|Original Published Date: Dec. 27, 2013|
There’s no denying that the Houston Astros have been historically bad over the past three years, but help is on the way…really!
Since the sale of the team in 2011 and the hiring of Jeff Luhnow, the focus has been on reviving a minor league system that was easily a bottom five system, if not the worse. As Astros fans know well, they traded every one of their veterans for prospects and while that helped, receiving the number one pick three years in a row, helped even more.
Mark Appel and Carlos Correa have all-star potential with the chance to contribute in Houston by 2015 and 2016 respectfully. George Springer did his best Mike Trout impersonation in the minor leagues and could be an impact player as soon as next year despite some significant swing and miss in his game.
Looking for more power? The Astros also have power hitting first baseman Jonathon Singleton, who despite a down year in 2013 is nearly big league ready. Possibly ready next year or by 2015 is Domingo Santana, a right field slugger who could pop 30 home runs but not without his share of swing and miss.
Looking for power arms? The Astros have some of them as well. Mike Foltynewicz and Lance McCullers have plus-plus velocity and in Foltynewicz case, hits 100+ on the radar gun in nearly every outing. Both are a grade behind Appel but are stacked with upside.
Looking for speed? The Astros have Delino DeShields, who has stolen 150 bases over the past two seasons.
Looking for another potential stud pitcher? The Astros pick number one again in 2014 and assuming NC State lefty Carlos Rodon does not suffer an injury, the Astros will draft one of the best college pitchers since Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg.
It’s clearly a stacked organization, but besides Appel and Correa, every other player in the system has question marks; in some cases significant question marks. However, you can say that about every organization.
|2014 Age: 19||Ceiling: Role 7
|Ht:6-4 Weight: 205||Bats: Right Throws: Right||ETA: 2015-16|
If you want to find stars in the minor leagues, look for players who excel in a level where they are significantly younger than their competition. As the second youngest player in the Midwest League, that defines Carlos Correa. In 450 at-bats, he posted a .320/.405/.467 slash line with nine home runs and 10 stolen bases.
At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Correa is big and athletic. He has premium bat speed that he combines with leverage to give hope of future power potential. The hit tool is also impressive as he makes solid hard contact with excellent strike zone awareness. It’s a mature approach and quite impressive for a teenager who just turned 19-years-old.
His size does have it’s disadvantages as many question whether he’ll outgrow shortstop. I’m not as sure as the athleticism is quite impressive and he is able to cover a lot of ground with a plus arm. While you never like to put “comps” on a player, the comparisons to Troy Tulowitzki are clearly evident. He has similar size, power potential, and defensive actions.
The Astros did keep the training wheels on Correa during 2013. This was partially due to his age and the state of the Astros organization. There is no reason to rush a player with his upside when Houston has no chance of competing over the next couple of years. In fact, don’t be surprised if he spends most of the 2014 season in Lancaster of the California League. Given the wind and dry conditions of “The Hanger”, it could be quite an offensive year for the “future” of the Houston Astros.
Fantasy Impact: Assuming Correa stays at shortstop, he could easily be a Top three player at his position. He could flirt annually with a .300 batting average with 20 plus home runs. Additionally, his on base percentage could be quite impressive and this should translate into high run totals. He’s a must own in all Dynasty League formats and is a Top 10 prospect in all of baseball.
|2014 Age: 21||Ceiling: #1 starter|
|Ht: 6-5 Weight: 190||Bats: Right Throws:Right
It’s unusual that a four-year senior is taken 1:1 in a draft. However, Mark Appel’s journey to professional baseball was…well…unusual.
During the 2012 draft, Appel was considered a Top 3 selection on most draft boards but because of perceived draft demands, he fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates who took him with the 8th pick. With limited money to spend based on the rules set forth in the 2012 collective bargaining agreement, Appel did not sign and instead, elected to enter the draft again in 2013. It all worked out for him as he signed a $6.35 million dollar signing bonus and began his professional career in July.
