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Houston Astros

Original Published Date: January 3, 2017

astrosThe Houston Astros lived and died by Dallas Keuchel over the past two years.  In 2015, he was great and the Astros made the playoffs and Keuchel went on to win the CY Young. Last season, he was terrible and the Astros were never able to get over the 11 wins that Keuchel won in 2015 but did not in 2016.  They ultimately missed the playoffs.

The Astros have built a very good team that is built on an impressive framework of scouting and player development.  They do need a pitcher to put at the top-of-the-rotation and while I like Francis Martes, David Paulino and Franklin Perez a lot, they are likely number two or number three starters.  That’s not a bad thing, but usually a Championship team has that MadBum or Jon Lester type of stud.

From a bat standpoint, Kyle Tucker has a chance to be a very good player and should hit the upper-minors in the second half of 2017.  I’m still very bullish on Derek Fisher and believe he could be an impact bat at the highest level.  Coming up quickly are two later round draft picks in Ramon Laureano and Garrett Stubbs.  Both are very interesting prospects that could contribute to the big league club as soon as next season.

The Astros minor league system continues to be very deep with prospects at all levels.  Assuming they add a few free agents and continue to see growth at the major league level, the team should compete for a Championship for at least the next five years.

Kyle Tucker (OF)

Highest Level: High-A, ETA: 2018-19, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 OF

Drafted as the number five overall player in the 2015 MLB Draft, Kyle Tucker has had very little resistance in his apprenticeship in the minor leagues to-date.  He spent most of the season in Low-A where he slashed .276/.348/.402 in 101 games.  He also added six home runs and 31 stolen bases.  In August, the Astros promoted him to Lancaster where in 16 games, he fell in love with the extreme hitters environment of the California League.  He posted a 1.096 OPS with three home runs with more walks than strikeouts.

The Astros will likely start Tucker back in Lancaster to begin the 2017 season with an excellent chance to finish the year in Corpus Christie of the Texas League.  As has been their practice, he should also spend the fall in Arizona to continue his training before seeing the majors sometime in 2018.

Scouting Report:  At 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, Tucker has the ideal size that teams are looking for in an outfielder.  His best tool is his ability to hit.  The swing is simple with plenty of bat speed and enough loft that he should project to have at least average future power.  He has a very mature approach at the plate, already showing the ability to control the strike zone.  If he progresses like I think he will, the upside is a .300 hitter with 20 home runs.

He’s an average runner and while the 32 stolen bases he posted this year were impressive, I don’t expect him to steal bases at that clip as he progresses to the upper-minors.  While the Astros will likely play him across all three outfield positions next year, he profiles best as a corner outfielder.

Fantasy Impact:  While he’s still two years away from the big leagues, Tucker has a chance to be an impact fantasy player in the mold of Miami Marlins, Christian Yelich.  He has a great hit tool and enough bat speed to project to hit 20 home runs.  If you add 10 to 15 stolen bases, his ceiling is a top 50 player in fantasy.

Francis Martes (RHP)

Highest Level: Double-A, ETA: 2017, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP or Closer

Francis Martes was one of the true pop-up players in 2015, going from near obscurity to number 63 on our pre-season Top 100 list.  After another solid season, he’ll move even higher in our rankings to begin the 2017 season

In 22 starts in Double-A, he posted a 3.30 ERA, striking out 9.41 per nine, reducing his walk rate to 3.38 per nine.  The Astros wanted to give him a few more innings so they sent him to the Arizona Fall League where he continued to put up equally impressive numbers.  In 25 innings, he struck out 25 while walking nine.  While he just turned 21 in November, he’s just about ready to bring his game to the highest level and that should happen sometime in 2017.

Scouting Report:  I had a chance to see Martes in an outing in the Arizona Fall League and came away impressed, but with some concerns.  First, Martes has premium stuff.  His fastball sits 95 to 96 MPH, bumping 97 MPH.  While it has extreme velocity, it’s pretty straight and I do worry that big leaguers will be able to catch-up with it.  His breaking pitch is a combination slider/curve, although it has more characteristics of a curve than a slider.  The break has an 11-to-5 break but is thrown at 83 to 84 MPH.  The break can get pretty tight though, which is why I think it also has some slider characteristic.  Regardless, it’s a plus pitch that missed plenty of bats.  He also throws a change-up that is not quite to the level of his fastball and curve but is pretty good in it’s own right.

