Prospect with big fastball making big strides

May 4th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Brian McTaggart’s Astros Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

HOUSTON -- The Astros have cornered the market on finding hidden gems on the international pitching market, signing impact Major League arms Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, José Urquidy and Luis Garcia for smaller bonuses because they were older players who had been overlooked.

Ronel Blanco can now be mentioned in that group after his solid start to the season, which included an April 1 no-hitter vs. the Blue Jays at Minute Maid Park, and right-handed prospect -- ranked the organization's No. 21 prospect by MLB Pipeline -- could be next to join the group. Ullola, who signed for $75,000 out of the Dominican Republic at 18 1/2 years old, possesses one of the biggest arms in the system.

Ullola operates with a four-seam fastball at 92-95 mph that tops out at 97 mph. It’s so electric with its flat approach angle and exceptional carry that Minor Leaguers have done little against it. He averaged 13.2 strikeouts -- and 6.7 walks -- per nine innings in his first three pro seasons.

“He's always had a big fastball,” said Astros senior director of player development and performance science Jacob Buffa. “It has a lot of life to it, a lot of ride. It gets above barrels a ton when he gets it to go where he wants it to go.”

Ullola came to the Astros with a fastball and a curveball, and like a lot of young pitchers struggled to throw strikes, but he’s refined that in the last two years. He’s also added a slider that’s been an effective pitch. In 22 2/3 innings at Double-A Corpus Christi this season, Ullola has allowed nine earned runs (3.57 ERA), seven hits and 16 walks for a 1.01 WHIP. He’s also struck out 30 batters.

“I think he’s developed a lot of confidence to be able to just attack hitters and knowing his stuff is going to miss bats,” Buffa said. “He gets in the zone. Yeah, he’s made some tremendous strides over the last year on that front.”

One of Ullola’s primary goals is being in the zone a bit more against left-handers, which is something he’s already improved on. With that in mind, the Astros have worked with him a lot on rhythm and timing to keep him synced up, fluid and consistent with his release.

“Our pitching coaches have identified for him, there’s some timing mechanisms in his delivery and making sure he’s synced up at the right spot, at the right time to make sure he’s able to land it,” Buffa said. “For him, it’s a lot of tempo, a lot of cadence and just allowing him to be more fluid and comfortable.”

On the 21-year-old Ullola, MLB Pipeline wrote, “There's a low probability that he makes it as a big league starter, but his fastball is special,” while noting that Bryan Abreu had similar early career control issues before becoming a dominant relief pitcher.

“On one hand, I would like to see these guys get to the big leagues as fast as possible,” Buffa said. “I think they’re talented enough. Our hope is the big league team doesn’t need a whole lot of help. So I think his immediate future is we want to see him have continued success in Corpus and then once we feel like he’s beat that level, we’re going to challenge him at Triple-A. Ultimately, it’s about paving his way to a big league spot and, just like anyone else, once you get to the level just waiting for an opportunity.”

Here are some additional highlights from the Astros' other Minor League levels:

Triple-A Sugar Land

Outfielder Pedro León has hit safely in 24 of 27 games, batting .313 (35-for-112) in that stretch with nine doubles, a triple, five homers, 31 RBIs and 23 runs scored. In the Pacific Coast League, he's tied for fifth in hits and tied for ninth in doubles, entering Saturday. León, the team’s No. 27-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline, hit a 479-foot homer Saturday and another moonshot on Tuesday.

High-A Asheville

Infielder Pascanel Ferreras, 22, batted .306 (19-for-62) with 14 runs, two doubles, three home runs, eight RBIs, 10 walks and a .911 OPS (.427 on-base percentage/.484 slugging) in 17 games in April. In the South Atlantic League, he ranked sixth in on-base percentage, seventh in OPS, seventh in batting average and tied for seventh in runs during the month. Ferreras was selected in the 20th round of the 2023 MLB Draft from Western Carolina University.

Single-A Fayetteville

Right-hander James Hicks, 23 next week, recorded a 0.50 ERA (one earned run in 18 innings) with 25 strikeouts, a 0.89 WHIP and a .143 opponent’s batting average in four appearances in April, including two starts. In the Carolina League, Hicks ranked second in ERA, fifth in opponent’s batting average, tied for sixth in WHIP and seventh in strikeouts. He was promoted to High-A Asheville on Monday. Hicks was selected in the 13th round of the 2023 Draft from the University of South Carolina.