On paper, Appel has ace potential. He has two plus pitches in his four-seam fastball and slider. The fastball sits 93-95 MPH and can touch higher. In his junior year, Appel reportedly hit triple digits routinely.
His money pitch is his slider. It sits 85-86 MPH with a tight two-plane break that shows a lot of deception. He also throws a change-up that grades out as a solid-average offering with the chance to be more than that.
How did the arsenal translate in his first professional season? In his eight starts in the Midwest League, he had a 3.82 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP with a 27K/9BB strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 innings. He also used his size to an advantage as he produced an impressive 2.45 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio. While it was good, candidly, he didn’t dominate. Yes, it was a small sample size but the scouting reports were not glowing as his fastball was labeled as “flat”.
“Flat” fastballs are generally a by-product of a lack of deception or the lack of momentum in the delivery. In reviewing his mechanics, there is clearly no problem with his momentum and extension to the plate. In fact, the momentum is one of the best I’ve ever seen. The stride is crazy long, and with his athleticism, he is also able to maintain his balance on his landing. It’s quite impressive! The delivery though does lack deception. Batters do seem to get a long look at his pitches and that could explain why his strikeout rates were down.
If you add it all up, Mark Appel has a plus arsenal to go along with plus pitching mechanics that should allow him to repeat his delivery and maintain above-average control. Despite the lack of deception in his delivery, he’s got front-of-the-rotation potential with a ceiling of a number one and the floor of at least a number three if not more.
Given that the Astros are still two to three years away from competing at the major league level, there isn’t a burning need to promote Appel to the majors in 2014. I would expect the Astros to start him off in Corpus Christi in the Texas League with a mid-season promotion to Oklahoma City. Could he get a spot start in September to show the Astros fans what is on the horizon? Possibly, but 2015 is more likely.
Fantasy Impact: Mark Appel has the tools to be a Top 20 pitcher in all of baseball. While I don’t think he’ll have a crazy strikeout rate, he should be able to post eight K’s per nine with excellent ratios. Given his size and downward plane he gets on his delivery, he should also keep the ball on the ground to avoid being homer prone.
|2014 Age: 24||Ceiling: Role 6-7
|Ht:6-3 Weight: 200||Bats: Right Throws: Right||ETA: 2014|
Anyway you cut it, George Springer had a monster year in 2013. Sure, there were strikeouts but there was also a slash line of .303/.411/.600 with 37 bombs and 45 stolen bases. Imagine if you could count those stats on your fantasy team? Springer would have provided more value than…gulp…Mike Trout.
First, George Springer is no Mike Trout. Yes, he has incredible tools that start with premium bat speed and a plus-plus run tool, but the swing can get long and that is leading to an ugly 67% contact rate. While his 17% walk rate is indeed impressive, once he makes up his mind to swing – he swings. In particularly, breaking pitches away fool him and this makes him particularly susceptible with two strikes.
The contact rate is so concerning and that it could limit Springer’s ability to tap into his plus power. In fact, I’ve always compared his game to Chris Young. Before you roll your eyes, Young had some extraordinary years in Arizona where he hit 20 plus home runs and stole 20 plus bases. In fact, in his rookie year, Young hit 32 home runs while stealing 27 bases but he also hit .237. That could be Springer.
Springer has little left to prove in the minor leagues but will likely return to Oklahoma City to start 2014. However, I would expect him to arrive in Houston in early June and contribute immediately. With some lift from a high BABIP, Springer should be in the discussion for AL rookie of the year.
Fantasy Impact: While Springer’s swing and miss will be a problem, the home runs and stolen bases he will contribute should make up for his .230-.240 batting average. For on-base percentage leagues, the effect of his poor batting average should be minimized. He’s clearly a must own in a Dynasty League and is a Top 10 fantasy prospect.
|2014 Age: 22||Ceiling: Role 5-6
|Ht:6-2 Weight: 235||Bats: Left Throws: Left||ETA: 2014|
It wasn’t a good year for Jonathan Singleton. First, he was suspended 50 games for getting caught for a second time using a drug of abuse. When he returned to playing, he just wasn’t very good. Poor conditioning was cited as one of the reason for Singleton performing poorly. From reports, the bat looked slow and the overall effort was poor.
