If there is a complaint about the current Astros front office that does have a ring of truth to it – it has been the “failure” to develop major league pitching from scratch, starting or bullpen. They have drafted and developed Lance McCullers Jr.as a starter and he has been very good except for the chunks of seasons he has spent in dry dock. Will Harris, Collin McHugh and Tony Sipp all were picked up after being released elsewhere. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove, Mike Fiers, Ken Giles, Roberto Osuna, and Ryan Pressly were all obtained by trades. Luke Gregerson, Hector Rondon, Joe Smith and now Wade Miley were all signed as Free Agents. Dallas Keuchel? He was legacy from the previous administration. There have been some appearances of in-house developed talent like Francis Martes (out with TJ surgery) or Michael Feliz, but very sparse cameos mostly.
Some of the reasons for the sparseness was covered in this June 2018 post. Hard to turn pitchers into major leaguers when you are trading them for major leaguers.
However, 2018 brought possibly the first hint of a changing of the guard and it could not come too soon. Here is what the pitching free agent future looks like for the Astros:
- After 2018 season, Keuchel and Morton leave (OK Keuchel is not officially gone yet)
- After 2019 season, Verlander, Cole, McHugh, Wiley, Harris, Pressly, Rondon, and Smith are all FAs
- After 2020 season, Peacock
- After 2021, McCullers and Osuna
People can think the front office will extend a Verlander or Cole – probably not (JV more likely than Cole it seems). People can think the front office will re-sign a bunch of guys – not too likely for the guys they really want.
But what has to happen is that the Astros need to start filling in spots from within and luckily they are in better shape with that than in a long time. A look at mlb.com’s listing of the Astros top 30 prospects includes 14 of those 30 as pitchers, but more importantly, 10 of the top 14 are shown as pitchers, and those will be the focus of this post.
- Forrest Whitley. He is shown as the #2 prospect behind Kyle Tucker on this list, however, most lists (and likely the Astros front office) have him as #1. He is the top-ranked pitching prospect in all of baseball according to mlb.com (Jonathan Mayo) and was a former 17th overall pick in 2016. He was set-back by his non-PED suspension and injuries in 2018 and with only about 80 innings between extended spring training, AA and Arizona Fall League it is hard to figure how many innings he will be allowed to pitch in 2019.
Prognosis. Likely late-season call-up from AAA but will he be put in the pen to keep his innings down?
- Josh James. (#4 Prospect) A lot of times the 34th overall pick never makes it to the majors, but in this case, a 34th rounder in 2014 has already pitched and pitched well at the end of 2018 (2-0, 2.35 ERA, 11.3 K/9 IP). It helps that he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and suddenly his fastball hopped up to 100 mph in the minors. The Astros should be ordering CPAP machines by the gross.
Prognosis. After his jump from AA thru AAA to the majors last season he is the odds on favorite to start the season as the Astros #5 starter.
- Cionel Perez. (#5 Prospect) The young lefty out of Cuba has pitched at all levels between A ball and the majors in his 2 seasons with the organization. He found a great groove at AA Corpus in 2018 with a 6-1 record, 1.98 ERA, and 10.9 K / 9 IP in 11 starts and 16 games. He had a decent cup of coffee with the Astros though his control was a bit of a question.
Prognosis. They may want him to get more than the 5 innings of pitching at AAA he had last year for seasoning. Or he could be battling #12 Prospect for a lefty spot in the Astros bullpen.
- Corbin Martin. (#6 Prospect) – The local kid and 2nd round pick in 2017 has been a silver streak in racing from rookie ball to more than a half year at AA in just 1-1/2 seasons with the ‘Stros. So far in 154 minor league innings, he has a 9-3 record, 2.44 ERA, 0.983 WHIP and 9.6 K / 9 IP.
Prognosis. Similar numbers at AAA this season should earn him a call-up and have him lined up for a shot at the 2020 rotation.
- J.B. Bukauskas. (#8 Prospect) – The overall #15 pick of the 2017 draft, he had a short stint in 2017 after signing, and then missed a big chunk of 2018 after a car accident and injury. He pitched best in 28 innings at A+ Buies Creek (3-0, 1.61 ERA) and then showed well in the Arizona Fall League.
Prognosis. Expect to see him at AAA Round Rock this season and from there he is just an injury call-up away from the majors.
- Bryan Abreu. (#10 Prospect) – Signed as a teen out of the Dominican, he played mostly at rookie ball until rocking and rolling through A and A+ ball in 2018 right on to the 40 man roster (protected from the Rule 5 draft). In 2018 he was electric putting up a 6-1 record in 54 innings with a 1.49 ERA, 1.031 WHIP and 14.9 K/9 IP.
Prognosis. Obviously a little ways away, but if he continues to show his stuff at AA and AAA over the next two seasons he may be showing it at Minute Maid pretty soon.
- Jairo Solis. (#11 Prospect) – A youngster signed out of the Dominican, some may scoff at his 2-5 record, 3.55 ERA and 1.599 WHIP at A ball Quad Cities in 2018. But he was only 18 y.o. almost 4 years younger than the average player at that level.
Prognosis. Way too early to project this kid, but when you get placed above another prospect, who has already pitched in the majors that is saying something.
- Framber Valdez. (#12 Prospect) – That other prospect was Valdez, another young man out of the Dominican. He has snaked his way slowly up the organization since 2015, sometimes helped by the fact he seemed to be the only lefty doing anything positive on the farm. He got a shot to help out late in the season and he showed a ball that has crazy movement, problems with control, but also the propensity to not give up hits.
Prognosis. If they want him to be a starter he will likely be working on his control issues at AAA. If they want him to be a lefty out of the ‘pen he may break camp with the big club.
- Rogelio Armenteros. (#13 Prospect) – He is one of the most accomplished minor league pitchers in the system with a sterling 29-13 record and 3.18 ERA over 430 innings since being signed out of Cuba. He had bookmark 8-1 records at Fresno in 2017 and 2018, though a much higher ERA (3.74 up from 2.16), which likely signals he was working on another pitch in 2018.
Prognosis. He’s a hard one to figure. Is he one of those AAAA guys who will never quite climb over the top or will he be one of the pitchers they are hoping to help them reach a soft landing in 2020 from their free agent losses?
- Cristian Javier. (#14 Prospect) – A 2015 signee out of the Dominican, he has been steady Eddie rising up the ranks with one good performance after another. At 21 he spent 2018 at A and A+ ball putting up good numbers (7-6, 2.70 ERA, 1.109 WHIP, 11.9 K / 9 IP).
Prognosis. Likely three years away, but another name to watch.
Others. #18 Prospect Dean Deetz may have a shot at a bullpen spot out of Spring Training. #19 Prospect Brandon Bielak has been terrific after getting drafted in the 11th round in 2017. #26 Prospect Tyler Ives struggled as a 3rd rounder in 2017, but picked up the pace with a strong 2018. #27 Prospect Peter Solomon – the 4th rounder only pitched one game in 2017, but made up for it with a very good 2018 at A and A+ ball.
And don’t forget former #1 prospect Francis Martes, who may need to ask for a mulligan after getting hurt in 2017 and having TJ surgery. He may be bypassed when he returns in 2019.
So whatcha think of the team’s pitching future?