Astros prospect report from Spring Training

March 2nd, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- For a number of years, the Astros boasted one of the best farm systems in baseball. Since 2015, MLB Pipeline has put out Top 10 organization rankings, both preseason and midseason (it was Top 15 for the 2019 midseason ranking), and the Astros landed on that list in seven of those 10 rankings.

But winning does have its costs and the Astros have learned it’s extremely difficult to both compete and maintain a deep farm system. Some homegrown players have graduated to the big leagues -- the most recent huge example being 2019 American League Rookie of the Year -- and there have been a number of trades using prospects as pieces. The most notable one came last year when Houston traded four away to get . Combine that with the impact of picking at the end of the first round instead of the top and it only stands to reason that things have thinned out down on the farm.

“By virtue of not picking in the top five overall picks, it begins to be tougher to find guys who play up the middle, hit for power, hit for average, etc.,” said Astros farm director Pete Putila. “But I do think we have a lot of players who are very intriguing, who have either physical tools or performance. Guys are working to put that together.

“On the pitching side, we have quite a bit of depth, we have a lot of guys throwing hard with good stuff, that’s where our strength remains. I was a little bit surprised with some of the rankings, but the rankings are the rankings, it doesn’t change how we do things.”

That’s the attitude Putila and his staff are taking into the 2020 season as Spring Training gets underway. It’s always a good time for a player development staff, when they actually get to do what they do best: work with players on the field.

“Transitioning from the offseason in the front office to Spring Training is always a nice change of pace, from where you go from being in the office and planning to getting back out here with the coaches and players,” Putila said. “It reminds you of why you’re in it, that’s the enjoyable part of it.”

Outside of top prospect Forrest Whitley, the Astros don’t have appear to have any impact talent that will hit the big league roster this year. But as they’ve gone through this stretch of winning a World Series, reaching another and getting to the ALCS in the last three years, there’s been recognition that as great as it is to produce Rookie of the Year candidates, the farm system also needs to be ready to plug in holes when needs arise for an annual competitor.

“Obviously, the all-around impact players are what you’re gunning for, but there are 26 roster spots and it’s important to fill out the roster with guys who can contribute in a number of different positions, whether it’s a starting pitching role, long relief or higher leverage relief some of these guys have a chance for,” Putila said. “Offensively, having guys who can play multiple positions to give our guys breathers is important as they develop their skills.”

Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2021
The Astros signed right-hander Jairo Solis back in July 2016 for $450,000, seeing a lot of projection and arm strength. They weren’t disappointed when he pitched his way to the United States during his pro debut, then made a successful jump to full-season ball in 2018. But he blew out his elbow in August and needed Tommy John surgery, keeping him out of competitive action for all of 2019. He did throw some live batting practice and then against live hitters in the Dominican Republic after the season, leaving everyone excited to see him back on the mound in 2020.

“He throws strikes, his velocity is 94-97, he’s big and physical,” said Putila, adding that the 20-year old is closer to 6-foot-5, 230 pounds than the 6-foot-2, 160 pounds he’s listed at. “He’s going to be a guy who is going to open up some eyes this year because he checks all the boxes. He could surprise some.”

Camp standout
I don’t know that I can say he specifically jumps out this year, but Jeremy Pena just continues to develop physically and work on all parts of his game. You can’t look past someone who is able to play shortstop with that ability. Pena shows good plate discipline and contact skills. We’re just trying to tap into the power more. He just continues to develop physically and he’s another guy who outworks everyone. Pena is really focused. He’s a guy who continues to stand out.

The one area he really surprised on is how quickly he was able to adjust his approach and have impressive plate discipline quickly. That allows Pena to get a lot out of his game offensively. Talking to people who saw him in college and the summer before his draft year on the Cape, he’s made huge strides. I don’t think it’s a coincidence given how hard he works and how focused he is.

Something to prove
Jose Alberto Rivera was almost 20 when he signed with the Astros back in October 2016. He’s gotten stronger and thrown harder as he’s moved slowly through the system, not making it to full-season ball until last year. He showed premium velocity in the Midwest League, but throwing hard alone is not enough. The Astros were encouraged with how he finished the year, with a 1.48 ERA over his last 10 outings, knowing he has to go out and do that all year in 2020.

“He punched 100 mph in most outings,” Putila said. “But he kind of sputtered out of the gate last year. He’s someone who has a lot to prove this year, he’s Rule 5 eligible at the end of the year. He’ll be somebody interesting to keep an eye on, given the velocity and the swing-and-miss potential he’s shown.”