If you’re looking for a ray of light, Singleton did improve in August after posting a .178/.274/.300 slash line in 90 at-bats in July. His August still wasn’t great, but at least he toyed with a .400 slugging percentage. Clearly there is concern and it’s not necessarily because of getting popped twice for drugs. It was how he looked after the suspension that had my sources concerned. One source commented that “…if you didn’t know it was Jonathan Singleton, you would have assumed the player was an NP (non-prospect)”.
While some are writing off Singleton, I’m not. He’s just a year removed from posting nearly a .500 slugging percentage and .900 OPS in the Texas League. Yes there is swing and miss in the bat, but Singleton has bat speed and a ton of raw power. While his ceiling might have taken a hit, he still profiles as a solid-regular with 25 home run potential, batting number six in what should be a very good Astros lineup in a couple of years. Not a star, but a very good player.
Singleton has looked better in the Puerto Rico Winter League and as of the middle of December is slugging .575. He will likely start the year back in Oklahoma City and I expect a lot better results than in 2013. Expect a call to the majors by June.
Fantasy Impact: Power is at a premium and Singleton has a ton of it. For me, he’s a classic buy-low candidate and I would be reaching out to owners to test the waters in all Dynasty Leagues. It isn’t without risk, but his upside is still 25 home runs, 100 RBI’s and a .250-.260 batting average.
|2014 Age: 22||Ceiling: #3 starter|
|Ht: 6-4 Weight: 200||Bats: Right Throws:Right
After repeating Low-A in 2012, the Astros took the training wheels off Mike Foltynewicz in 2013 and he started to show why Houston signed him to a $1.3 million dollar signing bonus.
At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Foltynewicz has the body to log innings and a fastball that he can run up to the upper 90’s. He has the ability to keep the velocity at least into the sixth inning. The reason I say “at least” is that Houston doubled up on starters (splitting games between two pitchers), and this ultimately limited how deep Foltynewicz could go in games. In fact, he only pitched six innings in three starts with eight being his top. You could argue that part of the reason he didn’t pitch deep into games was his lack of control. While true, there were many games that he had low pitch counts and was just taken out.
What makes Foltynewicz and intriguing prospect is his fastball. It’s a plus-plus offering that routinely hits the upper nineties and in burst, can hit triple-digits (I had one report that put his peak at 103). He also throws three secondary pitches; a slider, curve, and change-up. All three can miss bats, but all need work.
There seems to be a strong correlation to how hard Foltynewicz throws and his ability to control the arsenal. In looking at his pitching mechanics, the momentum to the plate is outstanding. The extended stride he takes does indeed produce tremendous kinetic energy. However, when he amps it up too much, he loses his balance, which causes his arm slot to move and the result is a ball out of the strike zone.
Foltynewicz is a legitimate talent and prospect. However, he’s still very raw as his secondary pitches are not refined and he needs to learn to control his body better. While the next move for him is Triple-A, the Astros would be wise to have him pitch the entire year there.
Fantasy Impact: Foltynewicz has a ceiling of a number two with a floor of a reliever. It’s all going to come down to whether he can control his arsenal and the progression of his secondary pitches. Currently the pitching mechanics point more towards a bullpen arm but I’m not ready to make that call yet. That said, I think I’m a seller in a fantasy league and would be talking up his 103 MPH fastball to see if you can get a bite.
|2014 Age: 20||Ceiling: #3 starter|
|Ht: 6-2 Weight: 205||Bats: Right Throws:Right
In the 2012 draft, the Astros surprisingly selected Carlos Correa with the number one overall pick providing financial flexibility later in the draft. With this flexibility, they signed Florida high school right-hander Lance McCullers to a $2.5 million dollar signing bonus.
