Some Houston Astros prospects have made significant strides in the team’s instructional league.
The loss of the 2020 minor-league season was especially difficult for the prospects who didn’t make their team’s player pool. Their meager salaries were at least covered through the season, but it’s the lack of games, practices and overall development that they’ve missed. Teams are trying to make up for that with their instructional leagues, and the Houston Astros have seen a few prospects make some significant strides.
One notable name that’s missing from the instructional league roster is top prospect Forrest Whitley, and since he’s the first name everyone asks about, it’s best to address him first. The short answer is we don’t know much about Whitley’s status. He had been shut down from throwing in early August, but the Astros haven’t provided much information about his status or the existence or extent of any injury.
With that being the case, fans should not expect to see Whitley in the major leagues to start the 2021 season. He may be in Spring Training if he’s healthy, but he will certainly need some time in the minors before he’s ready to make his big league debut. The clock is ticking on the gifted yet enigmatic pitcher, who’s in danger of being viewed as a bust.
The Ones Who Impressed
The Astros’ No. 2-ranked prospect, infielder Freudis Nova, has the tools to be a bona fide star at the major league level. He turns 21 in January, so he’s still quite young, and mainly needs more at-bats against advanced pitching. “The pitchers we had in camp had bigger velocities and good breaking stuff, so it was good for him,” assistant GM Pete Putila said. “He’s refining his plate discipline and approach. He’s starting to physically mature without losing much in the way of foot speed.”
Outfielder Zach Daniels, the team’s fourth round pick in the 2020 Draft out of Tennessee, was selected based on his raw tools and his strong performance in the 17 games his team played before the 2020 college season was canceled. His track record prior to that wasn’t good, but his tools alone are enough to earn him a No. 21 ranking among the Astros prospects.
“The things he does are freakish,” Putila said. “That’s the only way how to describe it. He’s as physically gifted as they come. His power-speed combination is pretty rare. He’s continuing to refine his swing. He’s starting his hands a bit higher so he has a smaller move to start. He’s getting his first move ironed out so he can elevate the ball the way he needs to. It was really encouraging.”
Top catching prospect Korey Lee was able to keep working during the down time by using a pitching machine at home. He’s also impressed the Astros with some changes he’s made to his swing. “He has quieted down his load and got his stride under control so he can use more of the middle of the field,” Putila said. “Defensively, he looked really good. He shortened his arm action and was throwing everybody out and continued to refine his receiving.”
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Hunter Brown, currently ranked as the team’s No. 6 prospect, is looking like an impressive pitcher in the making. “Hunter has got some big-time stuff,” Putila said. “He’s 96-98 mph with a huge curveball, a Tyler Glasnow-type curveball, an 86-88 mph slider and a changeup. He didn’t throw the curveball until he got to us. It’s really just a matter of refining his game, working on his locations and what-not. It’s impressive watching him pitch. He gave our hitters fits.”
With Whitley’s struggles and the fact that 2020 was basically a lost season for Bryan Abreu, Brown is looking like the Astros top pitching prospect. He still has a ways to go before he’ll be in the majors, as the 2019 draftee doesn’t even have a full season in the minors under his belt. But it’s encouraging that he’s really stepping up in his development.
The same can be said for Nova, who hasn’t played above Class-A. He could be a future answer in the infield if, for some crazy reason, the Astros do not sign Carlos Correa to a long-term deal. He has the ceiling of an absolute star, but it’ll be a while before we see him knocking on the door to the majors.
The Astros don’t have much in the way of top outfield talent in the upper minors. Their best outfield prospects — Daniels, Colin Barber and Jordan Brewer — are all in the lower minors and probably a couple of years away. The same goes for Lee, who is hopefully the team’s catcher of the future.
Most of the talent that’s major league ready, or close to it, has already been called up. That’s been a big help on the pitching side; guys like Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and Enoli Paredes made huge impacts in 2020. Abraham Toro and Taylor Jones are around as infield help if needed. But behind them, there isn’t a whole lot of top talent that could help in 2021. The Astros will have to look outside the organization for additional depth.