Top signing: OF Luis Payano, Dominican Republic, $500,000.
Six-figure signings: SS Kristian Trompiz (Venezuela), OF Edward Santana (Dominican Republic), Edward Santana (Dominican Republic), LHP Junior Garcia (Dominican Republic), SS Jean Estrella (Dominican Republic), OF Hector Roa (Dominican Republic).
The Astros were in a state of transition in 2012. In August, first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow replaced Felix Francisco, who had been in charge of Houston’s Latin American scouting since after the 2007 season, with Oz Ocampo, who had been a specialist in international operations for Major League Baseball. While the Astros worked with a more restricted budget for July 2 last year, they will have the biggest international bonus pool for the 2013-14 signing period that begins on July 2.
Houston’s top international signing last year was Dominican center fielder Luis Payano, who trained with Franklin Ferreira and signed for $500,000. In 2011, Ferreira signed center fielder Manuel Margot with the Red Sox for $800,000, and though Payano’s game skills aren’t as advanced as Margot’s, the two have some similarities. Payano, a 16-year-old righthanded hitter, is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds who runs well, shows an above-average arm, has good bat speed and can put a charge into the ball when he connects. His raw tools are ahead of his skills, however, as he tends to overswing and will need time to develop as a hitter. He’s likely ticketed to make his debut in the Dominican Summer League.
Venezuelan shortstop Kristian Trompiz played well at the MLB showcase in the Dominican Republic last year in February, then signed for $320,000 on July 2. Trompiz trained with Emiro Barboza, the same trainer who signed Venezuelan shortstop Arturo Michelena with the Astros for $220,000 in 2011. Trompiz, who turned 17 in December, is 6-foot-1, 170 pounds and doesn’t have loud tools but projects to stay in the middle of the infield. He’s a smooth fielder with average speed and close to an average arm, so his believers believe he will stay at shortstop, while others think second base might be a better fit. Trompiz’s glove is ahead of his bat. He has a solid approach and can work the count, but scouts have concerns about his power and bat speed and he’ll have to continue to work to shorten his righthanded stroke.
When Francisco was a Dominican scout with the Braves, he signed Rafael Furcal, whose trainer was Vidal Ulloa. Last year, Francisco signed another player from Ulloa in January, giving $210,000 to Dominican outfielder Edward Santana, who turned 18 in October. After signing, Santana injured his shoulder making a diving catch before the DSL started, essentially wiping out his entire 2012 season. Santana’s tools aren’t as loud as Payano’s, but Santana is more advanced at the plate. At 6 feet, 170 pounds, Santana stays short with his righthanded swing, has good balance and a line-drive stroke. He uses the whole field and could grow into average power. He’s an above-average runner who could start in center field, but with his body type he figures to slow down and projects best in right field with an average to slightly above-average arm.
Dominican shortstop Jean Estrella (video), a 16-year-old who trained with Edgar Mercedes, signed for $115,000 in August. Estrella is a 5-foot-10, 175-pound switch-hitter with average speed and a fringy arm, so he projects better at second base. Estrella played in the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and is a solid hitter who uses the whole field.
Outfielder Hector Roa (video) signed for $110,000 a few days before July 2. Roa was born in the United States and is an American citizen fluent in English and Spanish, but he moved to the Dominican Republic a few years before signing. Roa, 17, hit .221/.258/.369 with four home runs in 134 plate appearances in the DSL. At 6 feet, 195 pounds, Roa has bat speed and power, but he’ll need to iron out his swing and approach to be able to get to it more in games. With his below-average speed and thick body type, he’s best suited either in left field or at first base.
After the Astros transitioned from Francisco to Ocampo, the new regime’s first six-figure international signing was Dominican lefthander Junior Garcia, who signed for $200,000 in October. Garcia, a 17-year-old who trained with Ramon Genao (known as “Papiro”), is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds and increased his fastball from 83-85 mph up to 86-88 mph as he added weight. He’s a strike thrower who shows feel for a potentially average or better curveball and mixes an occasional changeup as well.
Houston also signed Dominican lefthander Erick Hurtado for $50,000 in May after his previous contract with the Cardinals for $150,000 fell apart when he tested positive for Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid often sold as Winstrol. Hurtado, who trained with Lucas Garcia, missed most of the season serving a 50-game suspension for steroids. Hurtado, who turned 18 in November, is 6-foot-4, 190 pounds and threw 86-88 mph leading up to July 2, 2011 when he first became eligible to sign, then increased to 88-91 mph just before he tested positive for steroids. He can still touch the low-90s now, but he’s a raw projection.