Blubaugh may be the next young arm knocking on Astros' door

April 20th, 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 -- While the Astros have already shuffled three pitchers from Triple-A Sugar Land to Houston to make their Major League debut this year (Blair Henley, Spencer Arrighetti and Forrest Whitley), right-hander A.J. Blubaugh has also received a promotion, joining Sugar Land after only one start at Double-A Corpus Christi.

Blubaugh, the team’s No. 8-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, threw four scoreless innings, striking out five batters and walking two in his first start of the season at Double-A and was moved up to Triple-A, where he’s dazzled in two starts. He’s thrown 11 1/3 innings and struck out 14 batters, allowing one run, five hits and three walks.

“The big thing for him, particularly at the Triple-A level, has been controlling the walks,” said Astros senior director of player development and performance science Jacob Buffa. “We know with the ABS [Automated Ball-Strike System] there, that can impact walks a little bit. The fact that he’s been able to have over a four-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio in Triple-A has been fantastic. That’s been the big eye-opener for us.”

In his most recent start Wednesday against Round Rock, Blubaugh allowed one run, didn’t walk a batter and struck out eight hitters in 6 1/3 innings -- a season-long outing for a Sugar Land pitcher. He generated 15 swings and misses in 83 pitches (55 strikes).

Blubaugh gave up a leadoff homer to Derek Hill on the first pitch he threw and then retired 10 batters in a row, including five via strikeout. His fastball sat between 91.3 mph and 96.3 mph, averaging 93.9 mph.

“We’ve seen a velo uptick and it started probably towards the end of last year,” Buffa said. “Overall, he’s up 1.5 mph on the fastball, which is fantastic. He’s added a little bit more depth to the slider, which is huge, and he’s been able to execute in two-strike counts and get in advantage counts. We saw it start to come on last year and saw really strong Spring Training performances and thought it was time to challenge him again.”

Blubaugh, 23, was selected in the seventh round of the 2022 MLB Draft out of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he was a standout reliever in '21 and '22. The Astros stretched him into a starter in the piggyback system in his first full year of pro ball. He struck out 112 batters in 100 innings and reached Double-A, where he posted a 1.26 ERA in four outings.

A strong performance in the Arizona Fall League (2.25 ERA in 12 innings) helped Blubaugh earn an invite to Major League camp this spring. He could be the next pitching prospect to make a push for the big leagues, behind Arrighetti -- the team’s No. 3 prospect.

The rest of Sugar Land’s rotation consists of Henley, Arrighetti, Ryan Gusto, Misael Tamarez and Rhett Kouba. Arrighetti will make his first start for the Space Cowboys on Sunday since April 4. His previous two starts came for the Astros earlier this month.

Here are some additional highlights from each Minor League level:

Double-A Corpus Christi: Right-hander Aaron Brown, a ninth-round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft from Middle Tennessee State, struck out 10 batters without issuing a walk in five one-hit innings on Thursday against San Antonio. He needed only 59 pitches (42 strikes) to throw five innings and could have pitched longer had Alex Santos (four innings) not been scheduled to piggyback with him. Brown, who got 17 swings and misses, retired 15 of 16 at one point and the only man to reach did so on a bunt base hit.

High-A Asheville: Outfielder Cam Fisher, the team’s No. 24 prospect, became the third Tourists player in the past 20 years to wallop three homers in a game in a 15-12 win over Rome on Wednesday. Fisher hit a two-run home run in the fourth inning to put Asheville ahead, 9-4, and clubbed a solo homer in the seventh to stretch the lead to 9-8. The game was tied at 12 in the eighth when Fisher hit a 425-foot three-run homer to right. He went 3-for-4 with four runs scored and six RBIs. The first two homers left the bat at 100 mph and the third had a 110 mph exit velo.

Single-A Fayetteville: Kenni Gomez, an 18-year-old Cuban outfielder, is slashing .333/.392/.836 with one home run in his first 45 at-bats for the Woodpeckers. Gomez has put on size and strength over the past year. He has tremendous range in center field and gets good jumps.

“He’s been spectacular,” Buffa said. “The quality of contact is really impressive through his first [45] plate appearances.”