The Astros head to camp this week with catchers and pitchers reporting on Thursday. With the probability that the Astros will be relying on some of their young arms to get them through the 2020 season and beyond, let’s take a little time to give you some background on some of the most likely candidates.
Jose Urquidy. Jose, will turn 25 one month into the 2020 season. He was signed as an international free agent out of Mexico in 2015. He has made a steady trip up through the Astros minor league system interrupted by Tommy John surgery, which stole the 2017 season from him. He made the jump from A- to A+ ball in 2018 and then leapt from AA to AAA to the majors in 2019. He has shown pristine control throughout his many stops, normally hitting below 2 walks per 9 IP in Justin Verlander territory. He became a fan favorite in his 41 regular and 10 postseason innings, culminating in 5.2 IP of scoreless ball and a win in the World Series. It would appear that the 4th spot in the rotation is his for the taking.
Bryan Abreu. Abreu will turn 23 right before the season starts. He was signed at 16 y.o. as an international free agent out of the Dominican and his big arm and strikeout potential brought him to be added to the 40 man roster in 2018 (to protect him from the Rule 5) and had him called up for a cameo in 2019. In his 8.2 IP at the major level his 13 Ks and 4 hits stand out. He is not showing Urquidy’s control, but he has a dynamic arm and may well earn a roster spot out of Spring Training or sometime during the season.
Francis Martes. It should be pointed out that even though he would seem to be a Methuselah among the many Astro pitching prospects, he just turned 24 and is younger than Urquidy and only a year older than Abreu. When we last saw Martes in 2017 he was the top pitching prospect in the system not named Forrest Whitley and was given a chance to fill in for an injury-ravaged pitching staff. He then had to undergo Tommy John surgery and while recovering from that he was sentenced to an 80 game suspension for PEDs. As a result he has only pitched 24 Minor league innings in the last two seasons, along with 5 innings in the Dominican Winter League. In those innings he has posted ERAs above 6. It is a big question whether he can show why he was considered a high end prospect way back in 2016.
Forrest Whitley. Fans are praying that we are not seeing the second coming of Mark Appel in Whitley and that this kid’s mind will finally catch up with his 22 y.o. body. He was the team’s first-round pick (17th overall) back in 2016. Between injuries, brain freezes and an illegal drug suspension, he has only totaled 248 innings between minor league ball and Arizona fall league over the last four seasons. Last year, he put up a 7.99 ERA over 59.2 IP in the minors before pitching pretty well in the fall league. What we don’t know is what he was working on (other than growing up) in those 59.2 innings. Often times the teams have the kids trying to hone a third or fourth pitch or line up their arm slots so that all the pitches have similar looks and release points. That many times looks real ugly in the stats, but eventually pays off. Anyways, it would take a miracle for Whitley to join the team out of Spring Training, but if he settles down and produces well at AAA this season, a call-up is not out of the question.
Cristian Javier. Javier, who turns 23 in March has been the anti-Whitley in his 5 seasons of minor league ball after being signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican. His ERA is a sterling 2.22 over 377 innings in his rise up the Astros system and he was particularly excellent in 2019, going 8-3 with a 1.74 ERA over 113.2 IP across three minor league levels (A+, AA, AAA). Will the Astros promote a guy out of ST with only 11 AAA innings under his belt? Well Jeff Luhnow did not do this, but this might be an interesting case on which new GM James Click can cut his teeth.
Rogelio Armenteros. Armenteros finally made his MLB debut last season and pitched decently in a small sample. He had pitched at AAA for at least part of the last three seasons and had worst stats each successive season than the one before. Again, perhaps he was working on “something”. Armenteros turns 26 in June and was another international free agent, in his case signed out of Cuba in 2014. If he does not make it this year with the Astros he may have to go elsewhere as younger arms pass him in the pecking order. He might be a good candidate for the bullpen or as a swingman in long relief and spot starts.
Framber Valdez. Framber is a 26 y.o., who was signed as (another) free agent out of the Dominican back in 2015. Overall, he has been good to very good in his minor league stints. In his two stints at the major league level he has shown wonderful movement on his pitches, but not wonderful control. The big leaguers are not offering at his pitches like the minor leaguers do and as a result his strikeout rate between minors and majors goes down from 13.2 K/ 9 IP (at AAA) to 8.5 at the MLB level while his walks go from 3.4 BB/ 9 IP to an unacceptable 5.7 in the majors. Can he suddenly find his control? His future may depend on it.
Cy Sneed. The 27 y.o. is probably on the wrong side of the cusp for being considered a young arm, though he is mostly new to Astro fans. He came over from the Brewers in the Jonathan Villar trade after the 2015 season and finally made his debut last season. After mostly working as a starter in the minors, he appeared in 8 games for the team out of the bullpen. His K rate was a solid 9.7 / 9 IP, however his hit rate was a poor 11/ 9 IP and his home run rate a terrible 2.1 / 9 IP. He would seem to be a very dark horse for a shot at this pitching staff.
Josh James. The soon to be 27 y.o, after spending most of his minor league career as a starter, switched gears to pitch pretty impressively out of the bullpen after his call-up in 2018. The 34th rounder who famously treated sleep apnea and found his 100 mph fastball doubled his ERA from 2018 to 2019 (2.35 to 4.70) in a season when he seemed to be trying to pitch through some injuries. Will the Astros give him a shot to stretch out and return to his roots of starting? Probably not, but he is performing before a new coach and GM.
Cionel Perez. With his slight build, Perez may end up as a bullpen staple. But Cionel, who will turn 24 in April, has started quite often since being signed as an international free agent out of Cuba. His biggest problem in his two small stints at the majors has been in keeping the ball in the park giving up 6 HRs in only 20 innings. Being a lefty might give him a slight leg up on others, but he is going to have to cut back on the long ball in the new MLB.
Brandon Bielak. A non-roster camp invitee, Bielak, who turns 24 in April has shot up the system after being picked in the 11th round in 2017. He’s shown a good 2.95 ERA in 272 IP of minor league ball doing a solid job of keeping folks off base and while striking out a little over 1 per inning. He could be on the short list for a possible call-up in 2020 as he put in solid numbers at hit heaven AAA in 85 innings in 2019.
Ryan Hartman. Oh boy, a lefty and another non-roster invitee, the 9th round pick in 2016 will turn 26 in April. After a terrific 2018 at AA (11-4, 2.69 ERA) he struggled at AAA in 2019 (6-7, 5.88 ERA). So, it is likely he is being brought along to give the hitters some left-handed exposure in camp, but if he puts up better numbers in another stint at AAA, he could be up with the big club sometime in 2020.
Now two non-young arms, Austin Pruitt and Brad Peacock may have something to say about who if any of these youngsters get a shot at the rotation or bullpen in 2020, but that is an article for another day.