Pedro Leon Finally Signed. What Does the Farm System Look Like Now?

Every offseason, MLB fans and front offices alike look to their farm systems as value propositions. With the recent blockbuster trades of Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, lukewarm stove season has Astros fans similarly wondering how much leverage is available to work with within the player development system. Often, it’s important to distinguish between future projection and current value when talking about prospects, so keep that in mind as I go over some of these names.

As Apollo’s resident prospect writer, I’ll be discussing tools and future outlooks to the extent that I can. I feel compelled to provide a disclaimer: New faces will be hard to grade, as 2020 provided no minor league exhibitions and extremely limited media access to alternate site intersquads. In those cases, I’ll do my best to not simply retread what national prospect writers have said. For the players who have been around for longer than 2020-now, I like to think my time spent watching minor-league affiliates offers a good baseline for expectations. Despite all of the trades and graduations, the Houston farm system has some really interesting right-handed arms, and even a bat or two to watch out for.

  1. Forrest Whitley (RHP, ETA: 2021)

Astros fans seem to be tired of the Forrest Whitley hype train, and it is a little hard to blame them. Whitley was snagged out of high school in 2016, one year after the emerging Kyle Tucker. He is now 23, and far from a finished product. Something important to keep in mind is the developmental track of high school arms, historically. They always take time. In fact, of the five high school pitchers taken before Whitley in the 2016 draft, Ian Anderson (ATL, third overall) is the only one to produce even marginally at the MLB level so far. Whitley is not close to a bust yet despite what Twitter would have you believe, weird weight fluctuations and shoulder issues granted. If he were to come up and provide any MLB value in 2021 (as is expected) he would be right on track.

Stuff-wise, there isn’t much to say about Forrest that hasn’t already been said. 6’7 and wiry, he creates tremendous leverage with repeatable mechanics, able to maintain velocity deep into games. His fastball is electric, touching 98 on the best days but consistently sitting in the mid to high-90s with both explosive life and horizontal movement. What makes Forrest a truly elite prospect to dream on are four secondary pitches that all flash plus put-away potential. The curveball is sharp and violent, low 80’s and peaking at more than 3,000 RPM. It gets plenty of flails in the dirt. The changeup can be an excellent out pitch with armside fade against left-handed hitters. It may help with a third time through a lineup when it’s on, but like his other offerings needs fine tuning to be consistent. He also has a slider that sits mid-80s, with enough feel to alter its shape at will, occasionally turning into more of a low-90s cutter that is truly devastating. For a prospect who has done so much experimentation to figure out what works, we can expect some more experimenting with that cutter.

In his final outing at the alternate site in 2020, he faced 7 Astros farmhands and struck them all out, in a row. Some refinement of control would make Whitley a serviceable starter for as long as he’s healthy. A true grasp of command would transform him into a bonafide ace. With no additional steps forward in development, Whitley is still a Major Leaguer as-is, although perhaps not a difference maker. Think former Astros HS first round arms that fizzled (Lyles, Foltynewicz). Still big leaguers with some value, but this is certainly Whitley’s “show me” year to become more than that.

2. Pedro Leon (OF, ETA: 2021)

Pedro Leon is a breath of fresh air in a position player pipeline wrecked by trade packages and stripped draft picks. His actual outlook is also widely disputed, and I anticipate his ranking in the farm system will vary from different prospect outlets. Accepting a massive $4m signing bonus out of Cuba in January of 2021, Leon is a slightly undersized, five-tooled outfielder who can stick in CF long-term. Leon played the last two seasons in the Cuban National Series (the same league Yuli Gurriel tore up, a level of competition similar to AA-AAA), offering a .359/.420/.678 slash line, which is good for a 1.098 OPS over 65 games. Already 22 years old, he’s also the most advanced prospect in the international signing class, and should begin the year at a fairly advanced level of minor-league ball, perhaps with the AA Hooks. Because of this built-in advancement leading to more certainty, his value is higher now than somebody with a similar ceiling, like #10 Collin Barber. In a system so starved for outfield depth, Leon will be given every opportunity to rise quickly.

