 2015 but made his way to Houston via the Josh Fields trade the following year. He did what he does best last season…hit.
In 90 games across Low and High-A, he hit .304 with a .379 on-base percentage while slugging .481. He showed a great strikeout rate of 19% and an even better walk rate of 11%. What he didn’t show was a ton of over-the-fence power but at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds with very good bat speed, it should come.
Scouting Report: Alvarez has an advanced feel for hitting with the ability to control the strike zone. He has all the makings of a .300 hitter. In fact, he’s hit at every level and even in his limited AFL time, he hit. What he hasn’t shown in over-the-fence power but he does show plenty of raw in batting practice. I think as he matures, the in-game power will show
The bigger question might be will he get a chance to show his wares in Houston. While the skillset is there, the Astros lineup is stacked and there is always the possibility of a trade to bring in another middle of the order bat. While nobody can predict the future, I do believe there is better than a 50/50 chance that he is moved over the next year or two.
Fantasy Impact: I was fortunate enough to secure Alvarez in a number of my Dynasty Leagues. While I hate rostering first baseman in my minor league system, I believe Alvarez is more than worth a slot in all formats. He has 25 plus home run power with a .280 plus batting average upside.
Highest Level: Short Season, ETA: 2020, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP or Closer
Jacob Bukauskas was a 20-year-old college draftee when the Astros selected him with the 15th overall pick in last June’s MLB Draft. After a successful career at North Carolina, the Astros only allowed him to pitch 10 innings in the minor leagues last year where he had little problem.
During his college career, Bukauskas improved every year. He pitched to a 4.09 ERA in his freshman year in 14 starts and finished his collegian career with a 2.53 ERA in 15 starts in his junior year. He also struck out over 11.5 batters per inning while walking 3.6 per nine.
The Astros will likely send him to Quad Cities to begin 2018 with a likely finish in Buies Creek of the Carolina League.
Scouting Report: Bukauskas is currently a fastball-slider pitcher but make no mistake about it, those two pitches are plus offerings. In fact, his slider was considered nearly unhittable in college. At 6-feet with two plus, if not double-plus pitches, it’s easy to see a Lance McCullers type pitcher.
When I saw McCullers in the lower minor leagues, he had one of the best sliders I had seen to-date. The reports I’ve received on Bukauskas are similar. I also suggested that McCullers would one day be a lock-down closer. Since he’s already made it to an all-star game as a starter, that prediction seems fool-hardy. But I’m stubborn and still believe he’s a closer and it wouldn’t surprise me if next year after I’ve had a chance to see Bukauskas live, I fall into that camp with him.
Fantasy Impact: I like Bukauskas enough that he will likely make our Top 100 list. I do understand that there a good chance he’s a bullpen arm, but the stuff is electric, so I’m buying in.
Highest Level: Majors, ETA: 2017, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP or Closer
2017 was an eventful year for the Astros’ hard-throwing right-hander David Paulino. He started the year with elbow soreness that he worked through enough to make his major league debut in June. He had his moments including back-to-back wins against the Red Sox and A’s in mid-June that was then followed by a four-inning, 7 earned run performance. Overall though, in 29 innings, he struck out 34 and only walked seven.
His season though ended abruptly when he was suspended for two months for PED’s in July and then when reinstated, had elbow surgery to remove bone spurs. He should be healthy and ready for spring training next season. Where he begins the season is an open question.
Scouting Report: At 6-foot-7 and 218 pounds, Paulino is an imposing presence on the mound. At his height, he gets great plane on his pitches, which has allowed him to keep the ball in the ballpark. Although he was homer-prone in his brief stay in the Majors, giving up eight home runs in six starts.
Paulino has a quality three-pitch arsenal that begins with a fastball that sits 92 to 94 MPH and can touch higher. It’s a quality offering because of his excellent extension that gives the pitch that extra late hop that pitchers desire. He complements his heater with a plus downer curveball as well as a quality change-up. He throws all three pitches for strikes which together gives him a dynamic front-of-the-rotation profile.
