Talented outfield prospects plentiful for Astros
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- No team has more outfielders on our organization Top 30 Prospects lists than the Astros. Six of their top nine prospects and 13 overall patrol the outfield, scattered fairly evenly throughout the system.
Houston bolstered its collection of outfield talent with the 2022 Draft, spending its first two picks on college stars Drew Gilbert (Tennessee) and Jacob Melton (Oregon State) and a way-over-slot $1,256,530 bonus for North Carolina high schooler Ryan Clifford in the 11th round. Gilbert (28th overall) and Melton (64th) were the Astros' first selections in the first and second rounds in three years after losing them in 2020 and 2021 as a penalty for sign stealing.
Gilbert possesses four solid or better tools and has surprising power for a 5-foot-9, 185-pounder. He also is known for playing with nonstop aggression at the plate, on the bases and in center field. He dislocated his right elbow running into an outfield wall 10 games into his pro debut, but he's healthy now and new Astros GM Dana Brown has said he expects Gilbert to compete for the big league center-field job very quickly.
"Drew has a very good ability to understand the strike zone," Houston farm director Sara Goodrum said. "He has an aggressive swing but makes good decisions. He puts it all out there. He's an overall awesome person and great teammate."
The Astros considered Melton in their first-round plans and were thrilled to find the Pacific-12 Conference player of the year available with their second choice. Though he has a big leg kick, a busy left-handed swing and an aggressive approach, he regularly barrels balls. He could have solid tools across the board and posted a 1.001 OPS with four homers in 19 games in Single-A last season.
"Jacob's mechanics work great for him," Goodrum said. "He generates really good raw power from his swing and we'll see how it works in a pro setting. He was very impressive in a small sample size at Fayetteville."
Both Gilbert and Melton profile as center fielders, which will require creativity to get them both reps as they move through the Minors together. Clifford, who's on a less accelerated timetable as a prep product, fits more on the corners and will also see some action at first base. He started playing for U.S. international teams at age 12 and has a more mature approach than most players his age, along with at least 25-homer upside.
"Every time I see Ryan this spring, he's hitting the ball over 100 mph," Goodrum said. "The power is definitely real. He also has a high baseball IQ."
The Draft wasn't the only avenue by which the organization's outfield talent grew last year. The two best prospects in Houston's 2022 international class were Kenni Gomez (Cuba) and Luis Baez (Dominican Republic), and they both performed well in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League. Justin Dirden, Joey Loperfido and Kenedy Corona all had breakout years that significantly raised their profiles.
Camp standout: Justin Dirden
Signed for $20,000 as a nondrafted free agent out of Southeast Missouri State in 2020, Dirden ranked second in NCAA Division I with nine homers in 17 games during that pandemic-shortened season. A physical left-handed hitter with plus raw power and sneaky athleticism, he topped the system in slugging (.558), OPS (.942), doubles (40), extra-base hits (69) and RBIs (101) while advancing to Triple-A in 2022.
With Kyle Tucker playing in the World Baseball Classic and Michael Brantley sidelined by shoulder surgery, Dirden got at-bats in big league camp this spring and made the most of them. He has gone 8-for-22 with two homers and may make the Opening Day roster as a fourth outfielder.
"Justin has really stood out in Major League camp," Goodrum said. "He has shown everything he's capable of doing: the power, the ability to play all three outfield spots, even the arm. He has definitely taken advantage of the opportunity presented to him. He deserves credit for how hard he worked this offseason with our hitting coaches."
Breakout potential: Colton Gordon
Though Gordon had Tommy John surgery two months before the 2021 Draft, the Astros still liked the Central Florida left-hander's fastball metrics and command to select him in the eighth round. His pro debut last summer justified that faith, as he compiled a 2.35 ERA between three levels while ranking first in the Minors (minimum 50 innings) in strikeout-minus-walk rate (35 percent) and second in K/BB ratio (9.8).
Gordon's four-seam fastball parks at 89-92 mph and peaks at 94, but is gets swings-and-misses because his low release point and wide-and-flat approach angle create tremendous carry. He has three average secondary pitches and the ability to locate his entire arsenal where he wants. He pitched for Team Israel in the WBC, an experience that could expedite his development.
"Colton is so in tune with what we're trying to accomplish," Goodrum said. "The opportunity to play for Team Israel and face top big league hitters on the stage was good for him. He's a fast learner who makes adjustments very quickly. That's why he keeps getting better."
Something to prove: Tyler Whitaker
Houston's top choice (third round) in the 2021 Draft, Whitaker landed a well-over-slot $1.5 million bonus with his combination of plus raw power and solid speed. But the Nevada high school product has struggled at the plate in pro ball, hitting .190/.266/.316 with a 35 percent strikeout rate while seeing action at all three outfield spots as well as third base and shortstop. The Astros hope some offensive adjustments will pay off with a bounceback year in 2023.
"Tyler has looked very good in camp," Goodrum said. "It's been a mix of simplifying his swing to minimize his head movement and loading earlier to be on time. He also taken ownership of honing his approach to know what he's looking for. He's starting to put it all together."