2019-20 MLB International Reviews: Houston Astros

Houston’s top international bonus in the 2019 class went to 17-year-old Dauri Lorenzo, a switch-hitting shortstop from the Dominican Republic out of the Otro Nivel program who got $1.8 million. At 6-foot-1, 165 pounds, Lorenzo is an offensive-minded shortstop who stands out for his smooth, efficient swing mechanics from both sides of the plate. Lorenzo has an innate feel for the barrel, with good hand-eye coordination and an easy swing that stays on plane through the hitting zone for a long time, leading to a lot of contact in games.

He has quick hands and uses them well in his swing. Even when he flies open early, he does a good job of keeping his hands back with the adjustability in his swing to still make contact. Lorenzo’s offensive value projects to come more from his on-base skills than his power, with a line-drive approach and mostly doubles power right now. Lorenzo is an offensive-oriented shortstop who has some questions on whether he will stay at the position, though he has made progress there. He’s athletic with solid-average speed and arm strength. He doesn’t have the explosive first-step quickness or natural defensive instincts a lot of teams look for in a shortstop, but his defensive actions have shown improvement, giving him a better chance to stay at shortstop rather than move to second base or center field. Lorenzo is expected to make his pro debut next year in the Dominican Summer League with the rest of the Astros’ 2019 signings.

Juan Santander
, one of the top 2019 catchers in Venezuela, signed with the Astros on July 2 after training with Jose Montero. Santander, 16, is more physical than most catchers (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) and stands out for his offensive upside. He hits from a solid hitting base, staying back on the ball well with a little length in his swing but quick hands to square up good velocity and make frequent contact in games. Santander has mostly gap power now, but with the strength projection to possibly grow into average power. Santander is on the larger end for a catcher, but as long as he stays on top of his conditioning and mobility to maintain his athleticism, he should be able to stay behind the plate, where he has a solid-average arm. Other players look up to Santander, who draws praise for his leadership skills as well.

Another Venezuelan catcher the Astros signed, 17-year-old Fernando Caldera, has a different skill set than Santander. Caldera has a more typical body type for a Venezuelan catcher his age (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) and jumps out for his defensive ability. He’s athletic and quick behind the plate, with good hands and a slightly above-average arm that should be a plus tool once he gets stronger. He has a chance to develop into a solid-average to plus defensive catcher. Caldera’s defensive ability will give him a lot of opportunities to develop his bat. He’s a solid hitter for a catcher, with gap power from the right side and the occasional over-the-fence shot, with a chance to grow into 12-15 home runs. Caldera trained with Guillermo Rodriguez.

One of the most exciting players in Houston’s 2019 class is Richi Gonzalez, a 16-year-old Dominican center fielder the Astros gave $310,000. Teams saw a lot of Gonzalez when he played in Josue Herrera’s program, but his tools spiked later on in the process leading up to July 2. Gonzalez has a promising combination of size, athleticism, tools and encouraging early returns on his hitting ability. He’s grown to solid 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, fitting the mold as a physical, athletic center fielder with plus speed and a cannon arm. His arm is at least a plus tool now and flashes better, so there’s projection there for him to have a 70 arm. Given his arm strength and athleticism, pitching could be a fallback option for Gonzalez, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen in the near future. Gonzalez performed well against live pitching during Dominican instructional league, both in terms of hitting and hitting for power, including home runs to dead center field. Gonzalez does have a tendency to bar his arm in his swing, which adds some length, but he has a chance to be a power/speed threat in center field if everything clicks.

They also added 17-year-old righthander Elvis Garcia, one of the more promising, arrow-up arms from the 2019 class. He’s 6 feet, 165 pounds with a fast arm and a fastball that reached 91 mph before signing. His velocity has spiked since then to reach 94 mph and it plays up with late hop to fly over bats when he pitches up in the zone. Garcia projects as a starter. He’s a good athlete with easy arm action, a fluid delivery and feel for a three-pitch mix. His best offspeed pitch is a mid-to-upper 70s curveball, which has a chance to be plus. It’s a sharp-breaking pitch with good depth and shape to give him a potential out pitch. He hasn’t thrown much of his changeup yet but he shows feel for that pitch as well. Garcia trained with Carlos Acozar and Andres Mujica.

Everette Cooper is a 17-year-old outfielder from the Bahamas the Astros signed for $325,000. At 6 feet, 165 pounds, Cooper sticks out for his raw athleticism, as he’s a plus athlete with slightly above-average speed who could get faster. That athleticism gives him a chance to stay in center field, where he has a below-average arm. Cooper is quick and athletic, though like a lot of kids from the Bahamas, he hasn’t faced much advanced pitching yet, so he will probably need time for his righthanded bat to catch up. Cooper trained at the International Elite Sports Academy.

