International Reviews: Houston Astros

Top signing: OF Gilberto Celestino, Dominican Republic, $2.25 million. 
Total signings: 46. 
Dominican center fielder fielder Gilberto Celestino was the prize signing of Houston’s international class, landing $2.25 million on July 2. Celestino played a lot of baseball growing up, traveling to Maryland to play in the Cal Ripken World Series when he was 12 in 2011, then to Colombia in 2013 for the 15U Pan American Championships. Celestino’s game experience shows in his advanced instincts and overall baseball acumen for a 17-year-old, though he is unorthodox as a lefty thrower who hits exclusively righthanded.

At 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, Celestino doesn’t have one plus tool right now, but he does a lot of things well and shines in center field. His pure speed is just average, but much like Cubs center fielder Albert Almora, he looks natural in center field because of he has a quick first step with excellent reads off the bat and defensive instincts. He takes precise routes to the ball in both gaps and is capable of making the highlight-reel grab. He has a slightly above-average arm and makes accurate throws, with several scouts considering Celestino the best defensive outfielder in last year’s class with a chance to be a plus to plus-plus fielder.

Celestino has a track record of hitting well in games, managing his at-bats well with a good sense for balls and strikes. Some scouts questioned his offensive upside, pointing to the length in his swing among their mechanical concerns in his swing. Others saw an advanced approach and hitting instincts, with a slight uppercut stroke that was usually on time and geared for line drives with frequent and quality hard contact. He’s continued to impress the Astros with his hitting ability since signing, though they take a more conservative approach with their first-year signings, so Celestino will make his pro debut when the Dominican Summer League season opens. Celestino trained with Amauris Nina and played in the International Prospect League.

While most of the focus for Cuban players has been on the high-profile players who played on the national team or one of the country’s junior national teams, the Astros awarded a pair of high six-figure deals to less-heralded Cuban players, both of whom were subject to the bonus pools (I didn’t see either one when they were in Cuba).

The first one they signed was righthander Yoanys Quiala for $794,000 on June 8, so he fell under their 2014-15 bonus pool. Quiala, 22, pitched one season in Serie Nacional for Holguin in 2012-13, posting a 2.22 ERA in 52 2/3 innings with 33 strikeouts and 14 walks split between starting and relief work. When he left Cuba and started doing tryouts for teams, he was 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, throwing 90-95 mph and touched 97 for the Astros before he signed. The Astros saw a potential plus slider with late bite, feel for a changeup with good depth and a splitter, so they plan to groom him as a starter with a four-pitch mix. He got his feet wet in pro ball last year against much younger competition in the DSL and will make the jump to full-season ball in the United States this year, likely low Class A Quad Cities.

On July 2, the Astros signed 24-year-old Cuban outfielder Alejandro Garcia for $750,000. Garcia played three seasons for Villa Clara in Serie Nacional, batting just .261/.330/.317 in 284 plate appearances. At 5-foot-10, 182 pounds, Garcia caught the Astros’ attention with his plus-plus speed in center field along with way his hands worked at the plate, with quick bat speed and good hand-eye coordination to sell them on his potential to hit from the right side. Garcia’s speed gives him good range in center field to go with a fringe-average arm. Garcia debuted briefly in the DSL last year, but at 24, he’s older than the AL and NL Rookie of the Year winners, so he needs to move quickly and should open with a full-season team this year, probably at one of Houston’s Class A clubs.

After Celestino, Houston’s next highest bonus for a non-Cuban player went to Dominican shortstop Yeuris Ramirez, who got $500,000 on July 2. Ramirez is lean but strong and athletic at 6-foot-2, 165 pounds with a good chance to stay at shortstop. A solid-average runner, Ramirez has quick feet, good hands, a solid clock for the position and a 55 arm on the 20-80 scale, though like a lot of young shortstops his accuracy isn’t always on point. Ramirez makes hard line-drive contact from the right side with gap power. He should be able to stay at shortstop, but part of that depends on how much his body develops given how much weight he could add to his frame. If he outgrows the position and does have to slide over to third base, he could then end up with more power to make that move.

Another Dominican shortstop, Enmanuel Valdez, jumped out for his lefthanded bat to get a $450,000 bonus on July 2. Valdez, 17, has a small, compact frame (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) but barrels the ball consistently, both before signing and after in the Tricky League, an unofficial league for recent July 2 signings. Valdez has a sound swing and good hand-eye coordination, squaring up premium velocity with a lot of line drives and gap power. Valdez is a below-average runner with work to do for his defense to catch up, so he might end up an offensive-minded second baseman, but he should get time at both middle infield spots this summer. Valdez trained with Juan Herrera (known as “Mon”) and played in the IPL.

In Panama, the Astros signed 16-year-old center fielder Cesar Cortez for $100,000 in July. He’s 6 feet, 165 pounds with mostly average or close to average tools and a high baseball IQ having played a lot of games in Panama. He impressed the Astros with his ability to hit from the right side and get good reads off the bat in the outfield.

Among lower-level signings, the Astros signed Enoli Paredes for just $10,000 as a 5-foot-11, 165-pound Dominican righthander who touched 92. Now he’s been up to 94 mph with his fastball, mixing in a hard curveball in the upper-70s along with a changeup with sink and tail, giving him a three-pitch mix to go with his bouncy athleticism and develop as a starter.

In March during the 2014-15 signing period, the Astros signed righthander Jose Luis Hernandez from the Mexico City Red Devils. Hernandez is 20 and stood out for his pitchability, which he showed after signing with a 42-9 K-BB mark over 37 2/3 innings split between Rookie-level Greeneville and short-season Tri-City, where he had a 3.35 combined ERA. He’s 6 feet, 180 pounds and throws five pitches, with an 88-93 mph fastball, a curveball he adds and subtracts from anywhere from 71-77 mph, a slider, a splitter and a changeup with some fade. He’s ticketed for low Class A Quad Cities this year.

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