Leon already has a mature approach at the plate, able to take walks and drive mistake pitches with authority. He shows excellent power to the pull side, a quick bat, and gap power to the opposite field with a willingness to take the outside pitch that direction. In 2019, he ditched a massive leg kick for a more controlled load and started looking the part of a major league hitter more consistently. His head is still at and through contact, and he creates rotational power now. At their last update, FanGraphs gave him a 30 grade hit tool with potential for 40, both seeming to fly in the face of his Cuban League production. There’s some debate about the projectability of his hit tool, but I do like the newer, quieter mechanics, and would argue the hit tool shapes up closer to 50 or 55. The ball flies off his bat the way you expect from top prospects, but power is especially reassuring to see from his 5’10 frame. As the number 7 ranked prospect in the international class by MLB.com, a case can certainly be made to vault him into the number 3 spot in that class.

Overall, Leon has no weaknesses, but lacks truly elite tools as well. He’s shown the ability to hit for average in Cuba and the potential for 25+ major league home runs. Defensively, Leon is a plus runner and could theoretically steal bases, but lacks the baserunning instincts of, say, Kyle Tucker, as well as blazing speed that would warrant anything higher than a 60 grade. His arm also grades out as above average. The combination of his physical maturity while retaining both speed and arm strength makes center field a viable home for the future. His profile is that of a potentially good all-around Major Leaguer, but not a generational hitter.

3. Jeremy Pena (MIF, ETA: 2022)

In sharp contrast to Whitley, the Jeremy Pena hype train has just started rolling, and is quickly snowballing. As 2018’s 3rd round selection out of the University of Maine, the son of Geronimo Pena has always been regarded as a glove-first, slick fielding shortstop. Beginning in 2019, he completely overhauled his swing mechanics, adopting a hitting philosophy similar to Jake Marisnick’s later years with the ball club, and one that is increasingly more common in today’s MLB. His swing became more connected to the back hip, letting the barrel whip through the zone with more force than it did in college and rookie ball, at the expense of catching up to the high fastball. He bought into launch angle philosophy, looking to lift the ball now, and does so at an impressive rate. To go along with the mechanics, Pena also transformed his body. He was wiry and quick-twitch as a draftee, fueling his reputation as a contact-hitting, scrappy, defensive-minded shortstop. At 23, he is physically mature and looks like a tank for a middle infielder.

In 2019, Pena slashed .303/.385/.440 in 109 games across low and advanced A ball. To say it was a coming-out party would be an understatement. His new hitting profile and the gamble it represented was on full display, and seemingly winning the gamble altered his prospect value dramatically. Baseball Prospectus listed him as the number 100 prospect in baseball at the beginning of 2020. Recently, Pena has been hitting fairly well in Dominican Winter Ball as well, slashing .309/.349/.430 in his 30 games there. While the new production is nice, I think it’s important to note Pena’s game has some holes. He isn’t walking as much as one would like from a seasoned college hitter, and the offensive profile as a whole tilts closer to major league average than a true plus hitter as it stands, mostly due to average power potential. However, combine this emerging offensive skill with his defensive prowess and you’re looking at an extremely high floor, likely a major leaguer sooner rather than later. His arm strength is a little fringy at shortstop, but quick actions and instincts play well there. In my opinion, Pena’s ceiling projects as a fine shortstop with the potential to be a first-rate second baseman, something between Jose Iglesias and a right-handed Kolten Wong, in terms of value. A high floor defensive-minded MIF is necessarily valuable for a franchise banking on the oft-injured but explosively talented Carlos Correa, and Pena can fill in the Jack Mayfield gap now with more ceiling yet to offer.

4. Luis Garcia (RHP, ETA: 2021)

Maybe I’m higher on Garcia than most (well, maybe me and Baseball Prospectus, who have him at number 3), but I really liked what I saw from him in both 2019 and 2020. Garcia was a part of a truly elite, flamethrowing Fayetteville Woodpeckers rotation that was always fun to tune into, at one time in 2019 featuring Garcia himself, Cristian Javier, Jose Alberto Rivera (lost in Rule 5 to LAA this year), Enoli Paredes, and Jojanse Torres. Javier stole the major league show last season, but Garcia was Fayetteville’s de facto ace. We saw Garcia make a few appearances in 2020 because he was built up to an inning eating workload, including the ALDS game 5 start, and the raw stuff played up en route to a 2.92 ERA and 0.97 WHIP on the short year.

