February 2, 2016
Houston Astros Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: Even after graduating a deity and making several deals, this is still a very good system, and the depth competes with anyone.
The Top Ten
1. Alex Bregman, SS
Sometimes people talk about the safety of a prospect like it’s a backhanded sort of compliment. It shouldn’t be this way, and Bregman’s “safe” profile is why he’s one of the best middle-infield prospects in baseball. His smooth, line-drive swing comes with above-average bat speed, and his ability to recognize pitches while staying back and keeping his hands in makes the hit tool plus. Carlos Correa he is not, but there is some power here, thanks to his ability to lift the ball and clear his hips. He makes the most of his tick-above-average speed, by getting good jumps and as a result holds 15-20 stolen base upside.
His ultimate position has been debated for some time (one area scout told me Bregman’s best fit would be at catcher in high school), but shortstop is looking more and more likely, or—given his organization—at least within his capabilities. He makes up for a lack of elite range with keen instincts, and he’s rarely out of position, with an above-average throwing arm that can turn hits into outs.
There are some guys who just “get it” on the field, and Bregman is one of those guys. There’s no below-average tool in his shed, and even if he isn’t a star he should be an above-average regular for a long time.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The value with Bregman in dynasty leagues is in his floor, as he’s not very likely to be an elite performer at whatever position he does end up at. However, he’s as good a bet as almost any infielder in the minors to be a useful mixed league starter. The end result could be a near .300 hitter with 15 homers, 15 steals and attractive counting stats—which looks a lot like star-level Dustin Pedroia (but not the superstar-level version).
Major League ETA: 2017
2. A.J. Reed, 1B
Yep, that line you see above is real, and it’s spectacular. Reed was sensational in 2015, and it wasn’t smoke and mirrors. His approach is as good as any prospect in the game, and his ability to recognize pitches he can drive while not swinging at pitches outside the zone makes him an on-base machine. The one thing that keeps the hit tool from grading plus is the lack of contact borne of a long swing that lacks elite bat speed. He’s insanely strong, and his natural loft pairs with excellent weight transfer, giving him borderline plus-plus power.
Reed won’t remind anyone of John Olerud around the bag, but it doesn’t appear that this is a future DH candidate, either. His hands are soft. He’s a 30 runner at best, but he’s nimble enough, and he has a plus throwing arm (he was Kentucky’s Friday starter in 2014) that can help turn the double play or nail the runner as a cutoff man.
If Reed hits in Triple-A the way he did in 2015, this will be a spot too low. Only the lack of positional value keeps him at two, but consider this a compliment to Bregman rather than an insult to Reed. He can really hit.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: This is not a drill. Slowly reach for the oxygen mask, and place yours around your head before helping anyone else. Take deep breaths. Have a sip of water. Now that you’re calm, imagine standing in the middle of a field, imagine being tackled by Brian Cox. Or cross checked by Chris Chelios. (Yes, both my football and hockey references are out of date.) This is what it’s like to be a baseball being thrown to Reed. The potential is there for a 30-plus home run hitter with a .270-.280 average and even better on-base skills. Invest.
Major League ETA: 2017
3. Francis Martes, RHP
Martes was seen as a lottery ticket when he was dealt in the Colin Moran/Jarred Cosart deal. The Astros might just have the Powerball number. Martes has two pitches that are plus right now, led by a 94-96 mph fastball with plenty of movement that he’ll manipulate at will. His curveball is a true power breaking ball with loads of spin and depth that makes it a legit swing-and-miss pitch.The change is substantially behind these two offerings, but it’s competent. If there’s a flaw here it’s that he doesn’t use the change enough, but there’s an easy fix to that problem.
In addition to quality stuff, Martes gets positive reviews for his feel for pitching. He attacks the strike zone with all three pitches, and while the command is a bit behind the control, it’s certainly good enough to allow him to start. The upside is a guy who pitches near the top of a rotation and misses plenty of bats, with back-end starter (if he stays healthy) a worst-case scenario for a talent like this.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: One of the big pop-up prospects of 2015, Martes has the ceiling to be a good fantasy investment and has the added bonus of not being owned in almost every league without in-season pickups. If the trajectory continues, Martes could be a 180-plus strikeout arm with an ERA in the low-3’s and a WHIP that could touch as low as 1.10. That would make him a solid SP2 in most formats.
Major League ETA: 2017
4. Daz Cameron, OF
Someday I won’t feel old writing about Mike Cameron’s son, but not today. Not today.
