These Astros prospects might be next called up

Whitley, Alvarez could help Houston this summer; Pressly on historic streak; Dodgers vs. Rays the series to watch

May 18th, 2019

The arrival of top prospects in the Majors has made headlines this season, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Eloy Jimenez, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Nick Senzel among those getting the call. This week, the Brewers promoted Keston Hiura, while the Rockies called up Brendan Rodgers.

That begs the question: Who will be the next blue-chip prospect to impact the 2019 season?

I posed that question to a handful of executives this week, and the two names that were mentioned had one thing in common: they both play in the Astros' organization.

“First name that comes to mind is Forrest Whitley,” one American League executive said. “But he’s off to a tough start.”

Indeed, Whitley is 0-2 with a 10.80 ERA in six outings (four starts) for Triple-A Round Rock. The 21-year-old, who ranks as the Astros’ No. 1 prospect (as well as the No. 9 overall prospect in MLB and the No. 2 RHP prospect) according to MLB Pipeline, has allowed 23 hits -- including seven home runs -- and 10 walks in 18 1/3 innings.

“It’s been a rocky start,” one AL GM said.

The Astros don’t seem concerned; Whitley is pitching at Triple-A for the first time at the age of 21, and he has never needed more than his stuff and plus command to succeed.

The other name to watch with the Astros is Yordan Alvarez, the club’s No. 3 prospect. Alvarez has played most of his Minor League career in left field, but he’s started eight of his 25 games in the field this season at first base, one of the few positions that could use a boost in Houston. The team entered the weekend leading the Majors in batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.354) and slugging percentage (.512), but the Astros rank 19th in the Majors in fWAR at first base, getting a .256/.312/.412 slash line from the group led by Yuli Gurriel.

Although outfielder Kyle Tucker (Houston’s No. 2 prospect, No. 13 overall in MLB) is the higher-ranked name in the Astros' organization, his numbers at Round Rock (.237/.315/.550, 11 homers, 24 RBIs) don’t approach what Alvarez has done for the team: .410/.497/.903 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs.

“He’s crushing it, and first base is more of a need for them,” the AL GM said. “That team is well-set.”

With players such as Alvarez, Tucker and Whitley trying to push their way to the Majors, the Astros might be in one of the best positions in the league as the summer approaches. Many teams use their top prospects as trade capital, but Houston might view them -- this trio of young 20-somethings, in particular -- as midsummer additions, giving the kids a chance to gain experience in a pennant race while getting a look at what they can do against big-league competition.

“They will roll that division, so they can break some guys in,” the first executive said. As for the idea of using Whitley as trade bait, the exec thinks that would never happen. “They behave as though Whitley is untouchable.”

The Astros entered the weekend with the best record in the Majors and an eight-game lead over the second-place Mariners in the AL West. However Houston decides to use its top three prospects, the club appears to be in great shape.

Bullpen bargain

Speaking of the Astros, pitched exceptionally well (0.77 ERA, 32 strikeouts and three walks in 23 1/3 innings) after being acquired from the Twins last summer, but Houston couldn’t have expected anything other than a slight regression in 2019.

Instead, Pressly has improved, starting this season as impressively as any reliever in history. The 30-year-old right-hander has not allowed a run in 18 appearances this season, posting a minuscule 0.45 WHIP in the process. He’s struck out 21 without issuing a walk, surpassing Paul Quantrill’s previous big league record of 17 straight outings without allowing a run or a walk. If there’s one tiny blemish on Pressly’s record, it’s inherited runners; he’s had three, allowing two of them to score.

Having gone 21 straight scoreless appearances to finish 2018, Pressly’s 39-game scoreless streak surpassed Craig Kimbrel for the longest in Major League history. Kimbrel, of course, remains unsigned as a free agent.

The Twins traded Pressly to the Astros on July 27, getting back outfielder Gilberto Celestino and right-handed pitcher Jorge Alcala, who rank as Minnesota’s Nos. 15 and 18 prospects. The Twins are off to a stellar start this season, though the bullpen ranks 10th in the AL with a 4.31 ERA. Won’t it be ironic if Minnesota spends the next couple months searching for a reliever in a trade when it had the answer sitting in its bullpen less than a year ago?

When Pressly signed his two-year, $17.5 million extension, some viewed it as a good setup man taking advantage of an extension-crazy market. Given the way he’s pitched this season, the Astros might have gotten themselves a tremendous bargain.

Series to watch: Dodgers at Rays (May 21-22)

This Interleague series is the most intriguing of the week, as the Dodgers and Rays match up in a potential World Series preview. OK, so we might be getting ahead of ourselves, but Tampa Bay will be fresh off another series in the Bronx when it heads home for this brief two-game set against the National League West-leading Dodgers.

These two teams have only played five series since Tampa Bay entered the league in 1998, the most recent being a home-and-home pair of two-game sets in 2016. The Dodgers hold the lead in the all-time matchup, winning eight of 13 games.

The intrigue with this series goes beyond the dugouts, of course. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman ran the Rays from 2006-14, helping build a contender that reached the World Series in '08 and made the playoffs three other times ('10, '11, '13) during his tenure.

Stealth star of the week

The Red Sox have been on a tear over the past three weeks, and while most of the conversation has centered around Chris Sale, J.D. Martinez and rookie Michael Chavis, the contributions of should not be overlooked.

In five games since last Friday, Devers went 10-for-23, slashing .435/.480/.783 with two home runs (he had hit only one in his first 155 plate appearances) and eight RBIs. Devers has been a force at the plate during Boston’s recent 12-3 run, slashing .375/.423/.609 with 15 RBIs in 15 games.