Garcia has a potential future as a starter, and will not necessarily be relegated to bullpens. His fastball has riding life and sits in the mid 90’s, averaging 94 MPH and T-97 in his MLB starts with a respectable 2280 RPM spin. His changeup is undeniably plus, the best in the system after Jose Urquidy’s graduation. He used it to nullify lefties especially but also found some confidence throwing it to right handed batters as an out pitch, something I am always keen to look for; RHP-RHB changeups are an easy way to prove the effectiveness of the offering’s break. Garcia’s two qualities that restrict his upside are a lack of true command (which can be improved, his mechanics are fairly quiet and it looks to be a problem that will be alleviated with experience), and the absence of a wipeout breaking ball. In the minors, Garcia primarily used a loopy curveball that was less than ideal. In 2019, he transformed its shape into more of a sharp biting slider in the low-mid 80’s. He still has both pitches in the arsenal, but the slider shows the potential to be plus eventually while the curveball does not. As was the case with Bielak (and a large part of my theory on why Bielak struggled in successive starts), the Astros seem to be better at getting the most out of plus breaking balls than plus changeups, which will make Garcia’s development of the slider crucial. He can be a good mid-level starter with strikeout stuff if his command and slider both improve, and profiles as a workable bullpen piece without those developments.

5. Alex Santos (RHP, ETA: 2025)

A draft pick! I never thought I’d see the day. Santos is the reward for Gerrit Cole becoming a representative of himself, and the Astros were very pleased when he fell to the end of the second round this past draft. A 6’3 right hander from high school in the Bronx, Santos has the highest active spin rates among any high school arm taken in the 2020 draft. His mechanics are simple and repeatable, without much effort. There is clearly the potential for more velocity in his fastball that runs 91-95 MPH for the 18 year old. His offspeed offerings will require some work, although the slider already looks to be a suitable pitch at all levels, and should be a plus offering as he moves forward. Santos, more than anything, represents a blank slate with the prerequisite spin rates to succeed for the Astros player development system.

6. Korey Lee (C, ETA: 2022)

The Astros developed a nasty habit under the later years in Luhnow’s tenure of…well, not really scouting amateur stateside players at all, and opting instead to essentially draft based off a spreadsheet. There have certainly been hits from that strategy but as a whole, it leads to a lot of low-ceiling, high-floor college bats whose past performance is weighed heavier than future projection. At first glance, Korey Lee appears to fit that pattern. A perceived third-round talent out of Cal, the recent switch to catcher from shortstop led the Astros to fall in love and take him at the end of 2019’s first round. Slashing .337/.416/.619 in his Junior year as the Cal backstop made the spreadsheet fall in love as well. However, upon examining Lee’s tools and profile, he represents a ceiling that can potentially help the major league club in 2022 and beyond.

Lee’s best tool is his arm, which is a cannon behind the plate. He nabbed 33 percent of baserunners in short season A ball in 2019, a great clip for his first taste of professional catching. Again, he just switched over from shortstop recently, so there is a need for real game experience behind the plate. Backing up his arm is an above-average power tool, as Lee’s raw power is what really made the Astros reach for him. Between those two tools, as long as Lee progresses defensively as his actions indicate he is able to, he has a solid floor as a backup catcher with some pop at the major league level. What makes Lee really interesting, though, is his hit tool. It isn’t great yet. His swing and load are incredibly busy, with a lot of moving parts. There is a long-lasting leg kick, hand movement, weight shifting, too many timing mechanisms, vertical head movement, just a lot going on. He’s working on simplifying it, and if Lee can barrel more consistently and be more willing to walk, I see a lot of Chris Iannetta, or perhaps Ryan Doumit in Korey Lee’s future offensive approach.