The Astros signed 17-year-old Dominican corner outfielder Christopher Morales out of Luis Scheker’s program for $275,000. Morales is 6-foot-1, 170 pounds with a mix of power and arm strength. He makes loud contact when he squares it up, giving him a chance to develop a tick above-average raw power with lift in his swing. Morales has quick hands and does a good job of staying back on the ball, keeping his swing in sync and allowing him to explode once the ball travels. Morales has a thick lower half and is a below-average runner with an average arm that should fit in right field.

Houston also gave $275,000 to another 17-year-old Dominican outfielder, Luis Perez, who trained with Alberto Barjam. He has a strong, sturdy build (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) but is a good athlete with explosiveness and slightly above-average speed to give him a chance for center field, with a fringe-average arm. He has solid bat-to-ball skills from the right side with a gap to gap approach, projecting to probably have a hit-over-power profile.

Luis Encarnacion signed with the Astros out of the Dominican Republic for $210,000 as an infielder and is in the process of converting to catcher. Encarnacion, 17, has an unorthodox look, but the results in games have been good. At 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, Encarnacion has a stocky body and isn’t a great athlete. He doesn’t have the cleanest swing mechanics either, but he seems to find a way to make it work in games. Encarnacion’s swing is a bit raw and unconventional, but he has quick hands and generates good bat speed, squaring up balls consistently against live pitching for hard, loud contact. His selective approach helps, as Encarnacion generally stays within the strike zone and waits for his pitch to hit. He has some lift in his swing and could grow into average raw power, though in games his approach is geared more toward hitting hard line drives all over the field. While Encarnacion’s bat is his best tool, he’s just learning how to catch. He has a 55 arm on the 20-80 scale with the energy and enthusiasm that should help his transition. Third base is a fallback option, though that would put more demands on his bat. Encarnacion trained with Franklin Ferreras.

Venezuelan infielder Jesus Fernandez was one of the youngest players in the 2019 class, signing with the Astros when he turned 16 on Aug. 26. Had he been born one week later, he would have been a 2020 player, so he will play nearly his entire first season as a 16-year-old. Fernandez (6 feet, 150 pounds) is young but has a lot of game experience playing against older competition, showing solid bat speed and contact skills from the right side, though with limited power for now given his youth and lack of strength. Fernandez trained with Victor Grasso as a shortstop and might see some time there, but he’s a below-average runner who could move around the infield and probably fits better at second or third base, with a solid-average arm.

The Astros also gave $175,000 to 16-year-old Dominican outfielder Denfry de la Cruz. He’s strong, physical corner outfielder (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) whose best tool is his raw power. He has a chance to grow into above-average raw power from the right side, though he’s still learning to translate that power from BP into games. De la Cruz trained with Emil Rodriguez.

Prior to July 2 at the end of the 2018-19 signing period, the Astros gave six-figure deals to three players. One of them was Cuban righthander Luis Vega, who got $300,000 in May. Vega, who turned 18 after the season in November, posted a 2.67 ERA in 30.1 innings in the DSL with 33 strikeouts and 11 walks. Lean and athletic (6-foot-3, 165 pounds), Vega relies more on pitchability than raw stuff. He kept DSL hitters off balance his ability to mix and match his stuff and command his 87-91 mph fastball. His curveball has good depth and rotation and he has feel for a changeup, though he will probably need to develop more velocity as he faces more discerning hitters.

A day before the 2018-19 period closed, the Astros signed 18-year-old Cuban outfielder Roilan Machandy for $250,000. Machandy played briefly in the DSL, hitting .127/.329/.127 in 63 at-bats. Machandy is a raw athlete with outstanding speed, running the 60-yard dash in 6.3 seconds and he showed it in his pro debut, going 16-for-18 in stolen base attempts in just 25 games. His speed and athleticism fit in center field, where he as a below-average arm, but his hitting ability is still crude.

In May, the Astros also signed Mexican righthander Jaime Melendez for $195,000. Melendez, who turned 18 after the DSL season, had a 2.67 ERA with a 39-16 K-BB mark in 28.1 innings. Melendez isn’t that big (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) and relies more on craftiness, deception and pitchability than stuff, with an 87-91 mph fastball that he throws for strikes with an approach of mixing all his pitches liberally.

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