Cameron is a smart hitter who seems to make hard contact every time he swings. His plus speed and ability to work counts make him an excellent candidate to hit at the top of a lineup. He doesn’t have the same power as his dad, but he’s not a slap hitter, with just enough bat speed and lift to project average power as he matures. He has outstanding instincts on the bases, and could become a 30-plus stolen base guy at the next level.
Daz doesn’t compare to his father when it comes to defense but he is quite good defensively, with excellent instincts and enough athleticism to stick in the middle, where he’ll provide above-average offensive numbers for the position.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Cameron may be a safe investment, but that doesn’t make him a particularly great one in dynasty leagues. Despite the high ranking (and the spot in the 101), he’s a better real life player than fantasy one as he doesn’t have any carrying tools in fantasy. The most likely outcome at this point is a 10-15 homer, 15-20 steal outfielder who helps a bit in batting average, but not a ton. There is value in that as an OF3/OF4, but it’s not like people get too excited about Dexter Fowler these days.
Major League ETA: 2018
5. Kyle Tucker, OF
Tucker drew a wide variety of opinions during draft time—some thought he was the best prep hitter in the class, some thought he was more of a second-round talent—and his professional debut didn’t do anything to change minds. Whether you’re a fan or not likely depends on what you think of the swing; he starts low in the setup with some excessive movement, but once he gets into the load position it gets fluid and smooth with above-average bat speed. The swing puts a lot of pressure on his bat speed, but Tucker has plenty of it, and his ability to stay in the zone gives him a chance for above-average hit and power tools. He’s only an average runner, but he gets outstanding jumps on the bases, as seen in his stolen base total.
Tucker certainly has more offensive upside than Cameron, but there are big questions marks as to where he’ll play in the outfield. The lack of speed means he’s assuredly staying in a corner, and his (at best) average arm doesn’t really play in right. So it all rides on his bat, but if he is the 60 hit, 60 power hitter that so many scouts believe he is, it doesn’t really matter where he plays.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: It’s impossible not to see the fantasy potential in Tucker’s bat. After all, outfielders who can hit .290 with 25 homers and 15-20 steals don’t come around every day. That’s the ceiling though, and there are certainly plenty of questions as to whether he can get there or not. Risk-taking owners should target Tucker with a mid first round pick in dynasty drafts.
Major League ETA: 2019
6. Derek Fisher, OF
Like every Virginia hitter ever, Fisher has a quality approach at the plate, which combines with a fluid swing that stays in the zone, giving him a chance to hit for average. The approach does lead to some passivity, which creates more swing-and-miss than you’d typically like to see. He’ll show plus to plus-plus power during batting practice, but he doesn’t show that same loft in game, and the 55 power grade might be a smidge generous.
If Tucker has defensive questions, Fisher has defensive conundrums. Despite being a quality athlete, he’s poor with the glove, showing no instincts and taking some horrific routes. Add in a below-average throwing arm, and you have a guy destined for left field. The bat can play there, but you sure would like to see more consistency with both the bat and glove before you call him a lock to play every day. There’s a ton of upside, however, and it shouldn’t shock anyone if he is a .280 hitter who has 30-homer seasons someday.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Fisher is a much better fantasy player than real life one, as his 404 errors in the outfield won’t count against you, but his home runs and stolen bases will certainly help. The big question is how much average he can hit for—and even if it’s just .260, he has the secondary skills to be an decent OF2.
Major League ETA: 2017
7. Colin Moran, 3B
This is where Houston’s depth really begins to show: Moran is a top five prospect in many an organization, and he appeared to make some strides in the second half last year, hitting .333/.416/.536 from July on. Like every hitter on this list (so far), his approach is outstanding, as he works counts into his favor and uses every part of the field. There’s some raw pop as well, but the swing is geared to contact, and expecting more than 12-15 homers a year is likely expecting too much.
There were questions as far back as his Tar Heel days about his ability to stay at third base, and they remain today. He’s a below-average runner with the below-average range that comes with it, but he does have good hands and an accurate, strong throwing arm. If he was to move across the diamond his chances of becoming a regular all but vanish, but there’s just enough defensive value to give Moran a chance to end up an everyday player at the hot corner.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Third base is a suck hole right now in fantasy, but even that can’t get me that excited about Moran. At best, he’s probably Mike Moustakas without the power. At worst, he’s probably 80 percent of current-day Martin Prado—and that’s not going to be a positive contributor in most leagues.
