|Original Published Date: January 8, 2019|
The secret behind the Astros success has not only been acquiring players via the draft and international markets and then developing those players into Major League talent, but doing it again, again. The Cubs did it, won the World Series but now the system is bare. The Astros system is not. Granted, it’s not as deep as it once was, but the system is still very deep with several impact players nearly big league ready.
Forrest Whitely is the best pitching prospect in the game and should see Houston in early 2019. Not far behind is Kyle Tucker, one of the best outfield prospects in the game. Both have impact potential with a chance to make multiple All-Star appearances. Yordan Alvarez and Corbin Martin are also Top 100 prospects and are nearly big league ready and while they might be a step down from Whitely/Tucker, still have impact potential. It doesn’t end with these four as there are high upside arms and toolsy players that dot all levels of the organization. Some will see Houston and others will be used as assets to bring in more established players. They did it right and is why they should have a very long window before even considering a rebuilding process.
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1. Forrest Whitley (RHP)
Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 SP
The Astros had hoped to use Forrest Whitely at some point during the 2018 season, but things didn’t go according to plan. First, he started the year on the suspension list after testing positive for PEDs. Once back, he pitched well but then hit the Disabled List in August with a Lat strain. The net result is he only pitched 26.1 innings last season, all in Double-A.
With so few innings pitched, he did spend the entire fall in the Arizona Fall League where I was able to take in one of his starts. I went through some definite emotions in his outing. In the first inning, he was consistently hitting 95 to 96 with his fastball that also had a lot of movement. The only secondary pitch he threw was his curveball which wasn’t working, and he looked frustrated. However, as the game wore on, things started to click. He started throwing strikes and by the fourth inning, his secondary pitches smoothed out and he was able to throw everything for strikes with at leave average command. While I loved the fastball, the best pitch was a nasty changeup that fooled every hitter. His curveball and slider were also well above-average pitches, but the changeup was money.
If you add it all up, Whitley has size, a double-plus fastball and changeup and three different breaking pitches (slider, cutter, and curveball) that can also miss bats. His control and command are not there yet, but he’s athletic enough for me to believe that it will come.
The only red flag I saw was his delivery was a little short. I wouldn’t call it a short-arm delivery, but he could clearly extend further. Perhaps he’s doing that to control his arsenal better.
Whitley is arguably the best pitcher in the minor leagues, although if he can stay healthy, my money is still on Alex Reyes. Regardless, it’s a profile of an ace that should get plenty of time in the Major Leagues next season.
2. Kyle Tucker (OF)
Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 OF
Kyle Tucker’s first 28 games in the major leagues did go well. He hit .141 and did not leave the yard. While I’m sure he was frustrated, instead of pouting, he took it out on the minor league pitchers slashing .332/.400/.590 with 24 home runs and 20 stolen bases.
While Tucker has all the tools to become a star in the major leagues, I still must point out that there is a hitch in his swing. Yes, longtime readers, I’m sure are tired of me pointing this out. But, it does bother me. I do not attribute this to his poor major league debut as the sample size is just too small to make any determination. But, the power is real and early in his career, he’s going to steal bases. In fact, he could be a 20/20 contributor through his mid-20’s before a trail off in speed is likely. But that speed could be replaced by home runs as he’ll fill out and get stronger.
With the necessary caveat, Tucker has star potential. He could easily become a top 30 pick in a fantasy league as early as 2020. For the savvy fantasy player, yes, I’m predicting a potentially monster season in 2019 that could rival Vlad Jr. and Eloy.
3. Yordan Alvarez (OF/1B)
Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF or Top 15 1B
Yordan Alvarez had another quality season in 2018 slashing .293/.369/.534 with 20 home runs in 88 games across Double and Triple-A. Once again though, he spent time on the Disabled List and did not play the entire season.
At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Alvarez is a big kid, but his swing is more compact than you would think with plenty of bat speed. Sure, he’s going to strikeout, but it’s going to be in the mid to low 20’s and when you combine that with a high walk rate, he projects to hit .270 with a .350 plus OBP. Throw-in 30 plus home run potential, you begin to understand why I’m so bullish.
In the short term, his problem will be finding playing time. The Astros have moved him to the outfield to give him more defensive flexibility, but his glove works better at first. However, the outfield and first are both filled in Houston, so I’m not sure where he plays. Of course, the season is long, and people get hurt and if that happens, Alvarez should be able to pounce on the opportunity.
4. Corbin Martin (RHP)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019-20 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP
The Astros have really cleaned up Corbin Martin’s delivery since drafting him in the second round in the 2017 MLB Draft and consequently, his ceiling has gone up. That was evident when he started the year in High-A and in 19 innings did not give up a run striking out 26 along the way. He spent the remainder of the season in Double-A posting a 2.97 ERA striking out over eight per nine while walking less than three per nine.
