The Astros were excited to sign Cuban outfielder Pedro Leon in January for $4 million, the largest bonus any player received in the 2020-21 international class. They're even more thrilled after seeing him perform in their big league and Minor League camps during Spring Training.
Houston's top position prospect, Leon was a crucial acquisition for a franchise that is rebuilding its farm system and lost its top two selections in both the 2020 and 2021 Drafts as a sign-stealing penalty. He hit .383/.467/.789 with 15 homers in 33 games in Cuba's top league as a 20-year-old in 2018-19, and he packs plenty of strength in his compact 5-foot-10 frame as well as lots of bat speed in his right-handed swing. He has well-above-average raw power as well as the best speed (70 on the 20-80 scouting scale) and arm strength (80) in the organization.
Leon will need some time to adapt to quality pitching, as evidenced by his 0-for-12 performance in Grapefruit League games. But the Astros believe the 22-year-old could move quickly and will have him begin his pro career at Double-A Corpus Christi.
"He's so toolsy," Houston assistant GM in charge of player development Pete Putila said. "He got to see a lot of very good pitching in Major League camp, seems really smart and we think he'll adjust accordingly.
"He's taking a lot of walks -- he said he's been trying to get used to how much movement there is on pitches over here -- and when he makes contact, it's loud. He's a burner too. Put all that together, and it's a pretty solid offensive foundation."
Leon has been intriguing defensively as well. When he signed, he was considered the eventual replacement for departed free agent George Springer in center field. That could happen sooner rather than later because the Astros currently are getting less production out of that position than any American League club.
Yet when Leon opens the season in Double-A, he'll get the bulk of his playing time at shortstop. Putila estimated that 80 percent of his starts could come at the position, while he'll also continue to get a lot of pregame reps in center field to maintain his skills there.
Leon didn't play shortstop in Cuba's top league but had prior experience there and has spent a lot of time working out in the infield this spring. Carlos Correa is eligible for free agency after the 2021 season, so it's conceivable that Houston could need to replace him.
Leon definitely has the quickness and arm strength for shortstop, and the Astros have liked how quickly he has taken to the position.
"He made a play today with the infield in in the 10th inning where there was a little pop fly to left field and he took his eye off the ball, sprinted full out and made an over-the-shoulder catch as if the position weren't new to him," Putila said. "He's looked great. His first game in big league camp was on the back fields against the Cardinals, and he made a Superman dive on a hard grounder up the middle and then popped up and threw the batter out.
"It's really exciting. The way I describe it is he's just played a lot of baseball and maybe he's more advanced than we realized. He has great instincts and he's super athletic. His feet look good and his arm action looks clean. We wanted to see what he could do there, and he came into big league camp and impressed a lot of people."
Right-hander Hunter Brown emerged as the Astros' best healthy pitching prospect during instructional league last fall and has enhanced that status during Minor League Spring Training. A fifth-round pick out of NCAA Division II Wayne State (Mich.) in 2019, he continues to show the ability to dominate hitters with his fastball and recently developed curveball.
Though the Astros' No. 3 prospect worked just 23 2/3 innings at short-season Tri-City during his pro debut and was limited to instructs in 2020, Brown has displayed enough stuff and pitchability to jump to High-A this year.
"He's pumping cheddar," Putila said. "He's averaged 97 mph in his last outing and ripped off a lot of really good curveballs. It's ace-type stuff, a Tyler Glasnow curveball, and he throws really hard. It's a matter of how efficient he'll be, but all indications are he'll stay in the zone."
Alternate training site
A strong summer in the Cape Cod League positioned right-hander Peter Solomon as a potential first-rounder in 2017, but control woes landed him in Notre Dame's bullpen that spring and dropped him to Houston in the fourth round. He threw strikes and reached High-A in his first full pro season, only to blow out his elbow in April 2019 and need Tommy John surgery.
Solomon's rehab went well and he showed that he had regained his stuff in instructional league last fall. The Astros' No. 14 prospect continued to impress in big league camp and at Houston's alternate training site in Corpus Christi, setting the stage for a pair of big league callups during the first month of this season. He pitched a scoreless inning of relief in each of his first two appearances in the Majors, though the long-term plan remains to make him a starter.
"He's comfortably throwing 93-95 mph with his fastball and has a nice power curveball," Putila said. "His slider has real nice shape and works against both left-handers and right-handers. He's really focused. We still want him to be a starter but we're banged up and he was the best arm available."
Shortstop Jeremy Pena, another potential replacement for Correa if he leaves via free agency, was playing his typical stellar defense while hitting the ball harder than ever at the alternate training site. He was taking well to mechanical adjustments that improved his timing at the plate and put him in a better position to launch balls. But he injured his left wrist diving for a grounder and required surgery that will keep him out for much of the season.
Something to prove
Shortstop Freudis Nova has some of the best tools in the system and homered twice in his first five games while making his full-season debut at age 19 in 2019. But Low-A pitchers quickly used his overly aggressive approach against him, and he batted just .259/.301/.369 that season. The coronavirus pandemic prevented him from getting a chance to rebound in 2020, when he was limited to instructional league.
Nova, Houston's No. 6 prospect, has been more selective at the plate and swung with more intent this spring, both in big league camp (where he went 6-for-14 with a pair of doubles) and at the alternate training site. He might have returned to Low-A to start the 2020 season that never was, but he'll open this year in High-A Asheville.
"Nova looks great," Putila said. "He's put on 35 pounds since he started the 2019 season and the increase in body weight has definitely translated. A few of our hitting coaches worked with him and got him taking better hacks in games rather than just putting the ball in play. It's great to see him make a lot of loud contact and take some walks."