Major League ETA: 2017
8. Michael Feliz, RHP
Feliz did not enjoy much success as a big leaguer, but calling that sample small is an insult to small samples. His arm strength is elite, routinely touching the high 90s with his four-seam fastball and sitting 93-95. When he stays on top of the slider, it’s a plus pitch with bite. When he doesn’t, it’s a hittable, flat offering. The change shows just as much inconsistency, but doesn’t flash plus. He does throw strikes with all three pitches, and though the command isn’t elite, we’ve seen many with worse command stick in a rotation.
The Astros might be tempted to move Feliz to the bullpen and see if the stuff plays up in shorter stints, and common sense says it should. With three competent pitches and the ability to limit self-inflicted damage, that move doesn’t have to happen now, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if that’s the route Houston choses.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Counting on Feliz to avoid a bullpen fate is not the smartest bet in dynasty leagues, which is not to say that he can’t have value as a reliever. Of course, he now has one of the best and most controlled closers ahead of him, so even if he does max out in short bursts, that fantasy value likely won’t translate to mixed leagues very well.
Major League ETA: Debuted in 2015
9. David Paulino, RHP
Paulino has stuff that suggests he should be considerably higher on this list, but he doesn’t have the track record, as he’s thrown just over 100 innings in five professional seasons. When healthy, he’ll show a plus-plus fastball, capable of touching the high 90s with late life and excellent plane. The curveball will flash plus with hard downward spin, although it will occasionally bounce when he struggles to find the release point. The change is an average offering, nothing more, nothing less. Despite release point issues with the curve he does repeat his delivery well, and does a pretty good job of filling the strike zone.
If Paulino can show the same stuff over the 2016 season he’ll surpass several players on this list. If he can’t, it might make sense to see how the stuff plays working out of the bullpen.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: When it comes to pitching fliers, quality of raw stuff supercedes almost everything else, and Paulino has it. If he can move closer to a rotation path, he could shoot up in value and be a top-100 name by this time next year with big time strikeout ability.
Major League ETA: 2018
10. Miguel Angel Sierra, SS
Sierra has exceptional feel for the barrel considering his age and lack of experience, and his short stroke allows him to make hard contact to every part of the field. The flat swing isn’t conducive to power, although he has shown the ability to put the ball into the gap and put his above-average speed to use.
Sierra may not wow with the bat, but he has shown the ability to do so with the glove. He has excellent range and a strong, accurate throwing arm. Like most young players he does have a tendency to rush, but nothing that suggests he won’t be able to stay on the premium side of second base.
It’s all very much a work in progress, but you don’t have to dream too deeply to see Sierra becoming a top-of-the-order hitter who plays up the middle. It’s fair to prefer the upside of Sierra to some of the names above him, but the risk involved with a player who has yet to debut stateside places him at the bottom of the list for now.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: With a huge lead time and not a ton of upside, Sierra is a wait-and-see prospect in all but the deepest of dynasty leagues. When the ceiling looks like Erick Aybar (if you squint), you can afford to delay your investment.
Major League ETA: 2019
Tony Kemp, 2B – Despite (or maybe because of) his diminutive stature, Kemp is a ton of fun to watch. His compact swing sprays line drives to every part of the park, and his plus speed allows him to make plays on the bases and in the field. The lack of pop limits the upside significantly, but there’s a non-zero chance he becomes a valuable part of a 25-man roster, and maybe even a regular at second base.
Riley Ferrell, RHP– If you’re looking for someone from last year’s draft who could make a contribution in 2016, you’re on some kind of weird scavenger hunt. Ferrell might be your answer, though. There are two plus-plus pitches in his right arm: a fastball that touches 98 and a slider with ridiculous tilt. He doesn’t often know where either of these pitches is going and he lacks a competent third offering, but this is absolutely a high-leverage relief profile (or closer, if you prefer that vernacular) if he can throw enough strikes.
Tyler White, IF – The Astros took White in the 33rd round of the 2013 draft and gave him $1,000 as a senior sign out of Western Carolina. He’s now one of the best corner infield prospects in the system. Baseball is neat. White’s approach at the plate is outstanding, and even though he doesn’t have the prototypical power you see from a corner infielder, he can drive the ball into the gap and maybe give you 15-homer seasons at his peak. He’s not a good defender and there’s very little athleticism, but you could see him become a quality bench bat who gives lefty hurlers fits.