7. Freudis Nova (MIF, ETA: 2023)

Freudis Nova might have the best combination of raw tools for a bat in the system, but he has not put them together yet in the minors. A 70-grade arm that is truly Correa-esque (up to 97 in game action), plus runner and defender with excellent bat speed, Nova has endless upside and the potential to wind up as a 20-20 player at a premium position. Like many young, toolsy players, Nova’s success is going to hinge on his plate discipline. He flashed a hit tool already, hitting .308 across 41 games of rookie ball at age 18. The issue really comes from his propensity to swing at everything. And I do mean everything. Nova is not up there looking to walk, and operates on that philosophy to a fault, often times restricting his power potential by swinging at bad pitches.

I am not a strong believer that Nova will alter his approach in a meaningful enough way to tap into all of his power potential. I think he will always be a streaky hitter, and that pitchers will eventually exploit his over-aggressiveness to limit his ceiling. With that being said, even a free-swinging Nova has a chance of becoming a solid starting infielder on a contender, especially if the hit tool he flashed earlier comes back in the next few pivotal developmental seasons.

8. Hunter Brown (RHP, ETA: 2022)

Hunter Brown is a 22 year old RHP taken in the fifth round out of Division II Wayne State in 2019, primarily for his power fastball nearing triple digits and durable frame. Brown has two fastballs, a relatively flat four seamer that tops at 98 and a two seamer in the low-mid 90s with sink. He keeps his front shoulder closed for what seems like an eternity, leading to some deception, and the delivery reminds me most of Tyler Glasnow, though perhaps a bit more three-quarters than over-the-top. The arm circles are similar. Unlike the 6’8 and lanky Glasnow, Brown is 6’3, and is therefore not quite as able to reach towards the plate and deposit the heater behind the barrel in the same manner.

At MLB.com’s last time of reporting, Brown’s slider was given a 55 grade, listed as his best offspeed pitch. If assistant GM Pete Putila’s comments are true, that would appear to be the case no longer, as the Astros have been in the lab with Brown to develop his fringy curveball into a complete hammer, especially during his time at the alternate site. It’s said to be a true 12-6 now, a development that only serves to exacerbate the Glasnow comp from his delivery. The changeup needs a lot of refinement to be effective, and for Brown to stick as a starter he may need the changeup to come along, something I don’t see as realistic. That isn’t to say he cannot start in the future, he may be among best starter options left in the system. Regardless, a realistic outlook for Brown is also one of a backend reliever, as he has trouble carrying anything beyond mid-90s past his fourth inning of work. Should the Astros organization choose to go this route, Brown’s skill set would be perfect in an opener role for either LMJ or Cristian Javier in the future, mitigating slightly their respective inabilities to pitch deep into ball games.

9. Bryan Abreu (RHP, ETA: 2021)

Bryan Abreu is the largest faller in my rankings from last season, but by no means am I writing him off. I expect Abreu to be either a bullpen piece for years to come in Houston, or the centerpiece in a trade package this offseason. Still only 23 years old, Abreu has plenty of ceiling to grow into. His 2020 was a disaster, as he showed up to the second spring training clearly out of shape and began the year with a frustrating inability to throw strikes or control his wicked slider. The organization sent him down after a few outings primarily to send a message (that message being, “you’d better get in shape or we’ll call up 7 arms ahead of you that you’ve never heard of”, something they followed through with), and Abreu promptly landed on the IL with a certain unnamed virus and never managed to work his way back.

Abreu still has all the tools he showed when he broke through in 2019, pitching well down the stretch for the big league club. He showed two double-plus breaking balls (slider, curveball) and a fastball up to 96 with arm-side run. An (in-shape) Abreu is ready right now to contribute as a reliever. He would have served as a secondary setup man in 2020 had he been locked in and ready. The control is still shaky, but he would not be the first reliever for raw stuff to overshadow those issues. The reason he has dropped to 9th is due primarily to my belief that he will not end up as a starter, a potential that used to be baked into his value. Other teams may still see him as a starter, which would make his value quite a bit higher in trade conversations. The Astros themselves might still be grooming him to eventually start, but I would be ready to lock him into the bullpen and let him thrive in that role, personally.