McCullers was well known in the amateur circles and in fact as a sophomore in high school; many people speculated that he could be the number one overall pick in his draft class. While he throws hard and has a nasty plus slider, concern over his mechanics and his overall “lack of feel” for pitching, pushed his draft slot down. That said, he’s clearly a talent and a talent that will eventually have him pitching in the big leagues.
Blessed with tremendous arm strength, McCullers throws really hard. His fastball sits 92-95 MPH and really jumps up on hitters. It’s a plus pitch and in short burst, he can drop 97’s and 98’s. The slider is in a word – “nasty”. It has tight cutting action and is delivered with the same release point as his fastball. He has yet to show a good feel for his change-up and it therefore lags behind. That said, he does have a fairly significant reverse split of (.189 vs. LHB and .278 vs. RHB) which based on his arsenal is a bit puzzling.
McCullers has a classic drop and drive delivery but with a lot of effort. The level of effort has prompted many in the industry to label him as a reliever. While it’s easy to understand that assessment as the effort is leading to some lack of control, his pitching mechanics are actually pretty good. He has above average posture and balance and while he posted a 4.21 BB/9 in 104.2 innings in Low-A, I think there is upside.
After spending the entire year in the Midwest League, McCullers should start 2014 in Lancaster in the California League. It’s a tough assignment but McCullers is a ground ball machine and only gave up three home runs in 2013. I think he’ll be fine and should see Corpus Christi by mid-season.
Starter or reliever? He lacks a third pitch and the delivery has some violence. He also has some recoil in his delivery as he doesn’t completely follow through on his pitches. However, the arm is electric and I believe he’ll enter the majors as a starter. By the time he’s 27-years-old, will he still be a starter? Perhaps not, but for now, I think he’s a starter with a ceiling of a strong three or a number two.
Fantasy Impact: McCullers is a top 150 prospect and should be owned in most Dynasty League formats. He has the potential to deliver a strikeout per inning with a better than league average ERA but a WHIP that is slightly higher. If he does move to the pen, his fastball/slider could be closer-worthy. It’s a win-win scenario for me.
|2014 Age: 21||Ceiling: #3 starter|
|Ht: 6-3 Weight: 203||Bats: Both Throws:Right
With big names like Mike Foltynewicz and Lance McCullers in the system, it’s been easy for Vince Velasquez to fly-under-the-radar. As we enter 2014, I don’t think that will be the case anymore as Velasquez has put himself squarely on the prospect map with a breakout 2013 campaign.
Taken as the 58th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Velasquez pitched 29.1 innings in rookie ball before tearing his UCL in his elbow. He missed the entire 2011 season while rehabbing from Tommy John reconstructive surgery. Velasquez came back strong in 2012 but really excelled in 2013. He posted a 3.54 ERA while striking out over ten per nine and walking just under three per nine.
Velasquez is primarily a fastball/change-up pitcher with a curve ball that lags behind. The fastball sits 90-93 MPH but can touch higher in short burst. His out-pitch is his change-up which already grades out as a plus pitch. The curve lacks consistency and therefore effectiveness. Since he doesn’t have a high three-quarters delivery, he could move to a slider, as that pitch is easier to throw.
While his fastball/change-up combination could be special, he’ll need to develop at a minimum a “show me” breaking pitch in order to be effective at the highest level. The success he has with his breaking pitch will ultimately dictate his ceiling. With the control he has already demonstrated and an average breaking pitch, his ceiling could be a strong three or two. Without it, he’ll be a fringe-average pitcher.
