2013-14 International Reviews: Houston Astros
Top signing: SS Joan Mauricio, Dominican Republic, $600,000.
Six-figure signings: SS Wander Franco (Dominican Republic), SS Wilson Amador (Dominican Republic), OF Nestor Tejada (Venezuela), OF Felix Lucas (Dominican Republic), SS Frankeny Fernandez (Domincian Republic), SS Jonathan Matute (Venezuela), RHP Albert Abreu (Dominican Republic), OF Bryan De La Cruz (Dominican Republic), SS/CF Osvaldo Duarte (Dominican Republic).
Total signings: 36.
Houston was rewarded for having the worst major league team in 2012 by having the biggest international bonus pool ($4,943,700) in the first year of the tiered pool system, a luxury they will have again come July 2 this year. Rather than spend it all, the Astros traded their second and third bonus slot values (worth a combined $784,700) to the Cubs on July 2 to acquire Double-A second baseman Ronald Torreyes.
The Astros had targeted Venezuelan catcher Jose Herrera and for a while thought they had him wrapped up, but negotiations with him didn't work out and he ended up signing with the Diamondbacks for $1.06 million. Houston still came away with several of their priority players players, so much so that the Astros will field two Dominican Summer League teams this year, with all of their prominent first-year signings slated to debut in the DSL.
Dominican shortstop Joan Mauricio (video) signed for $600,000 on July 2 after playing in the International Prospect League and training with Nelson Montes de Oca. Mauricio is extremely skinny at 6-foot-1, 160 pounds, with the build and glove to stay at shortstop even though he's a below-average runner right now. He has very smooth actions with good hands and arm strength, and he's adept at making plays on the slow roller. Strength isn't there right now for Mauricio, but that could be a good thing, since all of his tools could improve once he gains weight.
During the tryout process, scouts wanted to see more performance from Mauricio during games. Leading up to July 2, Mauricio had been a switch-hitting and had only been switch-hitting for about a year to that point. His swing is better from the left side, so much so that the Astros have had him drop switch-hitting, taking away his natural righthanded stroke and having him hit exclusively from the left side. Since doing so, the Astros have seen a high contact bat, and he has sneaky power and can get the ball to the fence in batting practice.
Houston's most polished signing from the Dominican Republic last year was 17-year-old infielder Wander Franco, who trained with Victor Baez and got a $575,000 bonus in July. Angels shortstop Erick Aybar and former major leaguer Wily Aybar are his uncles, and his brother, also named Wander Franco, is in the Royals' system. Franco's baseball background is evident in the way he plays the game. At 6 feet, 180 pounds, Franco is a mature hitter from both sides of the plate. He performed well in games before July 2, then between the Tricky League (an informal league for July 2 signings) and Astros' Dominican instructional league, he hit over .300 with some extra-base pop. Franco is a line-drive hitter who uses the whole field with doubles power that could turn into more home runs eventually.
Franco showcased as a shortstop, but he's a fringy runner at best with a heavy lower half, so he's going to split time between second and third base, with probably more time at third base because of the players ahead of him at second in the organization. Franco has good hands, a quick transfer and makes accurate throws to first.
Dominican shortstop Wilson Amador would have received the Astros' top international bonus last year, but an elbow injury caused the two sides to rework their initial agreement of $875,000. The Astros officially signed Amador for $400,000 on July 23 shortly after he had right elbow surgery to repair a growth plate fracture. At the time, the Astros expected Amador to miss about six months, and the rehab has gone as planned. Amador, 17, started throwing in late January and is on pace to be on the field when the DSL opens in May.
While Franco plays calmly and under control, Amador is a high-energy athlete with tools. Even with the elbow injury, his arm strength is apparent. When healthy, he shows a plus arm. He doesn't get out of the box quickly so his home to first times don't always reflect it, but he's a plus runner underway. He has quick feet at shortstop and the Astros like his actions in the field, but he tends to play out of control and, like a lot of young shortstops, is still learning to make the routine plays consistently. The Astros see him as a shortstop, though other clubs looked at him as a potential center fielder or second baseman. At 6-foot-1, 160 pounds, Amador has a quick righthanded bat with gap power but will need time to polish his game hitting. He's aggressive in all phases of the game, including with his hitting approach, so he's still learning to manage his at-bats to have better results in games. Amador played in the IPL and trained with Victor Baez.
Venezuelan outfielder Nestor Tejada (video), who signed for $300,000 out of Carlos Guillen's academy on July 2, is a more advanced hitter. Tejada started playing baseball at a young age and has a track record of hitting everywhere he goes. He has participated in international tournaments since he was 12, when he represented Venezuela at the 12U Pan American championships in Puerto Rico. More recently, he was a key member of the Venezuelan team that won the 15U World Championship in Mexico in 2012. He made the all-tournament team by hitting .520/.629/1.080, going 13-for-25 with two home runs, four triples and four walks with four steals in four tries.
