International Reviews: Houston Astros
Top signing: LHP Cionel Perez, Cuba, $2 million.
Total signings: 57.
The Astros have added a considerable amount of talent to the lower levels of the farm system in recent years. Venezuelan righthander Franklin Perez, signed in 2014, is the No. 54 prospect in baseball. Righthanders Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman were trade chips the Astros used to acquire Brian McCann in the offseason. There’s more talent on the way. Since July 2 last year, the Astros committed more than $15 million toward international prospects, between signing bonuses and their overage tax for exceeding their 2016-17 bonus pool. That doesn’t include the five-year, $47.5 million major league deal they gave to Yulieski Gurriel, who was exempt from the pools.
Among players subject to the bonus pools, the Astros ended up reducing the contracts for the players who got their top three signing bonuses. Their top bonus went to Cuban lefthander Cionel Perez. The Astros originally agreed to sign Perez in October for $5.15 million, but the team cited an issue with Perez’s elbow they found during his physical and instead signed him for $2 million in December. Perez, 20, has a smaller, thin frame (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) but is athletic with quick arm speed and has seen his fastball rise since he left Cuba. He pitched on Cuba’s 18U national team in 2014, then quickly became one of the most effective pitchers in Serie Nacional while playing for Matanzas.
During the 2014-15 season, Perez had a 2.06 ERA in 87 1/3 innings with 76 strikeouts and 32 walks in 17 starts. During his time in Cuba, Perez’s fastball mostly ranged from 88-93 mph and touched 94. His velocity was inconsistent, with starts where he would sit more 88-91 mph, with the higher numbers coming mostly as a reliever. His fastball increased after he left Cuba, and during spring training he has been up to 96, with the addition of a two-seamer two his repertoire. Perez lacked a putaway pitch in Cuba but leaned on a slurvy breaking ball. That pitch is still inconsistent but Perez has improved its power and action to flash average. He didn’t throw a changeup in Cuba but has added one to his arsenal.
Cuban shortstop Anibal Sierra originally agreed to sign with the Astros for $3.5 million, but that was later reduced to $1.5 million when the Astros cited an issue with Sierra’s vision. Sierra didn’t have the same prominence as Perez when they were in Cuba. Sierra played in Cuba’s 23U national league in 2014, batting .316/.366/.368 with 11 walks and 20 strikeouts in 148 plate appearances, stealing two bases in six tries. In Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top league, he didn’t play much, including his final season (2014-15) with Santiago de Cuba when he batted .193/.233/.281 in 65 plate appearances with two walks and 16 strikeouts. He didn’t have any standout tools then, running below-average with occasional gap power and the ability to use the whole filed, though he had trouble squaring up fastballs in the strike zone and chased sliders off the plate. His tools did tick up once he got to the Dominican Republic, with the Astros seeing more speed, power and contact in their looks there, along with the ability to slow the game down at shortstop and stick at the position.
The most exciting player from Houston’s 2016-17 signing class is Freudis Nova, a 17-year-old Dominican shortstop. The Marlins were originally expected to sign Nova, but after he tested positive for anabolic steroids, they backed off their pursuit. Instead the Astros signed Nova, with the deal originally for $1.5 million but reduced to $1.2 million after the Astros cited an issue with Nova’s elbow. Nova was one of the premium prospects in the 2016 class, with explosive athleticism and a dynamic tool package. He’s a lean 6-foot-1, 175 pounds with plus bat speed and hits balls over the fence in BP. Nova has generally performed well in games, with a compact swing and good path to the ball staying through the hitting zone. He doesn’t have much head movement when he swings and that helps him track pitches well, usually staying within the strike zone. It’s an exciting offensive profile from a player with all the tools to stay at shortstop. He’s a plus runner with a plus arm that could get even stronger. His hands work well and he makes the routine plays, though cleaning up his footwork, slowing the game down and sharpening some of the fundamental things he does in the field are areas where he can improve. Nova, who trained with Rudy Santin, is expected to debut in the Dominican Summer League.
Venezuelan shortstop Yorbin Ceuta signed with the Astros for $1 million on July 2 after training with Rafael Moncada. At 17, Ceuta was one of the best hitters in the class with high-level instincts for his age in all facets of the game. Ceuta, who played for the Venezuelan team at the COPABE 14U Pan American Championship in Nicaragua in 2014, is a switch-hitter with excellent bat control. He has solid bat speed and a good swing path with keen hand-eye coordination, putting the barrel to the ball consistently for a high contact rate. At 6 feet, 165 pounds, Ceuta has a line-drive approach with occasional sneaky pop for his size. He recognizes pitches and controls the strike zone well, so while he probably won’t ever hit for much power, he could be a high OBP hitter in the middle of the field. Ceuta doesn’t have the same electricity in his tools or quick-twitch athleticism as Nova, but he’s a more savvy game player with a knack for slowing things down. His speed is a tick below-average but he’s fundamentally sound and makes all the routine plays with smooth fluidity at shortstop, where he shows soft hands and nice footwork. Ceuta’s arm is a 45 on the 20-80 scale, so whether that gets stronger will play a big role in whether he stays at shortstop or flips over to second base. Ceuta is polished enough that he could see time in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League this year, though with the DSL starting first he might stay back at the academy for his debut.
