Houston Astros 2021 Minor League Preview

Freudis Nova, Quad Cities River Bandits, July 28, 2019 - photo credit Jayne Hansen, @JayneWTHB on Twitter, on Flickr

Minor League Baseball is back, baby!!! Let’s break down the 2021 rosters for the Astros’ four affiliated clubs in Fayetteville, Asheville, Corpus Christi and Sugar Land. We can see where the top prospects in the system will begin their seasons and some storylines to follow as the minor league season unfolds.

Sugar Land Skeeters (AAA)

The Skeeters join the affiliated ranks and the Astros system for the first time in 2021. The club was founded in 2012 and had success in the independent ranks before the Astros purchased an ownership stake in 2020. Sugar Land’s proximity to Houston made the club a logical choice for the Astros who established the Skeeters as their AAA club during the minor league realignment process this past offseason. Mickey Storey, who managed the AAA team at Round Rock the last two seasons, continues in that role with the Skeeters. Hitting coach Ben Rosenthal also enters his third year in the role at AAA while Erick Abreu moves up from Single-A to take on the pitching coach role for the Skeeters.

Top 50 Prospects starting at AAA:
Tyler Ivey, RHP (#13); Jojanse Torres, RHP (#18); Taylor Jones, 1B/DH (#19); Shawn Dubin, RHP (#26); Brett Conine, RHP (#27); Ronnie Dawson, OF (#30); Nivaldo Rodriguez, RHP (#33); Austin Hansen, RHP (#37); Colton Shaver, INF (#39); Bryan De La Cruz, OF (#44)

The strength of the Astros system going into the 2021 season is pitching depth. The AAA roster is loaded with right handed pitching that is big-league ready or very close to it. I’m particularly interested to see how Tyler Ivey looks in his first taste of AAA competition. Will the high strikeout rate translate to the highest level of the minors? Does he have an MLB ready third pitch and a shot at the rotation or does he settle in as a fastball/curveball reliever? Jojanse Torres and Brett Conine have similar upside to Ivey and could easily jump ahead in line with strong starts.

The lineup in Sugar Land isn’t loaded with future big league regulars, but both Taylor Jones and Ronnie Dawson have played for the Astros already this season. Jones has played really well so far and he’ll be a likely call-up if injuries hit almost anywhere in the Astros lineup. Visitors to Sugar Land games are also likely to see a fair amount of organizational depth players like Alex De Goti, Garrett Stubbs, and Abraham Toro in the lineup on a regular basis. A couple of big names are conspicuously absent from the Skeeters roster. Pre-season #1 prospect Forrest Whitley was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery and #3 prospect Jeremy Pena who figured to be the starting shortstop for the Skeeters will miss significant time with an injured wrist.

Corpus Christi Hooks (AA)

2021 will mark the Hooks’ 20th season as an Astros affiliate (assuming you don’t count the non-existent 2020 season). Former big leaguer Gregorio Petit will make his managerial debut for the Hooks. Graham Johnson returns as the pitching coach and Rafael Pena moves up from Fayetteville to take over the hitting coach duties in Corpus Christi.

Top 50 Prospects starting at AA:
Pedro Leon, SS/OF (#2); Hunter Brown, RHP (#10); Grae Kessinger, INF (#14); Ross Adolph, OF (#48)

Holy Smokes! Pedro Leon is starting out at AA? At shortstop? Yeah, I’m as surprised as the rest of you. This is one of the most aggressive assignments I can remember and really sends a huge vote of confidence from the big club to their prized offseason signing. Granted, Leon is older and more experienced than most players making their stateside debut, but even the top college draft picks rarely start out as high as AA. Added to the pressure of starting at AA is a position switch from center field to shortstop, which is enough to make me nervous for his development. Hunter Brown is another big-time prospect to watch in Corpus Christi. Brown has the stuff to pitch in the top half of the rotation for the Astros and this will be his first look at AA competition. I think, given the depth of pitching at AAA and his limited professional experience, Brown will likely spend the entire season with the Hooks.