At 17, Tejada is a lefty with a relatively thick frame (5-foot-10, 180) and a knack for squaring up the baseball. It's not the most conventional stroke, but it works for him. Scouts aren't sure how much power he'll develop, so his offensive game will be more about hitting line drives and getting on base. The Astros have had him focusing on bunting to give him another weapon. He's a deceptively good athlete for his build, with above-average speed that should allow him to play center field as long as he can retain his running ability. The overall package earns comparisons to Blue Jays outfielder Melky Cabrera.
Dominican outfielder Felix Lucas signed for $225,000 in July. Like many Dominican corner outfielders, Lucas is a right fielder who stands out for his size (6-foot-3, 195 pound), raw power and arm strength. Lucas, 16, can take balls over the fence in BP, but he's still a work in progress when it comes to taking it to the game. He also played in the IPL while training with Jose Valdez (known as "Peluza") and Amauris Nina.
Another IPL guy, 17-year-old Dominican shortstop Frankeny Fernandez, signed for $200,000 the same day as Lucas. Like Amador, Fernandez also trained with Victor Baez. At 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, Fernandez impressed the Astros with his righthanded bat. He has a line-drive approach and could grow into some power. He's an average runner with solid arm strength, though with the other players the Astros have ticketed for the DSL, he will probably spend time at second and third base this season.
The Astros signed Jonathan Matute out of Venezuela for $215,000 on July 2 after he trained with Hernan Albornoz. Matute is 5-foot-11, 180 pounds with a quick bat and stood out out by hitting well in games in Venezuela with doubles power. Matute showcased as a shortstop, though an Astros listed him as a shortstop and a catcher when he signed. Lately he's been playing mostly second base, a position he seems to have taken to with a solid arm and average speed. The Astros had tossed around the idea of putting him behind the plate, but for now their plan is to keep him at second. If he ever does move behind the dish, his intelligence and work habits would only aid the transition. Matute keeps a notebook that he writes in every day, jotting down notes and what he's done well and what he needs to improve upon, which is incredibly rare for someone his age.
Osvaldo Duarte would have been eligible to sign in 2012, but he wasn't registered with Major League Baseball to be able to sign. Once that was taken care of, the Astros signed him out o the Dominican Republic for $110,000 on July 2. Duarte, 18, is going to play a premium position thanks to his speed and quick-twitch athleticism. He's a 70 runner who can also hit in games with a quick, simple swing, batting .370 between the Tricky League and Dominican instructs. At 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, Duarte hits hard line drives to all fields and doesn't have big power, but his speed helps him stretch singles into doubles and leg out triples. Duarte will split time between shortstop and center field this season.
Dominican righthander Albert Abreu, who signed for $185,000 in August, has a physical frame (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) with good athleticism, sound mechanics and feel for pitching. He commands his fastball well for his age, working at 87-91 mph. His arm works well, so with his frame, he should throw harder eventually. His curveball is his second-best pitch and he's usually around the zone with it, while he shows solid feel for his changeup as well.
Bryan De La Cruz, a 17-year-old Dominican outfielder who signed for $170,000 in September, is another IPL player who trained with Amauris Nina. He's 6-foot-2, 175 pounds and was working out at shortstop last year but moved to the outfield before signing. He will split time between center and right field this season, with right field his most likely landing spot. De La Cruz is a righthanded hitter who impressed the Astros with his ability to hit in games, with more line drives than power. He's a 45 to 50 runner on the 20-80 scale and would be a solid athlete for a right fielder with a 50 to 55 arm.
The Astros also tried to build a relationship with the Mexico City Red Devils of the Mexican League by signing 23-year-old outfielder Leo Heras and 27-year-old first baseman Japhet Amador. Mexico City originally had a deal in place for Heras with the Padres, who have a long relationship with the Red Devils, and submitted the deal to MLB last year in February. Yet, for undisclosed reasons, that transaction never became official, and Heras stayed with Mexico City.
There aren't many young Mexican League hitters who perform well and jump out as prospects, but Heras is intriguing given his performance for Mexico City, with high OBPs and an OPS over .900 his last three seasons. At 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, Heras' power numbers were inflated by the Mexican League. He's more of a line-drive bat with a tweener profile, splitting time between left field and center but without the defensive ability to stick in center. If he can hit enough, he has a chance to be a reserve outfielder. Heras played briefly in Double-A after signing and could make the jump to Triple-A to start this season.
The best attribute for Amador, who is 6-foot-4, 315 pounds, is, obviously, his offense. Amador hit well consistently in the Mexican League and has legitimate power, but other clubs felt he was probably a Triple-A guy at best, with a DH-only defensive profile.