Fantasy Impact: Paulino is a must own in Dynasty Leagues. While the PED suspension was disappointing, he still has an electric arm with a chance to be a mid-rotation or better.
Highest Level: Majors, ETA: 2017, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 3B
When the Marlins drafted Colin Moran sixth overall in the 2013 draft, they clearly saw a star. I never did. When I scouted him, I didn’t like the swing and questioned how much power he would eventually develop. I was therefore perplexed when the Astros traded for him in the Jared Cosart trade. They clearly saw something I didn’t see.
Spin forward three years, and Moran has developed into a better player than I ever thought. The swing is cleaned up and last year, he started to hit for power. He was having a career year in the PCL, posting a slash line of .308/.373/.543 with 18 home runs when the Astros called him up. But in his second game, he was hit in the face with a pitch and missed two months of action. He did make it back for the final week of the season.
Scouting Report: As I thought when Moran was drafted, I don’t see a star but I now do see a guy with a chance to have a major league career. I don’t believe it will be with the Astros as there is no room at the inn for him, but he can hit and now with his power starting to emerge, he has the upside of a .270 hitter with 15 to 20 home run power. He has no speed so stolen bases will not be part of the equation.
Fantasy Impact: I picked up Moran in a couple of leagues because I do like his hit tool. With Alex Bregman emerging as one of the better third basemen in the league, he’s blocked. To the Astros credit, they have played Moran at first and in the outfield to give him positional flexibility. However, that leaves his upside at a utility player or more likely trade bait down the road. In the right situation, he could be a useful fantasy contributor. Expect a .270 plus batting average with 15 to 20 home runs with the potential for a little more pop.
Highest Level: Double-A, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 SP
Cionel Perez, the 21-year-old Cuban émigré pitched well over three levels last season. He started the year in Low-A which proved too easy and was promoted to the Carolina League in June after posting a 4.23 ERA striking out a batter an inning while walking 2.8 per nine. He only spent a month in High-A before the Astros moved him to Double-A to finish the season.
Scouting Report: Perez has a nice four-pitch mix that begins with a low 90’s fastball that can touch higher. His primary out pitch is his slider with a changeup that continues to show improvement. All of his pitches play up as he’s able to throw each for strikes. His command is not there yet as he will catch too much of the plate causing a higher hit walk rate than you would like.
At 6-feet, he also doesn’t get a ton of plane on his pitches, but pitching from the left side will help to neutralize that a bit.
Fantasy Impact: Perez could help the Astros as soon as next season. While he doesn’t have a huge upside, he could be a useful back of the rotation pitcher for deeper fantasy leagues.
Highest Level: Majors, ETA: 2017, Fantasy Ceiling: Corner Infielder
JD Davis got off to a fast start in Double-A to begin the 2017 season and things didn’t cool down until he received his big league promotion in August. While his on-base percentage was only .279 in 24 games, he did manage to flex his 70-grade power and hit four home runs.
Prior to his big league promotion, he was having a career year. In 87 games in the Texas League, he hit .279 with 21 home runs and improved that once he got to Triple-A. He also controlled the strike zone better, striking out less (24%) and even walking a bit more. He clearly has the power to have a big league career, so his success will center on his ability to show more patience and cut down his strikeouts.
Scouting Report: At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Davis has the size and strength to profile as a power-hitting third baseman. The swing can get long and consequently there will always be swing and miss in his game. He’s also fooled by good breaking stuff.
While he did show greater patience at the plate last season, I’m not convinced that it’s a sustainable skill. If he pushes his walk rate to 10%, that combined with a 25% strikeout rate and 25 to 30 home run potential could give him a major league career.
Davis is a good defender at third with surprisingly good footwork. He has a cannon for an arm that fans got a chance to see last season in a blowout loss in September. He threw in the low-90’s with a surprisingly good curveball.