The opening roster for Corpus Christi really tells you how thin the Astros system is in terms of high-end prospects that are close to the big leagues. Double-A is historically the testing ground for players that are part of the big club’s near-term vision. In the Astros case, many of the most exciting prospects are too young or inexperienced for AA competition. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a problem for a club that is stacked at the big league level, but it will be interesting to look at the Hooks roster toward the end of the season and again next spring to see if the young talent is moving up.

Asheville Tourists (A+)

Once upon a time, a veteran minor league catcher drove his mustang into the mountains of North Carolina in search of a record-breaking home run. He found that homer as a member of the Asheville Tourists, and then he hung up his cleats for good. Yes, the team that Crash Davis made famous in Bull Durham is now the High-A affiliate of your Houston Astros. The club dates back over a century and has been affiliated with eleven different major league teams, including the Astros in 1967 and from 1982 to 1993. They were most recently affiliated with the Rockies for 26 years and rejoined the Astros organization as part of the realignment of the minor leagues. The move consolidates the lower half of the Astros organization in North Carolina. Nate Shaver continues as the high A head coach moving over from Fayetteville.

Top 50 Prospects starting at A+:
Freudis Nova, SS (#4); Korey Lee, C (#9); Colin Barber, OF (#17); Luis Santana, 2B (#24); Tyler Brown, RHP (#25); Blair Henley, RHP (#28); Alex McKenna, OF (#31); Juan Pablo Lopez, LHP (#49)

It’s a shame that Crash Davis isn’t still with the Tourists, because he’d make one heck of a mentor for Korey Lee. Lee appears to be the future at catcher for the Astros and he has the tools to make an impact on both sides of the ball. If he makes progress early on, a callup to AA could be in the cards later this summer. He’ll be catching several of the Astros top young pitching prospects including Tyler Brown, a dominant college closer that the Astros are converting into a starter, and Blair Henley whose Texas-sized curveball figures to give high A hitters fits this season.

Another intriguing storyline is Freudis Nova. Coming off of a disappointing 2019 season in A ball, losing the 2020 season was a tough break for the talented shortstop. Nova spent time at the alternate site and in the developmental league last season, but reports on his progress are sparse. With top international signing Pedro Leon moving to shortstop and starting higher in the organization, the 2021 season could be a big turning point for Nova. He is still only 21 and a full season in Asheville might be just the thing to get this promising prospect back on track.

Fayetteville Woodpeckers (A-)

The Woodpeckers drop down from high A to low A for the 2021 season as part of the realignment process. Astros prospects will now start their affiliated journey in eastern North Carolina in shiny new Segra Stadium. The Woodpeckers are owned by the Astros, which likely made it easier for them to drop down a level to accommodate Asheville joining the organization. Ray Hernandez makes the move from Quad Cities, which was the Astros Single-A affiliate before the realignment, to take the helm in Fayetteville. He will be joined by pitching coach Todd Naskedov and hitting coach Sean Godfrey.

Top 50 Prospects starting at A-:
Zach Daniels, OF (#21); Kenedy Corona, OF (#22); Shay Whitcomb, SS (#40); Angel Macuare, RHP (#41); Jayson Schroeder, RHP (#45); Justin Dirden, OF (#47)

Young outfielders Kenedy Corona and Zach Daniels highlight the opening roster for Fayetteville and both players could potentially make their way to Asheville before the end of the season. Shay Whitcomb is a 2020 draftee and Justin Dirden signed just after the draft. They are both interesting college bats that we’ll learn a lot more about with a few months in Fayetteville. What will really be interesting to see is which players that didn’t get an initial assignment will be able to make their way up to the Woodpeckers via promotion. A number of the most exciting prospects in the system, including Jordan Brewer, Richi Gonzalez, Dauri Lorenzo and Alex Santos did not get an assignment to an affiliated team and will likely begin the season in either the Gulf Coast League or the Dominican Summer League.

For more coverage of the Astros and the Astros minor league system follow me on Twitter: @ChappyisClutch.

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