Houston Astros

The draft penalties handed down by Major League baseball have left a mark with the Astros.  The system is in the bottom quartile of baseball but is not completely void of talent. 

Pedro Leon leads the list and has some of the most tantalizing tools in the minor leagues.  He’s still knocking off the rust, but if he can get his strike-out rate under control, he could be an impact performer.  I also like Jeremy Pena.  He’s a great defender who makes solid contact with growing power.  He rarely walks and doesn’t have a ton of speed, but he’s an interesting player to know.

Then there’s Forrest Whitley. The optimist in me says that it was his elbow all along.  Now that he’s had Tommy John Surgery, he’s going to get back to the pitcher we thought he could be.  The pessimist in me says that I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well.  Which side is right?  I don’t know.  But, he’s the key to the system and the Astros extending their window.  If he can pitch at even 80% of what we thought, he’s going to help.

Prospect Quick Shot

  • Top Prospect: Pedro Leon
  • Biggest Mover: Joe Perez
  • Emerging Prospect: Luis Encarnacion

1. Pedro Leon (SS/OF)

  • Highest Level:  Triple-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 SS or Top 30 OF
  • Tools Summary: Athletic and toolsy but with some swing and miss in his game

It all looks good on paper with Pedro Leon.  He’s athletic, has crazy bat speed, is a plus runner, and with a feel to hit.  But, the rust was evident last season and he struggled.  In 72 games across Double and Triple-A, he slashed .220/.339/.369 with 9 home runs and 18 stolen bases.  He also struck out 30% of the time and was chasing pitches out of the strike zone far too often.  Now, he also walked a lot as well.  I don’t think he’s a three true-outcome player as once he gets his timing better, I think he’ll cut down on his strikeouts some; but he’s never going to be a high contact player with his chase rate.  So, you could see a .250/.350/.425 slash line with 15 to 20 home runs and 25+ stolen bases.  If he can do that, he’ll be an impact performer and could see some All-Star games.  If you invested in him, I would not be dismayed.  Just know the parameters and set your expectations appropriately.

2. Jeremy Pena (SS)

  • Highest Level:  Triple-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 SS
  • Tools Summary: His power took a step forward last season.  He has an aggressive approach but should be able to make enough contact to be a full-time regular

Pena started the season on the IL after having wrist surgery in the off-season. Usually, when players return from having wrist injuries, their power is down.  However, that was not the case with Pena.  He’s gotten stronger since the Astros drafted him and despite the surgery, he popped 10 home runs in 133 plate appearances in Triple-A.  He does have a little speed as well and should be able to steal low double-digit stolen bases annually.  The approach is aggressive and consequently, he rarely walks.  He also struck out 26% of the time, but that could be an outlier given the small sample size.  Finally, he’s a plus defender and if Carlos Correa were to leave for free agency, he would be more than adequate defensively.  The ceiling for me is a full-time regular who could pop 15+ home runs and add 10 to 15 stolen bases with a .260 batting average.  However, for a Championship level team like the Astros, they might want more offensively.  Therefore, the fallback ceiling would be a utility player; but a high-end utility player.

3. Korey Lee (C)

  • Highest Level:  Triple-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 10 Catcher
  • Tools Summary: Makes great contact with average power

Korey Lee put together a nice season and hopefully put to rest the reputation that he was an overdraft when the Astros surprisingly took him their first-round pick in 2019.  He spent time in High, Double, and Triple-A and hit at every stop.  In 88 games, he hit .277 with a .340 OBP, striking out 18% of the time, while walking 9% of the time.  He also hit 11 home runs and showed his athleticism by stealing four bases.  He’ll likely stay at catcher but the Astros have also played him some in the outfield and he has enough athleticism to be a part-time player there.  I don’t see big power but he should be able to hit double-digit home runs annually.  What he should do is hit with a chance to post a batting average of .270 with a .340 OBP.  If he can do that, that should make him a Top 10 fantasy option.

4. Forrest Whitley (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  DNP ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling:  Unknown
  • Tools Summary: He once flashed the arsenal and command of a future ace.  But, injuries including TJS last season have put his ceiling in question

It’s easy to make the argument that the industry drastically overrated the ceiling of Forrest Whitley.  I ranked him as the top pitching prospect in the game after an impressive 2018 AFL where he showed command of his four primary pitches.  At 6-foot-7, he had the size to log starter innings and he pitched for an organization that was making everyone better.  What we all overlooked was his health record.  His high watermark in innings was 2017 when he pitched 92.2.  In 2018, he pitched 26.2 innings, in 2019, he pitched 59.2 and hasn’t logged an inning since. 

