WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros are succeeding at the Major League and Minor League levels more than any organization. They not only won the 2017 World Series and rank third with 374 victories in the last four seasons, but they also have one of the game's stronger farm systems.
Despite promoting superstars such as Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman and trading several quality prospects (most notably Josh Hader), Houston has no shortage of high-ceiling young talent. The Astros placed sixth in MLB Pipeline's 2019 system rankings, thanks in large part to their six Top 100 Prospects -- each of whom is poised to contribute in the big leagues this season.
"We're trying to do everything we can to sustain a quality Major League team," Astros farm director Pete Putila said. "I think we've done a good job striking a balance between providing pieces for the Major League team and having a core for the future. That's something [GM] Jeff [Luhnow] always has stressed the importance of and I feel like we've found a good balance."
Right-hander Forrest Whitley, baseball's best pitching prospect, looks ready for Houston's rotation even if he's 21 and has just 137 1/3 innings of pro experience. He has been as dominant as any pitcher in the Astros' big league camp -- and no, we're not forgetting about Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole -- striking out 15 and permitting just nine baserunners and two earned runs in 12 innings.
"This spring, he has shown the ability to stay in the zone with all of his pitches," Putila said. "At this point, he just needs some fine-tuning, working on some things with his delivery.
"His fastball is special, his changeup is his best swing-and-miss pitch, his curveball is his best breaking ball and he also has a 90-92 mph cutter and an 86-90 mph slider. He's in a good spot getting ready to make an impact."
Right-hander Josh James, a 34th-round pick out of Western Oklahoma JC in 2014, was expected to claim a role in the rotation after leading the Minors in strikeout rate (13.5 per nine innings) and pitching his way onto Houston's postseason roster. A February quad injury scotched those plans, though he should still crack the Opening Day roster as a reliever. Fellow Top 100 right-handers Corbin Martin and J.B. Bukauskas have pitched well in big league camp, with Bukauskas allowing just one earned run while fanning 13 in 10 innings.
Like Whitley, James and Bukauskas can back up premium fastballs with power sliders as well as deceptive changeups. Though all three are much more known for their ability to blow hitters away, their changeups can all earn 65-or-better grades on the 20-80 scouting scale when at their best.
The Astros' best left-handed pitching options are all rookies: Cionel Perez, Framber Valdez and Reymin Guduan. They have some nearly-ready hitters too, led by outfielder Kyle Tucker, who ranks one spot behind Whitley on the Top 100 at No. 8, and is the only player in the Minors to record 20-20 seasons in both 2017 and '18. Yordan Alvarez hits for average and power and could be the long-term solution at first base, Garrett Stubbs is an athletic backup-catcher type and potential fourth outfielder Myles Straw has led the Minors in hitting (.358 in 2016) and steals (70 last year).
There isn't room for all of these players on a stacked Major League team, so Houston potentially could use its surplus to make a blockbuster trade. It did so in August 2017, shipping right-hander Franklin Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers to the Tigers for Verlander, without whom the World Series championship wouldn't have been possible.
Beyond their seemingly endless supply of the on-the-cusp prospects, the Astros also have more high-ceiling talents at the lower levels. Freudis Nova is a potential 20-20 shortstop and right-hander Bryan Abreu has a 92-96 mph fastball and a pair of nasty breaking pitches that allowed him to strike out 90 in 54 1/3 innings last year.
After tearing the ACL in his right knee playing football in November 2016, third baseman/second baseman Nick Tanielu played in just two games in 2017 and wasn't back to 100 percent last season. Finally healthy again, he's topping the Astros in slugging (.829), OPS (1.239), hits (12), extra-base hits (eight), homers (four) and RBIs (13) while striking out just three times in 39 plate appearances.
"He's always made a lot of contact and hit the ball hard," Putila said. "He's been working with Ben Rosenthal, our Triple-A hitting coach, on improving his load. His OPS last year [.755] doesn't do him justice because he was coming back from the ACL. He's very interesting."
Several Astros prospects are putting up big numbers in the Grapefruit League. Third baseman Abraham Toro is building on a strong Arizona Fall League by batting .333/.385/.583 and matching Tanielu for the team RBI lead. In addition to Whitley and Bukauskas, Guduan (2.57 ERA, 12 strikeouts in seven innings) and right-hander Brandon Bielak (1.00 ERA, seven whiffs in nine frames) have pitched well.