Houston Astros Prospects to Watch at 2021 Spring Training

Bryan Abreu, Corpus Christi Hooks, August 14, 2019 - photo credit Jayne Hansen, @JayneWTHB on Twitter, on Flickr, and her What the Heck, Bobby? blog

Spring Training 2021 is underway and the expectations for the Astros are sky high. This is a team that has reached the League Championship Series in each of the last four seasons. Michael Brantley chose to return to the team on a free agent deal and Yordan Alvarez returns from knee surgery to shore up the lineup. Still there are lots of question marks going into camp. Who will emerge as the leader of the rotation with Justin Verlander on the shelf recovering from offseason Tommy John surgery? Who will Dusty Baker look to in the 9th inning out of a bullpen full of journeyman veterans and young flamethrowers? Who will take over in center field after George Springer chose the Blue Jays in free agency? Some of these questions are going to be answered with veteran free agents and players already on the major league roster. But there are a few prospects in the system who could make some noise in 2021. Here is a look at a handful of Astros prospects to keep an eye on during Spring Training.

Forrest Whitley, RHP
There is a lot of prospect fatigue going on around Forrest Whitley. Given the hype that has surrounded him and the enormous potential in his right arm, his ascension to the top of the Astros rotation seems long overdue. Not so fast! Whitley is only 23 years old and has lost nearly two season of development; one to suspension and another to the pandemic. He still has the potential to be an ace for the Astros and his performance in spring training could tell us a lot about his progress and how close he is to a call up. Don’t expect Whitley to break camp with the big club, even with a breakout performance. The Astros don’t need him to pitch in April in order to make the playoffs, but they might need him to pitch in the playoffs in order to win the World Series. That makes a mid-season call up the most likely scenario if Whitley is called up in 2021.

Jeremy Pena, 2B/SS
If you saw Pena play in the Dominican Winter League this offseason you know that this is a player on a mission to make the Astros roster. He didn’t just put up solid numbers in the DR, he carried himself like a big leaguer and was a clear leader on the field. Once thought of as a glove first role player, Pena has shown that he has the hit tool to push for a spot on the big league roster and maybe even become an every day starter in his prime. The Astros infield is set with star players at every position, but there might be an opportunity for Pena to push Aledmys Diaz for the utility role. Diaz is likely to keep the role to start the season, but if his 2020 struggles carry into 2021 there could be an opportunity for Pena.

Pedro Leon, OF
Spring Training will give us our first good look at the Astros’ prize international signing and heir apparent in center field. Leon is a true five tool prospect with enormous upside and it will be exciting to see him in Astros colors. I do think that the expectations surrounding Leon going into spring training are a little too high. It’s interesting to me how much buzz there is in Astrosland about Leon making the team this spring. I don’t see that as a realistic outcome at all given the lack of game action he’s seen since defecting from Cuba. Certainly there is anxiety about who will replace Springer in center field, but when you look at the overall lineup there’s really no need to rush Leon. Myles Straw is an excellent option to start the season in center both as a plus defender and an absolute speed merchant. There are lingering questions about his hit tool, but Straw has earned an opportunity to have consistent at bats. The beginning of 2021 is the perfect time to give him that opportunity without closing the door on any other options. When I’m watching Leon this spring, I’m going to be thinking about 2022 and beyond.

Enoli Paredes, RHP
Going into Spring Training Ryan Pressly is the favorite to close for the Astros in 2021 and rightfully so. He’s been the most reliable bullpen arm for the Astros for several years running and he’s a tested veteran. The Astros have also brought in a number of veteran relievers in Pedro Baez, Steve Cishek and Ryne Stanek who will all vie for leverage opportunities. It would be all too easy to overlook the youngsters who showed so well in 2020 and Parades is a perfect example. Pressly might be the only pitcher in that bullpen with better stuff than Paredes and the margin isn’t wide. Paredes also proved in 2020 that he doesn’t fear the tight spots and he has the stuff to get big outs. Once the season starts all bets are off and the guys that are getting big outs are going to get the big opportunities. I fully expect Paredes to be a top 2 or 3 option for Dusty Baker down the stretch and becoming the long term closer isn’t out of the question.

Bryan Abreu, RHP
Speaking of players that would be easy to forget about, Abreu was the missing man in 2020. After a fantastic debut out of the Astros bullpen in 2019, Abreu made only four appearances with the big club in 2020. Abreu has wipeout stuff and a very high ceiling as a reliever. If he hits his full potential he could become a top 10 closer in MLB in his prime. Abreu is the one prospects I think could have the biggest impact on the 2021 Astros. If he comes into camp firing like he did in 2019, the back of the bullpen starts to look truly scary.

Alex Santos, RHP
The fact that the Astros invited Santos to major league camp despite the delayed start to the lower minor league season is a testament to how highly they think of their first pick from the 2020 Draft. Drafted out of high school, Santos will make his professional debut in 2021 and won’t be a candidate to join the Astros until probably 2023 at the earliest. He will probably start out in Low-A Fayetteville and might be there all season as he works on transitioning to the professional game. It will be interesting to see how much, if any game action he gets in major league camp and how he looks next to the veteran players.

Hunter Brown, RHP
Brown might be the next Astros prospect to claim a spot in the starting rotation. He’s only had one partial season of minor league baseball, so he might not be ready in 2021, but his college pedigree and early success suggest that he might move up quickly. We saw a number of pitching prospects pushed to the majors straight from the low minors in 2020 due to injuries to the big league staff. Brown could take a similar route if there is a need in 2021. With a four seam fastball that sits in the high 90’s, he could also be a candidate to fill a bullpen role late in the season.

All in all, the 2021 Astros are likely to feature players we’re already familiar with. Much of the talent in the Astros system is a few years away from contributing to the big league club. Still, there are a few young players that could make some noise this season and we’ll get a look at them in 2021 Spring Training.

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