In March of 2021, he underwent TJS and missed the entire season.  To complete the story, or maybe muddle it, he could not throw strikes in 2019 and it got so bad that the Astros shut him down.  Is all of this related to his elbow issues?  Now that he has had surgery, will everything be great again?  I have no idea and nobody does.  What we do know is that at one point he showed the stuff of an ace and looked so good, that every professional evaluator I spoke with at the AFL thought he could get Major League batters out.  He should be back on the bump in 2022 but the true test will come in 2023 when he’ll likely get the call to Houston.

5. Joe Perez (3B)

  • Highest Level:  Double-A ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 3B
  • Tools Summary: Put together a solid 2021 campaign where he showed solid bat-to-ball skills with power

Drafted in the second round of 2018, Joe Perez has kind of been forgotten as a potential prospect.  He was a two-way player in high school and blew out his arm and therefore, got a late start to his career.  Then, of course, Covid hit.  The Astros have moved him full-time to a positional player and last year, he started putting things together.  He began the season in Low-A where he hit .300 with a .507 SLG.  The Astros promoted him to High-A where he played even better.  By mid-season, he was in Double-A and while he didn’t hit the cover off the ball, he still managed to slug .420 in 69 games. He has above-average power and provided he continues to make solid contact, he has the upside of a full-time regular.  Even though he is blocked in Houston, there is 20 home run pop with a chance to post a .330+ OBP.

6. Hunter Brown (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  Triple-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 45 SP or Closer
  • Tools Summary: A big arm but control is currently a problem.  High risk, high reward player

Brown is another high-risk, high-reward pitcher in the Houston organization.  He can touch triple digits with his four-seamer and also has a plus curveball that he throws in the mid-80s.  When he can throw strikes, he can be tough to hit.  His problem has and still is he doesn’t always know where the ball is going.  In looking at videos, he doesn’t repeat his delivery and there’s just a lot going on that makes it hard for him to do that.  But, the arm is special and if he can at least develop average control, he could be a very good big-league pitcher.  If not, the Astros will likely throw him in the bullpen and get him to the big leagues as a reliever.

7. Alex Santos (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  Low-A ETA: 2024 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 45 SP
  • Tools Summary: Projectable right-hander with a promising arsenal but 20-grade control

Santos was the Astros’ 2020 second-round compensation pick which also happened to be their first pick in the draft.  He finally got on the mound in late June and showed his promising arsenal by striking out over 10 per nine, but showed 20-grade control (walking 30 in 41.2 IP).  He’s still just 19-years-old and has the 6-foot-4, 200-pound body that pitching coaches love, he just needs time to learn how to pitch.  If it all comes together, he could a number three starter, perhaps more.

8. Shay Whitcomb (SS/3B)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 2B with risk
  • Tools Summary: Posted crazy numbers in 2021 except for one.  He struck out 30% of the time.  Fix that, and we have something – we might though regardless

Shay Whitcomb had one of the best statistical years of anyone in the minor leagues.  He slashed .293/.363/.530 across Low and High-A with 23 home runs and 30 stolen bases.  He didn’t make great contact as he struck out 30% of the time.  He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2020 draft as a college draftee, so you would hope he could handle both levels.  That said, evaluators thought he would hit and were more worried about his defensive position.  Most believe, he will settle in at second.  But, he does need to cut down on his strikeout rate significantly as the profile looks a lot like the Rockies young outfielder, Sam Hilliard, and those players rarely make it despite the crazy tools

9. Tyler Whitaker (OF)

  • Highest Level:  Complex League ETA: 2025 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 45 OF with contact issues
  • Tools Summary: Athletic with 70-grade power.  He’s raw and there is a lot of work to make him a Major Leaguer

Whitaker was the Astros’ third-round pick last June (their first pick).  I was surprised he fell that far as he’s a good athlete who has 70-grade raw power.  He also will strike out a ton but as a teenager, the Astros have time to work with him to get more direct to the ball.  His stat line in the Complex League demonstrates the promise as well as the challenges.  In 29 games, he hit 3 home runs, stole 8 bases but struck out 35% of the time.