10. Colin Barber (OF, ETA: 2024)

Barber is the last of the toolsy position prospects to dream on, in my opinion. There are other serviceable bats in the system, but Barber represents the last potential difference maker. He slipped to the fourth round of the 2019 draft as a high school bat due to perceived signability issues, but the Astros managed to convince him with a $1m bonus, significantly over slot value. Barber has a surprisingly mature approach for a now-19 year old, backed up by his .387 OBP and below average K rate in his first 99 rookie ball ABs. He has a projectable frame that will surely add on power and mass over the next few years, a quick left-handed stroke that can get loud, and is currently a plus runner. Barber is another 20-20 candidate at his peak, but it will necessitate a lot of things going right in his development.

A testament to both Barber’s outlook and the thin farm system, he was invited to the alternate site at the end of 2020, as a 19 year old fresh out of high school. In his first at-bat there, he hit a pull-side nuke 403 feet off of a high heater from Ralph Garza, into the wind at Whataburger Field. He’s been compared to Alex Bregman for his competitiveness and fire, comments of which you are free to take or leave on whether they move the needle. Regardless, there aren’t many outfielders to watch out for, and Barber is certainly one of them.

11. Jairo Solis (RHP, ETA: 2022)

Jairo Solis is an intriguing enigma, primarily because he hasn’t pitched since 2018 due to Tommy John surgery. Before his injury, he was reaching all the way back for a lively 97 MPH heater, with more polish of command and three offspeed pitches than Abreu, or even Luis Garcia. His slider, curveball, and changeup all show potential to be average or better, and average would be adequate with a flamethrowing fastball. The club decided to add him to the 40-man roster, indicating that he is a part of the plan for the future. Often, Tommy John surgery for young prospects leads to them throwing even harder down the road, and Solis is still only 21 years old. The uncertainty of Solis coming off surgery is enough to suppress his ranking for now, but I would not be surprised if he is near the top of the list for 2022.

Solis is a true starting pitching prospect that will probably not see a move to the bullpen due to solid, repeatable mechanics as well as tremendous length and body control. He was always among the youngest players at his level, reaching full-season A ball at the age of 19. Therefore, he is still ahead of the development curve despite losing two full seasons to Tommy John and a pandemic. He can compete for perhaps the highest non-Whitley pitching ceiling in the entire system. In a system starved for them, Solis could be a long-term solution.

Other Players to Watch Out For

Tyler Ivey (RHP, ETA: 2021)

You will probably be seeing Tyler Ivey in 2021 with the major league club, as he is among the first options for injury replacements and can slot in as a starter or reliever. Like Solis, he too was added to the 40-man roster this offseason, indicating that the Astros are planning to use him, or at least are afraid to let him go. A lanky 6’4 frame creates some leverage for Ivey to spin his best pitch – a 60 grade curveball, which he is not afraid to use in a get-me-over capacity as well as a strikeout pitch. Like many of the high-floor pitchers the Astros spent their recent draft picks on, Ivey has four pitches that are all usable at the major league level without any of them being truly elite, and shows plus spin rates. He operates primarily by alternating eye levels, climbing the ladder with his fastball in the low to mid 90s and dropping the loopy curveball to tunnel off of it.

Ivey and Brandon Bielak are not too far apart in profile, but Ivey more consistently fills up the zone despite some busy mechanics. Additionally, I believe the plus curveball playing off his fastball is better suited with the Astros strategy (and Maldonado’s pitch calling) than Bielak’s plus changeup serves him. Regardless, they will be competing for a sixth or seventh starter position without a free agent signing, a place that always comes into relevance over the course of a long season. Ivey owns a career 3.08 ERA over 200 innings of work in the minors, and spent his 2020 mostly coming back from minor injuries at the alternate training site.