While the stuff is premium, although I wish he had more movement on his fastball, I didn’t particularly like the delivery.  First, at 6-feet-1 and 225 pounds, Martes looks shorter and heavier to me.  He definitely has a wide lower-half but whether he’s 6-feet-1 or shorter, he doesn’t get a lot of plane on his pitches but does pitch in the lower-half of the zone. To-date, he’s not been homer-prone.  Secondly, there is effort in his delivery and that could ultimately lead him to the bullpen.  If it does, he has late inning closer written all over him.

Fantasy Impact:  Martes has one of the best arms in the minor leagues and will rank high on our pre-season Top 100 list.  He has the ceiling of a number two starter but with his delivery, could be moved to the bullpen.  Regardless, it should be a win-win for fantasy owners.

David Paulino (RHP)

Highest Level: Majors, ETA: 2016, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP

I’ve seen both Francis Martes and David Paulino and while I ranked Martes higher, I wouldn’t be surprised if Paulino turns out to be the more valuable pitcher.  In a word, he shoved-it last season.

He started the season in Double-A where he was pitching to a 1.86 ERA when he missed time with a sore elbow.  After a six week absence, he returned to pitch a game in Double-A, three in Triple-A before getting the call to the majors in September.

Overall in the minors, he threw 90 innings, pitching to a 2.00 ERA, striking out 10.8 per nine while walking under two per nine. To make up for lost time, the Astros sent him to the Arizona Fall League where he pitched exclusively in relief; picking up a save in the process.  Was this a harbinger of a future role?  I’m not sure but I’ve always viewed Paulino as a starter.

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.  In 48 games (39 starts) in the minor leagues, he has given up a total of six home runs.

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 curve ball 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.  In fact, he should be owned in most redraft leagues entering 2017.  He’ll likely start the year in Triple-A, but could be up by May to help the big league club.  The upside is impressive with a strikeout an inning, if not more and better than league average ratios.  I’ve put his fantasy ceiling as a top 30 pitcher but it could be more.

Derek Fisher (OF)

Highest Level: Triple-A, ETA: 2017, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 OF

I have been high on Derek Fisher ever since the Astros drafted him in the supplemental first round of the 2014 MLB Draft.  He has an impressive combination of speed and power that continues to show promise as he moves his game to the upper levels of the minor leagues.

In 129 games across Double and Triple-A, he posted an .815 OPS with 21 home runs and 28 stolen bases.  He did strike out too much, posting a 27% strikeout rate but he was able to post a .367 OBP because he also walked 14.6% of the time.  If you add it all up, it’s a dynamic offensive profile that could allow him to see a handful of all-star games as he’ll likely boost his batting average in some years with a high BABIP.

Scouting Report:  I had a chance to see Fisher multiple times over the past two years and have come away impressed every time.  He has a nice lefty swing that has enough leverage to project 20 plus home run future power.  The swing can get a little long but he has quick hands that should allow him to hit .260 to .270.  I didn’t get a great time on him to first, but he’s far from a speedster so the I don’t see him stealing 25 plus stolen bases annually.  I think a better baseline is 12 to 15 stolen bases.

Fantasy Impact:  I’m a big believer in Fisher.  I think there is 20 HR/20 SB ceiling with a more realistic projection of 20/15.  Given his understanding of the strike zone, he will also be an asset in an on-base percentage league with a ceiling of a .350 OBP.  Some owners might be losing patience with Fisher.  Don’t be that guy.  In fact, test the waters in a trade to see if you can buy-low.   I have and will continue to do so in all my leagues.

Franklin Perez (RHP)

Highest Level: Low-A, ETA: 2019, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP

The Astros are nailing it in the Latin pitching market.  First it was Francis Martes, then David Paulino and now Franklin Perez.  While Martes and Paulino were acquired through trades, Perez was signed by the Astros for a million dollars in 2014.  In fact, it was their first significant signing after years of tacitly participating in that important acquisition channel.

Perez has not disappointed and in fact he took it up a notch in 66.2 innings in the Midwest League last season.  In 15 games (10 starts) the 6-foot-3 right-hander posted a 2.84 ERA, striking out 10.13 per nine while only walking 2.5 per nine.  He also did all of this as an 18-year-old, not turning 19 until December.

While he only pitched a half season in Low-A, I think the Astros will be aggressive with Perez; mostly because he handled the level with such ease and assign him to Lancaster to begin the 2017 season.  It’s a tough assignment that has stalled pitchers with higher pedigrees but because of his polish and pitchability, I think he’ll do just fine.