10. Yainer Diaz (C)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 Catcher
  • Tools Summary: Aggressive hitter that makes great contact with solid-average power

The Astros acquired Yainer Diaz in the Myles Straw deal at the deadline. He’s an interesting catching prospect as he’s always been able to make good contact, something most catchers can not do.  In 2021, he added loft to his swing and is now hitting with power, slugging .512 across Low and High-A this year.  He is aggressive at the plate, so don’t expect a high OBP but a catcher who can hit with pop is someone to monitor. 

11. Shawn Dubin (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  Triple-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling:  High-leverage reliever
  • Tools Summary: He was never expected to be much, but he is now on the doorstep of the Majors with a fastball-slider that can miss a ton of bats

Shawn Dubin is another of the Lunhow-era cheap signings (2018 13th round and signed for $1000) and he’s going to make the Major Leagues.  It’s going to be as a bullpen arm, but he’s got a quality fastball-slider combination and can miss plenty of bats.  Across Double and Triple-A, he struck out 79 in 55.1 innings.  He’s not a big kid, standing 6-foot-1 and weighing a listed 170 pounds (he might not be that heavy).  Depending on how his command develops will dictate if he’s a middle reliever or a high-leverage option.

12. Alex McKenna (OF)

  • Highest Level:  Double-A ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 75 OF
  • Tools Summary: Intriguing power-speed combination but the 33% strikeout rate is problematic

I was bullish when the Astros drafted Alex McKenna back in 2018.  However, he’s not gotten a lot of traction due to injuries and just a poor start to his career.  He stayed relatively healthy last season and performed well.  In 79 games across High and Double-A, he slashed .261/.356/.478 with 15 home runs and 8 stolen bases.  The problem is he struck out 117 times (33% K/9 rate).  That’s a problem and without some swing changes, he’ll likely not make it.  But, there is intriguing power and speed in the profile and he should at least be monitored.

13. J.C. Correa (Hou, 2B, High-A)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling:  Utility Player
  • Tools Summary: Carlos Correa’s little brother.  While he’s not the same player, he has excellent on-base skills as a high floor utility player

Yes, that’s Carlos’ little brother.  As with LuisAngel Acuna, Ronald’s little brother, they are not the same guy.  First, Carlos went #1 and his brother went undrafted.  Granted, it was in the abbreviated 2020 draft, but still… Second Carlos is huge at 6-foot-4, J.C. is much smaller at 6-0 tall.  From a bat speed and overall baseball skills, there is also a large gulf.  But, still, J.C. has skills that shouldn’t be ignored.  His best skill is his ability to hit and get on base.  He has very good bat-to-ball skills and an understanding of the strike zone.  In 255 plate appearance, he’s only struck out 12% of the time and walked 11% of the time.  He also slugged .477, but he’s nearly 23 and should be able to dominate in Low-A.  I think the ceiling is more of a utility player or extra bat…but he can hit and there’s usually a place for a guy like that.

14. Luis Encarnacion (C/2B)

  • Highest Level:  DSL ETA: 2025+ Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 2B with risk
  • Tools Summary: It’s early, but he’s showing a mature approach with the ability to make contact.  Throw in good bat speed and who can run a little, and he’s a kid to watch

Luis Encarnacion was signed for $200,000 in 2020 and looked good in his first taste of professional ball.  He’s not a big guy at 5-foot-8 but has good bat speed with decent speed and a feel for hitting.  The Astros have him playing all over the place including second, first, and catching.  It’s a red flag that might point to a man without a position.  But, if he continues to hit like he did last season, the Astros will find a place to play him.  In 192 plate appearance, he hit .320 with a .401 OBP, striking out 22 times while walking 19 times.

15. Freudis Nova (SS)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2025 Fantasy Ceiling:  Utility Player
  • Tools Summary: Has not been able to stay healthy and consequently, hasn’t developed

Freudis Nova almost made it through an entire season healthy but blew out his knee in the last week.  He had ACL surgery the following week and will likely miss most of the 2022 season.  There is plenty of bat speed and he’s a good runner but he just has not played enough to develop.  This was evident by his 32% strikeout rate in High-A.  He’s still young, but fantasy owners should look elsewhere for young upside players.