Joe Musgrove, RHP — Well, that escalated quickly. Musgrove finally put it together over a full season, posting a ridiculous 100 strikeouts to eight walks, with a 1.88 ERA over three levels. He (obviously) attacks hitters with three offerings, the best of them is a 91-93 mph fastball that he puts where he wants to. The secondary pitches—a curveball and change—are only average, but they do play up because of the aforementioned control. He’d be in the top 10 of almost every other system, but the ability of the others above and concerns about the lack of track record make him a little riskier than the profile suggests.
Nolan Fontana, IF – Fontana gets the “gamer” rep, which generally means the player doesn’t have a ton of talent but makes the most of it. That’s a pretty accurate description here. His plate discipline is outstanding, and even with a lack of bat speed or pop, he should get on enough to justify carrying on the roster. He’s a jack of all trades, master of none in the field, showing just enough competence at second, third and short. You’re asking too much if you want him to play every day, but as a guy who can play all over the infield, run a little bit and be a nuisance at the plate, he’s kind of a perfect utility infielder.
While the farm system has taken a bit of a step back in the last 12 months, the collection of young talent in the organization may not be matched, even on the north side of Chicago. And that’s even after accounting for the fact that George Springer turned 26 just a few months ago, leaving him among the recently ineligible.
There are many things in this world that are up for debate. Five Guys vs In N’ Out. Apple vs Android. However, the top spot on this list was not one, even though the second player on this list is a fan favorite coming off two straight All-Star appearances and Silver Sluggers. But Correa is just unfair competition to have. The 2015 AL Rookie of the Year is not the strongest defender at shortstop, but can stick at the position for the near- and medium-term future—though the main attraction is his bat. He’s the only shortstop not named Alex Rodriguez to post a .500 slugging percentage in his age-20 season, and he’s younger than six of the ten prospects on this list.
In only four or five organizations would Altuve be runner up to anyone on a 25U list, but thems the breaks. He followed up a superstar-level 2014 season with a more realistic, but still excellent, 2015 campaign that saw his power tick up while his BABIP slid back. On an incredibly team-friendly contract that will pay him $20.5 million over the next four years if the Astros exercise both of their club options, Altuve has the keystone covered for the remainder of this decade.
The toughest decision of this list came down to the Astros’ two young fireballers. Common sense says to take the starter over the reliever, but it’s not always that simple. McCullers had an impressive 3.62 DRA in his rookie campaign and took a large step forward with his changeup—the biggest outstanding question from his days as a prospect. That improvement has pushed his overall profile closer to the no. 2 ceiling he was given as an amateur. On the other hand, Giles is no ordinary reliever. In his rookie season, he posted a 1.40 DRA, but that backed up in 2015 to 2.42—meaning he went from cyborg status to merely elite status. The fact that they were this close is a testament to leverage.
Finally, after a slew of prospects already discussed above, their early-season center fielder sneaks onto the list at no. 10. After getting off to a hot start at the plate (he had a 1.100 OPS after 20 games), Marisnick fell way back to earth and ended the season as a fourth outfielder with a .243 TAv. However, with plus defensive ability, he still profiles as a second-division outfielder. Unfortunately for the 2009 third-round pick of the Blue Jays, he no longer plays for a second-division club.
The depth continues even beyond the list, as players like Preston Tucker (yes, he’s Kyle’s older brother) and Jon Singleton would have been strong candidates to make this list in other organizations despite their warts. After years of futility, it was expected that the Astros would come out of their extreme rebuild with a slew of young talent; yet this crop still manages to exceed most expectations. — Bret Sayre
General Manager: Jeff Luhnow
We all made fun of it, and quite frankly sometimes it’s easy to understand why. This team was not fun to watch, and while I won’t go far as to use the “t” word, it’s fair to say that this team had no interest in going the 74-88 route to getting better.
Whether that’s ethically right or wrong is debatable; whether it's working is not. Luhnow, Elias, and an outstanding team of scouts have done a fantastic job of accumulating talent both early and late in drafts, including by being the first team to prominently take advantage of the most recent CBA draft allocation rules—and doing the same thing to snag Daz Cameron in the supplemental round this year. They’ve also been as open-minded and creative as any club in baseball with their front office hirings, including some high-profile baseball minds in the public space—a few of whom have called Baseball Prospectus home over the past half-decade.
When you’ve accumulated this much young talent—and they currently boast as much as any—the reason doesn’t matter. This is a really good group, and they’re going to be good for a long time.