HOUSTON – The return of Minor League Baseball in 2021 featured an important development for the Astros, who debuted their Triple-A affiliate, the Sugar Land Skeeters, in a suburb of Houston. The road between Minute Maid Park and Sugar Land was busy with prospects shuttling back and forth all season.
The Astros’ farm system has taken a talent hit in recent years by sending away multiple prospects in trades to land pitchers Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, among others. The club has also graduated some impact big leaguers, including Kyle Tucker and Luis García. It’s also hurt the farm system as the Astros didn’t have a first- or second-round pick in the 2020 and 2021 MLB Drafts, a penalty for sign-stealing.
Still, the Astros had several young players help them reach the World Series in ‘21, including Rookie of the Year finalist García and outfielders Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers. The Astros don’t have a Top 100 prospect in MLB’s Pipeline rankings, though catcher Korey Lee, infielder/outfielder Pedro Leon and pitcher Hunter Brown could soon make an impact on the big league club.
Here are some players who are deserving of a brighter spotlight after successful years of development:
Three players who forced their way onto the radar this year
RHP Jaime Melendez
Pitching most of the season as a 19-year-old, Melendez – Houston’s No. 19 prospect – split time across three affiliates and posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 games (11 starts), with three games at Double-A. He struck out 129 batters and walked 49 in 86 1/3 innings. He has terrific stuff, especially for his age, with an advanced feel on how to pitch.
Signed out of Mexico for $195,000 in May 2019, he made his U.S. debut this spring and had a 0.49 ERA with 38 strikeouts in 18 1/3 innings at Low-A Fayetteville. He’s added about 5 mph to his fastball since signing and now sits at 92-95 mph with a pair of solid breaking balls, an 83-85 slider and a 78-80 curveball. He’s only 5-foot-8, so he could profile more as a reliever as he advances through the system.
Ranked as the Astros’ No. 14 prospect, Gonzalez played the entire ’21 season at 19 years old and hit a combined .261/.320/.382 with four homers and 27 RBIs across two levels, though mostly at Low-A Fayetteville. Gonzalez has room to grow offensively, but he’s very athletic and rangy and profiles defensively as a Major League shortstop down the road.
Gonzalez, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2018, made his U.S. debut this summer and was in the Gulf Coast League only three weeks before getting promoted to Low-A Fayetteville. He’s 6-foot-3 and figures to get stronger as he gets older, which would help with his power. Gonzalez has a terrific arm.
A college teammate of Meyers at Nebraska, Schreiber hit .293/.355/.527 with 17 homers and 57 RBIs while splitting time at High-A Asheville and Double-A Corpus Christi this year. Schreiber is already 26 years old but has an impressive power and bat-to-ball combination and is athletic for his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame. He could be on the big league radar late next year.
Two possible breakout players to watch in 2022
RHP Misael Tamarez
Tamarez didn’t sign out of the Dominican Republic until March 2019, when he was 19 years old, and he made his U.S. debut just four months later, dominating Low-A hitters in the process. He struck out 64 batters in 43 innings in 12 games at Fayetteville, posting a 3.98 ERA, and had a 1.19 WHIP and 39 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings in seven games at High-A Asheville.
Tamarez, the Astros’ No. 26 prospect, reached 98 mph with his fastball this year and eats up right-handed hitters with his slider, which he throws as hard as 87 mph, though he can be wild at times. He walked 38 batters in 76 2/3 innings combined this year.
3B Joe Pérez
Taken with the 53rd overall pick in the 2017 Draft, Pérez had Tommy John surgery early in his pro career and had played only 54 games in four years in the system before appearing in 106 games across three levels this summer. Still, there’s a reason they drafted him and signed him to an over-slot deal of $1.6 million.
He hit a combined .291/.354/.495 with 18 homers and 61 RBIs, topping out at Double-A Corpus Christi this year. Pérez (the team’s No. 9 prospect) has a tremendous arm and power potential in his right-handed swing but still strikes out too much on occasion. He’ll be tested at the upper levels of the Minor Leagues in ’22 and could put himself in the big league picture soon.
One big question for next season
What’s the latest on Forrest Whitley?
A first-round pick by the Astros in 2016, Whitley hasn’t pitched in a game since 2019. He lost the entire 2020 season when the Minor League season was shut down and then he underwent Tommy John surgery last March after injuring himself in big league camp.
In 2019, Whitley posted a 7.99 ERA in four Minor League levels, including 12.21 at Triple-A Round Rock before being placed on the injured list with shoulder fatigue. In 2018, he was suspended 50 games for a violation of the Minor League drug prevention and treatment program and sustained two oblique injuries. He appeared in only 23 games across three levels in ‘18, posting a 2.92 ERA with 143 strikeouts in 92 1/3 innings.
Whitley, the team’s No. 5 prospect, figures to be healthy enough to compete early next year in what could be his final shot to show the Astros he can help them.