In recent history, August in Houston has included a few cornerstones: Heat & Humidity, Whataburger Dr. Pepper Shakes, and AL West multi-game leads for the Astros. But with the current state of baseball amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Houstonians are stuck inside their air-conditioned homes with UberEats delivering the Whataburger and without an AL West leading Astros team on TV. With the injury to Justin Verlander, the absence of Yordan Alvarez, and the constant pressure to prove their critics wrong, the Astros have struggled through the first 17 games of the season.
Regardless of the team’s indiscretions in 2018, the Astros have been one of the league’s most successful teams over the last five seasons. Their success has primarily been built on homegrown prospects, but the cost of acquiring veteran pitching/leadership in 2018 and 2019 has thinned out a once stacked farm system. While the long-term depth of the Astros minor leagues is a valid question, there are top prospects still in their system that will have an immediate impact on the remainder of the 2020 season.
These are my 10 Names to Know for the Houston Astros; players 1-6 are part of the 60-Man Player Pool for the 2020 season, while players 7-10 were not included but remain pivotal pieces of the Astros future. I’ve listed their 2020 preseason rank from Brandon Lute’s Astros Top 50 Prospects in parentheses.
Forrest Whitley, RHP (#1)
While Forrest Whitley wishes his name was on this list because of his five-pitch arsenal or his great Arizona Fall League stats (25 IP, 32 K, 9 BB, 2.88 ERA), the true reason is due to his injuries. Coming into the shortened 2020 season, Astros management, and fans for that matter, were expecting to see Forrest compete for a starter slot. With the departure of Gerrit Cole and now the forearm injury to Justin Verlander, August and September starts should have been Forrest’s chances to prove his abilities. But instead, Whitley was shutdown last week due to “arm soreness” and is being seen by team doctors before the Astros decide on the next move regarding their #1 prospect (#17 Overall Pick in 2016). Forrest Whitley still has the size, power, and pitches to be a MLB starter. What is becoming more and more uncertain is whether Forrest can shake the injury-prone reputation the last two years has thrown upon him. Keep an eye on the outcomes of these doctor’s visits, as it will impact the future of Whitley in Houston.
Jose Urquidy, RHP (#2)
Urquidy showed all of MLB what type of starter the native of Mazatlán, Mexico could be. In the 2019 Postseason, Urquidy went 1-0 with 10 IP, 12 K, 2 BB, and an ERA of 0.90. Urquidy was all but assured a rotation spot, having pitched to a 3.95 ERA with a 40-to-7 K/BB ratio in 41 innings last year. However, Jose never attended the Astros Summer Camp, with mystery surrounding way he didn’t. Manager Dusty Baker said it was due to “a condition that prevented them from reporting to the field.” Over the past week, Jose has been throwing off a mound this week, but is 7-10 days away from facing live batters. In the condensed schedule of the 2020 season, it looks like Urquidy will miss the whole first half of the season based on current updates. As mentioned above, this timeline is devastating news to an Astros team who is desperate for starting pitching depth. If the Astros are to regain their winning ways over the middle-third of the season, expect a fresh Jose Urquidy to help lead that charge when he returns to the mound.
José Urquidy, 95mph Fastball, 86mph Changeup and 81mph Slider, Overlay (synced at release). pic.twitter.com/6n4X3Ql16P
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 27, 2019
Abraham Toro, 3B/2B (#6)
With Alex Bregman’s new contract keeping him at the hot corner through 2024 and Jose Altuve‘s contract running through the same 2024 season, the future for Toro might not be in Houston at all. Abraham belted 17 HR and drove in 80 RBI while putting up a .938 OPS overall between AA and AAA, before making his MLB Debut on August 22nd, 2019. Toro was deservedly included in the 2020 Player Pool, so expect the Astros to use him as an injury call up for an infield position if/when needed. Without MiLB games to showcase Toro’s abilities, the Astros will take every opportunity to get Toro MLB experience so the trade value of this prospect doesn’t diminish. With the current struggles of Altuve (mental or physical), those opportunities for Toro could happen quickly.
Bryan Abreu, RHP (#4)
With a solid 13.5 K/9 and a 0.81 WHIP at the MLB level in 2019, Abreu was set firmly to begin the 2020 season in a bullpen role. After the Astros Summer Camp, Abreu was part of Houston’s Opening Day roster and worked mainly as a middle reliever over the first two weeks of the shortened season. Now, Bryan finds himself optioned off of the active roster, and at the alternate training site with other Astros in the player pool. During his four appearances this season, Abreu struggled with his control; walking seven in just 3.1 IP and having his FIP increase from 1.25 to a lofty 9.33. That inconsistent command will need to be addressed, as the compacted 2020 season forces teams to rely more heavily on quality bullpen innings. With the starting pitching questions the Astros are facing, it would be beneficial if Abreu returns to the MLB roster asap.