Taylor Jones (CIF, OF, ETA: 2021)

Jones got his cup of coffee last year. While somewhat unexciting, Jones may end up being part of the solution to the corner outfield vacancies. Minute Maid’s left field is a position he can play without being a butcher, despite his time devoted mostly to first base. He is a plus defender at 1B surely, and would be perhaps slightly below average in the OF. I have always been particularly impressed with Jones’ plate discipline, consistently posting BB/K ratios on the right side of 1:2 despite a 6’7 frame. In spring training, he was barreling everything in sight and spraying line drives all over the field. Certainly, Jones has some pop as well, able to offer roughly 20 HR each in his last two minor league years and the potential to do the same at the major league level. Unfortunately, he is already 27 years old, and is essentially maxed out as a cost-controllable injury replacement or platoon bat at his ceiling. However, he can succeed in those roles and provide value, especially against LHP, where he put up a 1.046 OPS in AAA last season. Yuli Gurriel is also going to be 37 years old, so knowing what Jones is all about may be relevant for fans of the big league club regardless of the OF situation.

Brett Conine (RHP, ETA: 2021-2022)

Conine is perhaps the most overlooked name in the system, probably because he does not have the fastball velocity that stands out. Another high-floor starter, Conine actually owns two of my highest graded tools of the entire system in his command (60) and changeup (60, right behind Luis Garcia). His fastball velocity ticked up as a starter, even higher than it was as Cal State Fullerton’s closer, sitting in the low 90s now. Both of his breaking balls have the potential to be plus offerings due mostly to shape and location. Conine reminds me a lot of Jose Urquidy before his additional jump in fastball velocity. He’s one of the names I have gotten to watch a good deal of, thanks to his time with Fayetteville and Corpus Christi in 2019. He stands out as significantly more advanced than his competition, and if you’ll excuse the cliché, shows pitchability beyond his tools. Any additional fastball velo or explosiveness to be unlocked by a player development system that loves doing just that would make him an innings eating stalwart.

Now 24 years old, Conine’s career minor league numbers are impressive. He has a career 2.16 ERA with a system-best 4.3 K/BB ratio over 146 innings. Ending his 2019 in AA should have put him on the short list for rotation help with a full season under his belt in 2020, but alas he may need to prove it for the better part of another year in AAA. He represents an extremely high floor backend starter option that can eat innings, and offers some assurance to a rotation with an oft-injured LMJ and nearly 40 year old Zack Greinke. Odds are he does not become any more than the similarly-profiled and waived Rogelio Armenteros, but a velo uptick would do wonders.

Zach Daniels (OF, ETA: 2023)

After disastrous freshman and sophomore campaigns with the bat at Tennessee, Daniels got hot at the right time and slashed .357/.478/.750 over 56 ABs in his shortened Junior season. That hot stretch was enough for the Astros to grab him with their 4th round selection this past draft, but before putting too much stock in those numbers; 17 games of production is what it is. A .225 career college hitter is the furthest thing from a lock.

However, that’s not to take away from Daniels’ ceiling, which is very similar to former Astros farmhand Derek Fisher’s. He has a solid power-speed blend that makes his profile interesting – Daniels runs a 6.4 with a physically mature 6’1, 215 lb frame and flashed exit velocities nearing 110 mph at his last showcase, as well as an average arm that should allow him to play all three OF positions. His swing mechanics are geared for contact at the next level, but he remains stiff at the plate and without the fluidity to earn even an average MLB hit tool. Daniels is compact to the ball and creates loud contact to all fields, but restricts his own power potential with a less-than-ideal bat path, along with a weakness in reaching the inside fastball. He would be lucky to receive a 30-grade hit tool at time of writing, but there is a foundation there to be built on certainly. If he makes significant swing adjustments, the raw athleticism and baseball instincts would make him a viable candidate as a future fourth outfielder.

The system is not quite dead, but it is top-heavy, with more high-floor prospects ready to go in the near future than high-ceiling names for years down the road. As-is, there is not quite enough value to pull of a truly blockbuster trade, unless the new front office cuts ties with Whitley. Some steps forward from specific pieces like Solis, Nova, Daniels, and Brown, though, would change that valuation for next year even as the Astros face another year of stripped draft picks.

Who are you most excited to watch for next season?

Thank you for reading, go ‘stros.

Ben (@midzee4)

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