In cleaning up his delivery, his stuff and control took a tick up. His fastball now sits 94 to 95 MPH with three workable secondary pitches. Unfortunately, none of his secondary pitches grade out as plus, but he can throw all of them for strikes which helps his entire arsenal play well.
Martin is now on the fast path to the Major Leagues and could see time their next season. The upside is a mid-rotation starter but if the secondary pitches continue to improve, there could be more in the tank.
5. Josh James (RHP)
Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Closer or Top 45 SP
Josh James might have been the biggest pop-up player in the minor leagues last season. He went from a kid with a good arm who had well below-average control to striking out over 13 per nine while walking just under four per nine. While the walk rate is still below-average, the Astros could not ignore the incredible strikeout rate and gave him a September call-up where he pitched even better.
From a fantasy standpoint, Josh James has blown up. Owners are intrigued by the upper 90s fastball and the high strikeout rate. However, the delivery is a problem and is likely the culprit of his control problems. Sure, he walked fewer in the Major Leagues, but the sample size was only 23 innings. In the end, I think James is a reliever, perhaps a Closer. However, I’m willing to still list the ceiling as also a mid-rotation starter. The stuff is premium, and the Astros have a history of tuning pitchers once they get to the Major Leagues.
6. Seth Beer (OF/DH)
Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 10 DH
In researching Seth Beer, the Astros first-round draft pick last June, the one thing that sticks out is his ability to get on base. In his three-year career at Clemson, he posted a .489 OBP which was 150 points higher than his batting average. The approach is not passive either as he slugged .648 with 56 home runs. With all this offensive goodness, why did he last until 28th overall pick in a poor draft? The simple answer is that he’s a poor defender and at best could play a passable left fielder. His best position will be that of a designated hitter.
Beer’s bat should allow him to move quickly through the system with a chance to hit for a high average and on-base percentage with plenty of power. In a Dynasty League rookie draft, he would be a mid-round target of mine hoping that he figures out his defensive position.
7. J.B. Bukauskas (RHP)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP or Closer
J.B. Bukauskas started the year on the Disabled List after experiencing back pain from a car accident earlier in the year. After rehabbing the injury, he came back in the second half and pitched across five levels posting a 2.14 ERA striking out 11.7 per nine while walking 3.7 per nine. To make up for lost time, the Astros sent him to the Fall League where he also pitched well striking out nearly a batter an inning while also walking 3.7 per nine.
I had to chance to see him the Fall League and liked what I saw. He’s primarily a fastball/slider pitcher with his fastball touching 96 MPH and a plus sider. In fact, the slider was so good, a scout told me during the outing that the pitch could get major leaguers out now. I then added: in the bullpen.
While I like Bukaukas, there is reliever risk. He doesn’t repeat his delivery and that is leading to control problems. While he will continue to work on that, his current arsenal will get guys out in the Major Leagues…NOW. Since the Astros are in a win-now mode, if he’s still in the Astros organization, there’s a good chance he will be promoted next season as a bullpen arm and if he has success, he could stay there long-term.
8. Freudis Nova (SS)
Highest Level: Rookie ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 SS with extreme risk
Last year I added Freudis Nova to most of my Dynasty Leagues. I loved the power/speed combination and from talking with evaluators who laid eyes on him in the DSL last summer, they believed he would hit. This year, it all seems to be coming together for the teenager. In 41 games in rookie ball, he hit .308 with six home runs and nine stolen bases. Sure, he’s only walked six times but assuming he can learn some patience, the Astros could be looking at a very intriguing talent.
While he’s still four to five years away from even sniffing Houston, the upside is a Top 15 fantasy shortstop. He runs well and there plenty of bat speed to suggest a 20-20 player could be in the making. While I love his swing, he’ll need to work on his plate patience for it all to work.
9. Framber Valdez (LHP)
Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 SP
Like Josh James, Framber Valdez came out of nowhere to contribute meaningful innings late in the season for the Astros. In fact, in five starts, he was 4-1 with a 2.19 ERA. While he struck out over eight per nine, he also walked 24 batters in 37 innings of work. While that was well above his minor league career rate of 3.45, the fact is he’s never been able to control his stuff very well.
As opposed to James, Valdez arsenal is a grade below. His fastball sits 92 to 93 MPH, but his curveball is his money pitch. It has a high spin rate and big league batters had trouble picking it up. Will they in the future? I think so, and why I have his ceiling listed as a number four starter instead of a front-of-the-rotation arm.
With all the caution I am showing, Valdez is a lefty and the Astros at the time of this writing need a left-handed starter. Furthermore, I know that the Astros are intrigued by what he did last year and believe he’s taken a step forward in his development. Therefore, don’t be surprised if he gets some starts, particularly early in the season.
