HOUSTON -- The Astros were trailblazers in signing players out of Venezuela in the 1990s, a group that included Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Melvin Mora and Richard Hidalgo, though most of those players wound up flourishing with other clubs.
The best international signing in club history -- José Altuve -- also hailed from Venezuela, but after the Venezuelan boom was over. The Astros’ most impactful recent international signing is Cuban Yuli Gurriel, who’s been a productive player who started on the 2017 World Series championship team.
These are the Astros’ top 5 international prospects of all-time:
1) José Altuve
Altuve first caught Houston’s attention while playing second base for the Venezuelan 16-and-under national team. The Astros sent Omar Lopez to watch a player named Angel Nieves, but Lopez couldn’t take his eyes off “the little guy.” Special assistant Al Pedrique went to watch Altuve and his ability to put the bat on the ball couldn’t be ignored. Pedrique met with Altuve’s family and offered him $15,000 to sign. “I was putting that money in my pocket before I answered that,” Altuve said. The rest is history. Altuve is a six-time All-Star and three-time batting champion and earned the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player Award.
2) Bobby Abreu
Signed by the Astros out of Venezuela in August 1990, Abreu won the Astros’ Minor League Player of the Year Award in 1996 and made his big league debut later that season. The Astros left Abreu unprotected in the '97 MLB Expansion Draft, instead deciding to keep Hidalgo, and Tampa Bay selected him sixth overall and later dealt him to the Phillies, where he became a star. Abreu played 18 years in the big leagues and cranked 288 homers with 1,363 RBIs.
3) Cesar Cedeno
One of the first players discovered by Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick while he was director of scouting for the Astros, Cedeno was signed at 16 years old out of the Dominican Republic in 1967. A five-tool prospect who would later draw comparisons to Willie Mays, Cedeno spent 17 years in the big leagues but was a star for a decade in Houston. He spent 12 years with the Astros and slashed .289/.351/.454 with 343 doubles, 55 triples, 163 homers, 778 RBIs and 487 stolen bases before injuries took their toll. He won five consecutive National League Gold Glove Awards (1972-76) and was a four-time All-Star.
Like Abreu, Santana was another one who got away from the Astros. Discovered by legendary scout Andres Reiner, Santana worked out at the Astros’ Venezuelan academy while the team decided whether he’d be a hitter or a pitcher. Santana’s arm speed was too good to ignore, and he started pitching full-time. He was left unprotected in the 1999 Rule 5 Draft and was taken by the Marlins then traded in a pre-Draft deal to the Twins. We know the rest. A four-time All-Star, Santana went 139-78 with a 3.20 ERA in 12 seasons with the Twins and Mets and won AL Cy Young Awards in 2004 and ’06.
5) Terry Puhl
A native of Melville, Saskatchewan, Puhl was signed in September 1973 by scout Wayne Morgan, who saw Puhl win the MVP Award at a national tournament and became enamored with his left-handed swing. He was called up to the big leagues on his 21st birthday in 1977 and never left. Puhl played all but 15 of his 1,531 career games with the Astros during a career that spanned a couple of different Astros eras. He hit .280 with 62 homers and 435 RBIs as a big leaguer and batted .526 (10-for-19) in the 1980 NL Championship Series to break Pete Rose’s record for most hits in the series.