Scouting Report: Perez has the rare combination of size, stuff and pitchability that could allow him to pitch at the top of the rotation one day.  His arsenal is solid with a fastball that sits 92 to 94 MPH.  However, he’s still growing and the belief is that he could add a mile or two before he turns 20.  If that happens, his ceiling will take a big step up.  His best secondary pitch is a curve ball that can already miss bats.  He also shows a feel for a change-up but unlike many young pitchers, it’s more developed and missing bats.

While the arsenal is impressive, it’s made even better because Perez throws strikes.  In fact, the Astros are so impressed with his ability to throw strikes that they are working on his command to enable him to move his pitches just outside the zone.

Fantasy Impact:  Perez has a ceiling of a number two starter.  Could he pass both Paulino and Martes on this list?  Sure, it’s all there.  He just needs time to develop and work on commanding his arsenal.  If he’s on your waiver wire, I would be jumping in now.

Ramon Laureano (OF)

Highest Level: Double-A, ETA: 2017-18, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF

Readers ask me all the time for a “tip” on a player – kind of like a tip on a stock.  The internet in combination with so much free analysis has made tips on stocks as well as baseball players nearly non-existent.  Companies listed on all the major exchanges are all public with balance sheets and all the necessary documentation.  For baseball players, the transactions are all public as well; including detailed breakdown on almost every player drafted.

Even with all the information available on baseball players, I was caught flatfooted in the third inning of a Rancho Cummamgo game last summer when a scout asked me had I ever seen Ramon Laureano.  My brain was going a million miles an hour…huh, err…who…   The Astros kid.  “Ahhh…I’m going to see him tomorrow night”, I responded…ok, I lied.  “Gone…promoted last week”.  I shook my head and wrote the name down, or tried to…I didn’t even know how to spell it.  I guess I got a tip…one that I quickly researched and asked about and soon became a believer.

Laureano was drafted in the 16th round of the 2014 MLB Draft from a Junior College in Oklahoma.  After a decent 2015 season, he broke out in a big way last season.  Splitting time between High and Double-A, he hit .319 with 15 home runs and 43 stolen bases.  He did strike out too much, posting a 23% strikeout rate but did walked over 13% of the time.  It was a great season, one of the best performances in all of the minor leagues; which has put the 22-year-old outfielder squarely on the prospect map.

Scouting Report:  I finally got a chance to see Laureano in the Arizona Fall League in October and left extremely impressed.  He has great bat speed which should allow him to hit for average power at the highest level.  He’s a plus runner and can really play the outfield.  He’s also short to the ball but does expand the strike zone and that is leading to his high strikeout rate.  Hopefully over time this will improve.  Overall, it’s a dynamic profile, with the best news being that the stat line matches my scouting report.

Extracting this level of value out of a 16th round pick is clearly a success for the Astros scouting and player development teams.  With only 36 games played in Corpus Christi, Laureano will likely start 2017 back in the Texas League, but should see Triple-A by the second half.  Assuming he plays well, I think he’ll see time in Houston at some point as well.

Fantasy Impact:  Laureano has very fantasy friendly tools and therefore he might just sneak into the back-end of my Top 100.  It’s clearly time to jump on the bandwagon as the power and speed combination could produce fantasy goodness – and soon.

Forrest Whitley (RHP)

Highest Level: Short Season, ETA: 2019-20, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 SP

The Astros were drafting in the unusual slot of 17th in the 2016 MLB Draft and decided to go for pure upside when they drafted high school right-hander, Forrest Whitley.  The Astros wasted little time in signing the 6-foot-7 pitcher, assigning him first to their GCL affiliate before moving him to the Appy League to finish the season.

In eight games (six starts), Whitley posted a 4.82 ERA, striking out 26 and walking six in 18.2 innings.  What impressed me the most were his six walks.  You just don’t see that level of control in an 18-year-old kid who could play power forward on the basketball court.   Usually pitchers with long levers take a while to develop but perhaps Whitley will be an outlier.

Scouting Report: Whitley has all the characteristics to become a solid 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 to excite the Astros and give Whitley a chance for a long professional career.

Fantasy Impact:  There’s a lot to like with Whitley and in fact, he might just make our Top 100 list.  He’s very advanced for a teenage pitcher, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he moves through the system quickly.  The ceiling is a number three starter with good strikeout totals and better-than-average ratios.