10. Myles Straw (OF)
Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 OF with an emphasis on SB
Myles Straw stole 70 bases last year between Double and Triple-A. He also tacked on another two in nine games in the Major Leagues in a September call-up. If you’re thinking that Myles Straw’s carrying tool is his 80-grade speed, you would be correct. The problem is he has 30-grade power, although he did go yard once in those nine big league games.
He makes solid contact with a good approach at the plate and in a perfect situation, could be a classic leadoff hitter. However, as a member of the Houston Astros, he’s a fifth outfielder who might get 200 at-bats yearly. If he’s traded to a rebuilding, could he get more? Surely, but long-term I think he settles in as a classic Major League fourth outfielder who can steal bases with the best of em. Therefore, in a Dynasty League, he needs to be owned. Playing time creeps up and you want to be an owner when that happens to Straw.
11. Garrett Stubbs (C)
Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 Catcher
Dynasty League owners were waiting on the callup of Garrett Stubbs last season, but it just didn’t happen. It wasn’t because of his performance as he hit .310/.382 in 84 with four home runs while adding six stolen bases. While he’s never shown a ton of pop, he can hit, has a little bit of speed and from all accounts is easy to throw to. He even improved his pop times and threw out 45% of would-be base stealers last year.
He turns 26 next May, so he needs to get a chance to show his wares at the highest level. That should come next season and while I don’t think his upside is a first division catcher, I do think he has enough impact to be useful at a position that is just difficult to fill for fantasy owners.
12. Ronnie Dawson (OF)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 OF
Ronnie Dawson was drafted in the second round of the 2016 MLB Draft and continued what is looking like a quick path the Major Leagues. He’s a tooled former football player who is a good runner with plus bat speed. Both tools turned into production last season as he belted 16 home runs and stole 35 bases across High and Double-A. He does expand the strike zone and that led to a 26% contact rate last season.
The physicality of Dawson points to more of a power hitting outfielder instead of a potential 20-20 performer. Sure, he’ll have speed early in career, but he’s already filled out and will likely get larger as he ages, and the result will be a regression of his speed. But the bat speed is real, and I think 20 home runs is doable. If you’re looking for an offensive comparison, I’ll go to Max Kepler. Similar hit tools and athleticism. While Kepler has been an afterthought in fantasy leagues, I still believe we haven’t see the best out of him as he is still new to baseball. The same could be said for Dawson since he spent his formative years playing baseball and basketball.
13. Bryan Abreu (RHP)
Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Closer
The Astros have a ton of hard-throwing pitchers that have a range from a mid-rotation starter to a high-leverage bullpen arm. The difference with their stable of young pitchers and other team’s depth is that the Astros have a history of improving the control of their pitchers so that their stuff plays in the Major Leagues.
Bryan Abreu is one of those hard-throwing pitchers who pitched lights-out last year across the NY Penn League and Low-A. In 54.1 innings, he pitched to a 1.49 ERA striking out 90 while walking 23. He appeared as both a starter and reliever in the Astros tandem pitching approach but when he pitched in shorter relief is where the stuff really played up. Not only can he run his fastball up to the upper 90’s, but his wipeout slider is the money pitch that is his primary out pitch.
14. Cionel Perez (LHP)
Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 SP
After having an impressive year in Double-A, Cionel Perez was rewarded with multiple call-ups to the Major League roster. While the Astros still view him as a starter, he was used exclusively as a reliever in Houston. In doing so, his fastball played up to the mid-90s, but he had trouble controlling his arsenal. That was not the case in Double-A. In 68.1 innings, he pitched to a 1.98 ERA striking out nearly 11 per nine while walking less than three per nine.
While the stuff points to a back-end starter, if the needs arise again in 2019, he could be used out of the bullpen. If that happens, there will not be much fantasy value as I don’t see near-term Closer potential.
15. Alex McKenna (OF)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 OF
With their fourth-round pick in last June’s draft, the Astros grabbed outfielder Alex McKenna. After signing, he was assigned to the New York Penn League where he did nothing but hit. In 32 games, he hit .328/.423 with five home runs and six stolen bases. The effort was rewarded in August when the Astros promoted him to Low-A for the remainder of the season. The sledding was definitely more difficult. While he hit .271, it came with a .367 BABIP and disguised a 31% strikeout rate.
McKenna carrying tool is his ability to make good contact. He is aggressive at the plate though and will need to tone that down as he progresses through the system. He’s a good runner and should be able to steal double-digit bases. While I like the swing, he lacks leverage, so I’m unsure on the level of power he will develop.
He should start the season back in Low-A next season, but given his college pedigree, I would expect him to finish in High-A. The upside for me is a major league regular with a chance to hit .270 but with some challenges on his OBP.