Fantasy Impact: I really like Velasquez and in many ways more than McCullers and Foltynewicz. Why? He can throw strikes and his delivery is easy and clean. The arsenal is not at the same level but the change-up is really good. With more instructions, he could provide strikeout totals in the 8.0-9.0 range with better than league average ratios.
|2014 Age: 21||Ceiling: Role 5
|Ht:5-9 Weight: 205||Bats: Right Throws: Right||ETA: 2015|
I’ve had a chance to see Delino DeShields play multiple times during 2013 and candidly, I just don’t know what to make of him.
While the tool-set is quite nice with good bat speed, a plus run tool, and the ability to make contact and control the strike zone, there’s something about him that turns me off. First, at a listed 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, he’s bigger than you would expect for someone who stole over 150 bases in the last two years. He looks more like a full back than a quick-twitch baseball player. While the speed grades out as plus, I question how long it will last.
Secondly and more concerning is the effort level. I’ve seen him “dog it” to first base on “sure outs” and assume things on the baseball field are going to happen and then they don’t. I saw it during games in the California League as well as the Arizona Fall League. Others have noticed and brought this to my attention. Is this part of a maturation process or something more? I’m not sure.
That said, on paper, he looks great. He posted a .317/.405/.468 slash line in the hitter-friendly confines of “The Hanger” in the California League. Also encouraging is the improvement he made as the season progressed. In the middle of May, he was batting in the .230’s with a .300 OBP. He caught fire and started driving the ball better and ended up as one of the best players in the league. He also continued to perform well in the Fall League and looks ready for Double-A.
So you see…I just don’t know. Maybe I’ve seen so much of DeShields that I’ve seen both the good and bad – and that’s just baseball. Expect him to start 2014 in the Corpus Christi of the Texas League with the chance to see Houston in 2015.
Fantasy Impact: Delino DeShields could be a monster fantasy contributor with the ability to steal 40+ bases and bat at the top of the lineup. However, there are potential make-up issues as well as how long the speed will last that have me concerned about his overall ceiling. While it’s hard to sell high on a player who has 100 stolen bases on his baseball resume, I would strongly consider moving DeShields in a fantasy league.
9. Domingo Santana (OF)
Domingo Santana was ranked number four on our list last year and while he had a very similar year in 2013, the system has just gotten better. The profile is still the same – huge raw power with a ton of contact problems. In 417 at-bats in the Texas League, he belted 25 home runs but also had a 67% contact rate. While the contact is clearly a problem, he does have good awareness of the strike zone as was evident by his 46 walks. However, the long leveraged swing is the main culprit and I doubt that will change drastically as he progresses. Santana profiles as a power right-fielder and while he’s likely to hit .220 with an on-base percentage of .310, he could also hit 30 home runs.
10. Rio Ruiz (3B)
The Astros took some of the money they saved from signing Carlos Correa with the first pick in the 2012 draft and used it to land high school third baseman Rio Ruiz. Things started off poorly for the teenager in his first exposure to full-season ball as he posted a .205/.318/.299 slash line through May. However, as the weather warmed, so do Ruiz. He finished the year with a very good line of .260/.335/.430. When you see Ruiz play, it’s the swing that reels you in. It’s compact and level and is built for contact. While some question how much power he will eventual have, I’m not as worried and see average to above-average power in the bat.
Things should get fun for Ruiz in 2014 as he should open the year at “The Hanger”. While I don’t see a star, Ruiz could be a solid regular at third base with an above average hit tool and power combination.
2014 Emerging Prospect:
Josh Hader (RHP)
There were a lot of candidates for the Astros emerging prospect including Michael Feliz and Teoscar Hernandez, but I went with former Orioles farmhand, Josh Hader. Hader, a lefty, was part of the deal that sent Bud Norris to the Orioles. He has a three pitch mix that consists of a 90-92 MPH fastball that can touch higher, a decent curve, and a change-up that still needs a lot of work. What makes him unique is his delivery. It has a lot of funk and is really hard to pick-up. He’s particularly tough on lefties as they batted a putrid .149. I believe Hader’s floor is a lefty specialist, but with some improvements in his secondary pitches, he has the ceiling of a number four starter.