Houston Astros top prospect list 2020: Forrest Whitley remains on top after down year
The Astros don't have the kind of farm system that they used to
With the regular season concluding, we've decided to take a look at each team's future -- not by using a crystal ball or other psychic abilities, but by evaluating their farm systems. Below you'll find our ranking of the top five prospects in the organization -- sorted by perceived future potential -- as well as five other players who fit various categories. Those categories are:
2020 contributor: A player who is likely to play a role for the big-league team next season.
Analyst's pick: A player who is a strong statistical performer and/or whose underlying measures are better than the scouting reports suggest.
Riser: A player on the way up.
Faller: A player on the way down.
One to watch: An interesting player to keep in mind (for whatever reason).
These rankings were compiled after talking with various industry sources about the systems (and players) in question. It should be acknowledged that this process is more art than science, and that there are limits to ordinal rankings. Still, it's an intuitive system, and our hope is that the write-ups will answer any questions by providing additional context and analysis of each player -- such as their pluses and minuses; the risk factors involved; and their estimated arrival date.
One last word on eligibility: we're following MLB's rookie guidelines by disqualifying any player with more than 130 big-league at-bats or 50 innings pitched.
The Astros don't have the farm system they used to, but there are some names worth knowing.
1. Forrest Whitley, RHP
Forrest Whitley had one of the most disappointing seasons in the minors. He entered the year in the running as the best pitching prospect in baseball -- and one who seemed destined to make his big-league debut before summer faded to fall -- and ended it with a 7.99 ERA in 59 innings over various levels.
When Whitley is right, he looks like a front-of-the-rotation starter thanks to his size and arsenal. He didn't look right throughout the year, however, and he battled his mechanics to the tune of walking nearly seven per nine innings. That is, as the kids say, not great.
Progress isn't always linear, and indeed sometimes it's beneficial for the player to experience some adversity -- the on-the-field, struggling type, that is -- before they reach the Show. Whitley pitched better in the Arizona Fall League, so keep an eye on whether he can get back on track in 2020. If not, he's going to slide down the list quickly.
2. Freudis Nova, INF
Freudis Nova saw his first taste of action above rookie ball in 2019, and didn't quite fare as well as hoped, hitting .259/.301/.369 while getting reps at three positions.
Nova is likely to end up at second or third base in the long run, and his profile is more slanted toward the offensive end. That puts additional pressure on him improving his approach, as he's too swing-prone at this point.
If Nova can make the necessary adjustments -- and who knows at this point -- he has a chance to develop into an above-average hitter with some versatility, making him useful as a bench piece at minimum.
3. Bryan Abreu, RHP
Bryan Abreu jumped straight from Double-A to the majors this season, and pitched well in a limited sample by fanning 40 percent of the batters he saw in a relief role. It's possible that's the capacity he's used in for most of his career, since he's yet to throw 100 innings in a season and has struggled in the past with his command.
Abreu took well to the bullpen in part because he spammed the opposition with his slider. He threw it nearly 44 percent of the time, and generated whiffs on an impossible 64.5 percent of the swings taken against it. Abreu also showed off his mid-90s fastball and a curveball.
Presumably the Astros will have Abreu in their Triple-A rotation to start the season. He's almost certain to see more big-league action in 2020, and there's a nonzero chance he's pitching high-leverage innings by the time October rolls around.
4. Korey Lee, C
Houston's first-round pick, Korey Lee is a well-built, athletic backstop who was considered an overdraft at No. 32. After all, he'd hit just 238/.328/.426 as a sophomore at Cal.
Lee has a quick bat and a strong arm, but needs to work on the nuance aspects of the position. The Astros had him play a little first base and outfield during his initial exposure to pro ball, suggesting they might envision him as a multi-positional prospect.
5. Jeremy Pena, SS
Jeremy Pena has a lot working in his favor, beginning with his bloodlines -- he's the son of Geronimo Pena, who played in parts of seven big-league seasons.
This Pena is a plus defender at shortstop who can hit a lick. He split the season between Single- and High-A, hitting .303/.385/.440. He's unlikely to pack much punch, but he has shown an appreciable willingness to accept walks and to hit for average.
Pena figures to reach Double-A at some point this season, putting him in line for a potential 2021 call-up. His defensive ability gives him a high floor, so expect to see him in the majors someday.
2020 contributor: Garrett Stubbs, C
Garrett Stubbs has been featured on these lists since approximately the beginning of time, give or take a few years. The knock on him remains the same: He's on the smaller side, which has presumably contributed to a rash of durability woes. Including 2019, Stubbs has yet to tally as many as 400 plate appearances in a season. He's normally productive when he plays, yet it might be in his best interest to branch out and try other positions -- not so he can move off catcher completely, but so that he can stick in the lineup without taking the beating catching necessitates.
Analyst's pick: Taylor Jones, 1B/OF
Listed at 6-foot-7, Taylor Jones cuts an imposing figure in the batter's box. His first full season in Triple-A saw him hit .291/.388/.501 with 22 home runs -- a performance that could make him appealing to a team seeking a cheap bench bat in the Rule 5 draft this winter. He'll turn 26 in December so the clock is ticking before he's labeled just another right-right Quad-A player.
Riser: Cristian Javier, RHP
Right-hander Cristian Javier originally reached High-A in 2017. It took him until 2019 to get to Double-A, but the wait was worth it as he threw 74 innings of 2.07 ERA ball while fanning nearly 14 batters per nine. Javier's arsenal isn't quite as dominant as those numbers suggest, however, he does a spread of average or better offerings. The catch is that his delivery prevents him from throwing consistent strikes, and he's probably just a reliever in the end -- albeit a reliever who could pitch in the majors as soon as 2020.
Faller: Cionel Perez, LHP
Having debuted in 2018, it seemed likely that Cionel Perez would see more time in the majors than he did. He finished the year having appeared in just five big-league games in addition to having thrown all of 54 minor-league innings. Perez has now seen his innings total decrease in consecutive seasons, which isn't a great sign for someone who is on the small side and who reportedly had his signing bonus decreased due to medical concerns. He has good enough stuff to help the Astros in some role or another in 2020 -- provided, that is, he stays healthy.
One to watch: Enoli Paredes, RHP
Enoli Paredes is a short right-hander with a violent delivery that sees him land hard on his front leg. Predictably, he has below-average command. Still, Paredes has a good fastball-curveball combination, and ought to have a big-league future as a reliever. He's already achieved some success in Double-A, and should be added to the 40-man roster this winter. That makes a 2020 debut a decent possibility for him.
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