Astros: Korey Lee could be ready sooner than expected

Mandatory Credit: MLB photos via USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: MLB photos via USA TODAY Sports /
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Korey Lee, the Houston Astros top catching prospect, is turning heads in the minors.

Back in April, I mused that because of the lack of a 2020 minor league season, the Houston Astros might not get top catching prospect Korey Lee up to the major leagues until 2023. But with his play so far this season, Lee could force the team’s hand much earlier than that.

Before the pandemic wiped out the minor league season last year, Lee had only appeared in 64 professional games after being drafted in the first round (32nd overall) in 2019. He posted a somewhat pedestrian .268/.359/.371 line in those 64 games at low-A Tri-City after breaking out in a big way at Cal leading up to the draft. He clearly needed time to develop.

But the layoff doesn’t seem to have hurt him, as he started this year in High-A Asheville and hit .330/.397/.459 in 29 games. The big time power potential hadn’t shown itself yet, but since he earned a promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi, it has come out in a big way. In nine games, he’s hit .343/.378/.829 with five homers and has hit safely in every game.

MLB.com ranks Lee as the Astros fifth-best prospect, noting his plus raw power and plus arm behind the dish. He needed to improve his receiving and his strike zone management, and the scouting report notes he made some swing changes during the team’s fall instructional league. Obviously the work has paid off.

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What’s His ETA?

The 22-year-old Lee probably won’t make his debut this season considering it’s nearly July and he just now reached Double-A. The front office will likely want to make sure he gets more seasoning in the minors after not playing in meaningful games at all in 2020. But if he keeps hitting like this, the Astros won’t be able to keep him from cracking the big league roster next year.

What complicates matters is the team has both Martin Maldonado and Jason Castro under contract through 2022. They’re not going to carry three catchers unless rosters expand further, and neither veteran can be optioned to the minors. If Lee ends up pounding on the door to the majors next year, the Astros will have to move one of their incumbent catchers.

My money would be on Castro getting traded, probably for nothing more than cash considerations to a team that needs a solid backup. The Astros love Maldonado, and having him on hand as a backup/mentor to Lee would be invaluable. The young phenom could learn a lot about defense and handling a pitching staff from Machete.

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In the end, that might be the best scenario. Maldonado could finish his career with the Astros as Lee’s backup while the top prospect hopefully morphs into a regular All-Star. The early returns this year are encouraging, and if he can keep it up, we could see Lee on the major league roster sometime in 2022.

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