Taylor Jones, 1B/3B/OF (#24)
Jones is close to entering the “senior prospect” age bracket, but don’t tell him that. Jones has all the size (6’7″, 230) and power to be the future at 1B for the Astros. In 2019, Taylor raked a .889 OPS, 22 HR and 84 RBI while at AAA Round Rock. Those numbers combined with a solid Astros Summer Camp, Taylor showed enough ability to warrant a spot on the Opening Day active roster. But going hitless in his first two AB’s of the season, was not the start Houston expected out of the 19th Round draft pick in 2016. Taylor is set to be bounced back and forth from the active roster and the alternate training team, but could be one injury away from being an everyday contributor. With Yuli Gurriel becoming an unrestricted free agent after this 2020 season, Jones needs to capitalize on all his MLB at-bats he can take.
Today’s walkoff home run presented to you by Taylor Jones 💣 pic.twitter.com/BAI2dbsJuR
— Round Rock Express (@RRExpress) July 3, 2019
Jojanse Torres, RHP (#19)
Torres, who impressed coaches and teammates during Summer Camp is a pitching prospect with future closer potential. Torres is 6’4” and routinely unleashes triple-digit fastballs with high torque mechanics. Jojanse’s pitching strategy involves relying on his heater, while keeping hitters off-balance with deep-cutting sliders. These two pitches, with a developing curve, give Torres a high strikeout, late inning projection. In a shortened, condensed season that leverages bullpen depth and with new rules impacting minimum batters faced, a reliever who has 171 Ks in only 143.2 IP, while also only surrendering 4 HRs, has a huge upside for the Astros. Expect Jojanse to get MLB relief experience in the later months of the 2020 season as the active rosters expand.
Blair Henley, RHP (#41)
My predecessor, Brandon, was not shy about his love for Blair Henley’s talent and upside, and I have to agree 100%. Originally drafted by the Yankees in the 2016 Draft, Blair chose to develop his pitching in college. After three seasons being a starter for Texas, Henley quickly acclimated to the Gulf Coast League and NY-Penn League (1-1, 1.47 ERA, 36.2 IP, 50 Ks, 1.064 WHIP) while pitching mostly out of the bullpen. His fastball sits 88-92 with an outstanding curve. Being under the coaching of Brent Strom and watching future HOF’ers Justin Verlander & Zack Greinke will allow Henley to add a few more MPHs to the fastball and a few more rotations per second to his curveball. Even though Henley was a 7th round pick in 2019, he has the opportunity to progress quickly through the Astros farm system. A full MiLB season in 2021 will be Blair’s breakout year and all of MiLB will take notice.
Freudis Nova, SS (#3)
All prospects in the Astros organization lost massive development and growth opportunities with the cancellation of the 2020 MiLB season, and Freudis Nova might have been the greatest impacted. Freudis is regarded as the top non-pitching prospect in the Astros system. At just 20 years old, Nova displays extreme range in the defensive infield. During the 2019 season in the Midwest League, he split time between 2B, SS, and 3B. This strategic decision by the Astros leadership allows Nova to be developed at any infield position. With the previously discussed Abraham Toro and the soon to be discussed Jeremy Pena, the Astros strongest prospect area is their middle infield. The 2021 MiLB season will see Nova progress into A+ Fayetteville and AA Corpus Christi, where his physical growth should increase his batting statistics. While not being included in the Astros player pool for the 2020 season, Freudis Nova has positioned himself to be the heir-apparent to Carlos Correa, who has one more eligible year of Arbitration before free agency…that is unless Jeremy Pena has something to say about it.
The table is set.
Leading off for @QCRiverBandits tonight, Freudis Nova collected four hits, including this line drive down the third-base line, and picked up a walk for a perfect day at the plate.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 21, 2019
Jeremy Pena, SS (#5)
Speaking of heirs-apparent to Carlos Correa, Pena is up next. After a sluggish 2018 in the NY-Penn League where Pena struggled to put up .250 AVG, 1 HR, 10 RBI in 136 ABs, he quickly corrected course in 2019. Across A & A+, Pena developed an uncanny ability to always be on base. With his hitting excelling (.303 AVG, 7 HR, 54 RBI), Jeremy had 47 BB which led to him being a disruptive force on the bases. Pena swiped 20 stolen bases and scored 72 runs. The combination of good hitting, great speed, and amazing defense has Jeremy climbing prospect boards across baseball. In the 2021 MiLB season, look for Jeremy to work on plate discipline, as his 90 strikeouts in 2019 were one major cause for concern. Pena promises to be in the discussion of Astros starting SS in the 2022 MLB season.
Jordan Brewer, OF (#14)
While not currently slotted a Houston Top 10 prospect, Jordan Brewer is the player I follow most closely in the Astros farm system. Admittedly a ‘Homer Pick’, this Michigan Man was part of the core that took Wolverine Baseball into the College World Series in 2019. Throughout his amateur career, Brewer never played Summer League baseball and was recruited by multiple Division I football programs to play WR. Jordan can play all OF positions and has an absolute cannon of an arm (just ask JJ Bleday). Jordan will take a full 2021 MiLB season to work on hitting; specifically zone awareness and pitch identification. Brewer has tendencies to expand the strike zone and get too long with his swing. With the cancellation of the 2020 season, Brewer returned to his hometown in St. Joseph, MI where he is currently rehabbing from a knee surgery and focusing on his fundamentals. Once he’s able to return to the diamond, his natural abilities combined with his passion to learn baseball at the professional level should push the ceiling of this 3rd round pick out of Ann Arbor. Hail!
WHAT A 🚀 OF A THROW!
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 25, 2019