Angel Macuare is a 17-year-old Venezuelan righthander the Astros signed for $695,000 on July 2 after training with Francisco Ortiz. He’s 6-foot-2, 185 pounds with an athletic, projectable frame, a loose arm and a fastball in the low-90s, though it can come at hitters on a flatter plane. Macuare’s biggest weapon is his curveball, a hard breaking ball with tight spin that gets swing-and-miss and is further along than his changeup. The Astros liked Macuare’s feel for pitching, though some other scouts wanted to see him throw more strikes and had concerns about the effort his delivery and whether he might fit better in the bullpen. Macuare most likely will debut in the DSL.
The Astros signed 17-year-old shortstop Deury Carrasco for $480,000 on July 2 out of Luis Mejia’s program. He’s a twitchy, highly athletic shortstop (5-foot-11, 165 pounds) showing above-average speed and a plus arm at shortstop. He’s still learning to corral his energy and slow the game down in the field, but his athleticism helps him make the flashy plays at shortstop. Carrasco’s bat drew a split camp. He’s a lefthanded hitter who will drift forward and open up early, but those who liked Carrasco the most felt he made consistent contact with doubles power now and the physical projection to add more power once he gets stronger.
Nerio Rodriguez is a 17-year-old catcher the Astros signed for $450,000 on July 2. His father, also named Nerio Rodriguez, signed out of the Dominican Republic with the White Sox as a catcher and reached Double-A. He converted to pitching, reaching the major leagues in 1996 and ranking as the No. 96 prospect in the game after that season. He went on to pitch in five major league seasons between 1996-2002, mostly out of the bullpen for Baltimore and Toronto, then pitched in the Mexican League and in winter ball in the Dominican League until he was 41 in 2012. His son, born in New York, spent time in the United States and speaks fluent English. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he’s a heavy-framed catcher who stands out most in the batter’s box. Rodriguez has good leverage and slight uppercut stroke from the right side with the present strength to hit for power. He shows the overall feel for hitting to be an average hitter, with perhaps more power than batting average, but he shows solid timing to hit in games. Rodriguez’s big build and agility concerned some scouts about whether he would remain a catcher, but Astros coaches have been pleased with his work behind the plate and his bilingual skills should help him handle a pitching staff. Rodriguez trained with Edgar Mercedes.
Jairo Solis, a 17-year-old Venezuelan righthander the Astros signed for $450,000 on July 2, has already seen his stock rise. He’s grown to 6-foot-3, 190 pounds and was a solid-strike thrower with a starter profile before he signed, but he didn’t have the same power to his stuff compared to Macuare. At that time, Solis had reached 91 mph with good leverage and downhill angle, but since then he has reached 94 mph. He complements the fastball with a hard slider that’s his best secondary pitch along with feel for a changeup that he’s taken too quickly and flashed good action. Solis trained with Henderson Martinez.
Jeury Castillo is a 17-year-old infielder out of the Dominican Republic the Astros signed for $400,000 on July 2. Castillo doesn’t have any standout tools, but his calling card is his bat. He’s a stocky 5-foot-10, 170 pounds with good swing path from the left side and repeatedly barrels balls for quality contact without much swing and miss. Castillo showcased as a shortstop, but he’s more of a second baseman with a 45 arm, with the Astros giving him some reps at third base as well.
Freudis Nova Commits To Getting Better
The 21-year-old shortstop has improved his body and his intent to the point where he reminds one Astros coach of an all-star he once coached.
In Venezuela, the Astros signed 16-year-old catcher Jose Alvarez for $195,000 on July 2. At 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, Alvarez isn’t a typical sluggish catcher, as he’s extremely athletic for the position. He’s an average runner with a plus arm who’s agile and blocks balls in the dirt well, with soft hands to receive and frame pitches well already. Alvarez was a bit under the radar as an amateur, but he has a strong defensive skill set and uses his hands well at the plate, showing good bat-to-ball skills from the right side and using the whole field with occasional gap power. Angel Ortega, 17, is a Venezuelan righthander the Astros signed for $180,000 on July 2 out of Carlos Guillen’s program. He’s 5-foot-11, 180 pounds with good pitchability for his age and a repeatable delivery, working off an upper-80s fastball with feel to spin a breaking ball.