Teoscar Hernandez (OF)

Highest Level: Majors, ETA: 2016, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 OF

Signed before the arrival of Jeff Lunhow and the current regime, Teoscar Hernandez has been making steady progress through the Astros organization and finally made his major league debut last season.  He played well, hitting .230 with four home in 41 games.  What he didn’t do was steal a base which was surprising given he stole over 30 bases the last three years in the minor leagues; including 2016.

While his upside is not at the level of some of the other elite players in the Astros system, he might be at the right place at the right time to lay claim to center field to begin the 2017 season.  That said, I’m writing this in November, before the winter meetings, so the Astros could acquire a player that could move Hernandez back to the minors.  But for now, he has a chance to make an impact next season.

Scouting Report:  Hernandez’s carrying tool is his double-plus speed that allowed him to average well above 30 stolen bases the last three years in the minor leagues.  He has good bat speed and enough raw power to dream on 15 home runs once he fills out.  His approach at the plate, which had been holding him back, has taken a step up.  He’s more patient and has cut down his strikeouts.  That wasn’t the case in his major league debut where he posted a 25% strikeout rate, but in Double and Triple-A, he was controlling the strike zone much better.

Fantasy Impact: Hernandez has all the tools to be an impact fantasy contributor.  He has 15 home run potential to go along with 30 stolen bases.  If the hit tool continues to improve, he could be a Top 30 outfielder.  He needs playing time.  Will he get that next season in Houston?  I hope so but the Astros are playoff contenders and they might decide to bring in experience in the outfield.  If that happens, Hernandez could quickly become trade bait.

Garrett Stubbs (C)

Highest Level: Double-A, ETA: 2017-18, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 10 C

When the Astros drafted Garrett Stubbs in the eighth round of the 2014 MLB Draft, I candidly ignored it.  It shows both the biases you develop doing this work as well as the time crunch that makes it impossible to follow every player.

After an excellent senior year at USC in 2015 where Stubbs hit .347 and won the Johnny Bench award for the top college catcher (yeah I know, that should have clued me in), the Astros signed him for a $100,000 signing bonus.  He lacked power in college but showed the ability to steal bases, swiping 20 in his senior.  He also controlled the strike zone extremely well.  Once he started his professional career, he kept hitting, stealing bases but also developed some pop.  It’s the home runs that got my attention and the reason he makes our list.

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 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.  The 10 home runs he hit last season are curious as he didn’t hit any in 2015 and only hit one home run in his four years in college. If they were all popped in the California League, that would have been understandable, but he also hit four in 114 at-bats in Double-A; and another in his brief time in the AFL.  While I don’t see a slugger, he could hit upper single-digit home runs at the highest level.

What he can do is run and he’s not afraid to show that skill.  He stole 15 of 18 bases in 2016 and added another in the AFL.  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.

Miguelangel Sierra (SS)

Highest Level: Short Season, ETA: 2020, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 10 SS with extreme risk

The Astros signed Miguelangel Sierra in 2014 and penned him to a million dollar signing bonus as a quick twitch, athletic shortstop who could be another option when the inevitable move of Carlos Carrera to third happens.  After showing promise in 2015 in the Dominican Summer League, the Astros started him off in the GCL where he became a power hitter.  In 31 games, he slugged .610 with 11 home runs.  He also struck out 28% of the time.

His contact got worse when he was promoted to the Valley Cats of the New York Penn League prompting the Astros to work with him on getting back to basics – being short to the ball and making contact.

Scouting Report:  Despite his ups-and-downs, there’s a lot to like with Sierra.  He’s a good athlete with nice bat speed who already has a decent understanding of the strike zone.  He needs to learn to stay within himself; make contact and get on base.  He’s a plus runner and should be able to steal 15 to 20 bases annually.

He’s also a plus defender and that will be his ticket to the big leagues.  His ability to hit will decide whether his role will be a utility player or a potential starting shortstop.  Since he just turned 19 in December, I don’t think it’s fair to pin yet where he likely will fall.  I will say that people like him a lot and believe he has a chance to be a significant contributor at the highest level.

Fantasy Impact:  Sierra is a reach for the top 10 but I had so many good reports that I decided to include him.  I wouldn’t yet draft him in a Dynasty League but keep an eye on him, there could be something there.

2017 Emerging Prospect

Jorge Alcala (RHP)

Jorge Alcala was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2014 as an arm strength guy.  He has a double-plus fastball that sits in the upper nineties with the ability to spin a curve.  Both pitches need a lot of work, especially his curve ball, but he made very good progress last season and should be a kid on the rise.  That could be as a bullpen arm but he does have the size to eventually start.

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