Fantasy Impact: Davis is likely behind Bregman and Moran for playing time in Houston and is, therefore, a candidate for a trade over the next year. The ceiling is a low batting average player with the potential for 20 to 25 home runs annually.
Highest Level: Triple-A, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 Catcher
Statistically, Garrett Stubbs did not have a very good season in 2017. In 98 across Double and Triple-A, he only hit .232 with a .321 SLG. He did continue to show very good plate patience, walking over 11% of the time. Plus, his poor batting average could be partially explained by a very low .265 BABIP. Once that corrects, his batting average should pop back to the .270 range with a .350 plus on-base percentage.
I’m not ready to give up on Stubbs and neither are the Astros. They love his receiving skills and believe he will hit enough to get full-time at-bats at the highest level. He’ll likely begin 2018 back in Triple-A with a chance to see some late-season playing time in Houston.
Scouting Report: When discussing the size of a catcher, we are usually debating a player that is too big for the position. However, at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, the discussion around Stubbs is whether or not he’s too small for the position.
I had a chance to see him catch in the Arizona Fall League in 2016 and he looked nimble with a good arm and a decent ability to frame pitches. I didn’t get a time on his throws to second. In the one game I saw, I was ok with his performance.
Offensively, the skills are intriguing and a little perplexing. He controls the strike zone extremely well, walking nearly as much as he strikes out. He has good bat speed but his swing is really more geared towards contact. He’s now had two years of 10 home runs followed by eight. I think that’s about where his power will be – 10 to 12 home runs.
What he can do is run and he’s not afraid to show that skill. That in combination with his ability to hit presents a very unique skill set that you just don’t see behind the plate. Will he be successful? Based on what I saw, I think he’s athletic enough to pull it off. If he can’t stay behind the plate, he could move to the outfield or more likely second base in the future.
Fantasy Impact: A catcher who could hit .280 with 15 stolen bases and a handful of home runs would be unique. While it would take some reconfiguring of a fantasy team, particularly in a roto league format, the benefit of 15 stolen bases and a batting average from a catcher far outweigh a typical catcher who hits .230 with 12 home runs. That said, there is still risk that he won’t stay behind the plate. However, if there’s room, Dynasty League owners should consider adding him.
Highest Level: High-A, ETA: 2020, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 Starter or Reliever
After three minor league seasons, Hector Perez is still a project. He’s a kid with a big arm but just doesn’t have a clue where the ball is going. In 222 innings in his professional career, he’s posted an impressive 2.91 ERA, striking out 10.5 per nine but he’s also walked 5.5 batters per nine. Last year it was more of the same.
He spent most of the season in Buies Creek North Carolina where he once again struck out 10.5 per nine but also walked 6.75 per nine. He also only gave up 69 hits in 89.1 innings giving up six home runs.
Scouting Report: Perez has two double-plus pitches in his fastball and slider. The fastball can touch 96 to 97 MPH and his slider is hard to pick up. He doesn’t always throw it for strikes but the tilt on the pitch makes it a nasty offering.
The Astros will continue to work with Perez next season but after that, if there are no measurable control improvements, he will likely be shifted to the pen. If that happens, his fastball could improve a grade and possibly hit triple-digits. That, when combined with his nasty slider, will get big league batters out.
Fantasy Impact: Perez is a name to remember but is not a name to be rostered yet in a Dynasty League. The arm is electric and with some improved control, he could be an interesting addition to a fantasy team. However, until he shows a walk rate closer to four than seven, he’s simply a guy to monitor.
2018 Emerging Prospect
Gilberto Celestino was one of the big 2015 bonus babies signing a $2.5 million dollar contract out of the Dominican Republic. He has a nice all-around set of tools with plus bat speed and a feel for hitting. In 59 games last season in the Appy League, he hit four home runs with 10 stolen bases while walking 10% of the time. He did strike out too much but that should improve as he gains more experience.