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Astros Prospect Will Wagner Continues Breakout Showing In Arizona Fall League



SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In a year where the talent level in the Arizona Fall League is generally considered to be down, Astros infielder Will Wagner is increasingly standing out as a prospect to watch.

Wagner, the son of long-time closer Billy Wagner, went 2-for-5 with a home run and three RBIs to lead Surprise to a 9-4 win over Scottsdale on Tuesday night. The 24-year-old is now batting .346 with a 1.145 OPS—the second highest OPS in the league—and is posting some of the league’s highest exit velocities in what is quickly becoming a breakout AFL campaign.

“Offensively and defensively he's had about as good of a fall campaign as you can have, and (he’s) really opening eyes within the organization,” said Surprise manager Mickey Storey, who is also the manager at Triple-A Sugar Land in the Astros system. “It's one of those things where like, I've already called back to the Astros and been like, ‘Hey, what's the plan for him next year? Because I know a guy in Sugar Land who would love to have him (on the) Opening Day roster.’ "

An 18th-round pick in 2021 out of Liberty, Wagner received just a $50,000 bonus as a senior sign. He quickly surpassed many players taken ahead of him and hit his way to Double-A in his first full season this year, batting .261/.374/.394 with 10 home runs and 53 RBIs.

Wagner’s ability to find the barrel and control the strike zone have long been strengths, but his power surge in the AFL has elevated him into a different tier of prospect.

Wagner has six doubles, two triples and three home runs in only 14 games with Surprise and is slugging .712. His latest home run was a three-run blast off Orioles reliver Nick Richmond that cleared the 10-foot high wall in right-center field with room to spare.

Hitting long bombs is something Wagner has been doing a lot of recently. After missing time with an illness, he has now homered in three of his last four games.

“I've changed my swing a couple of times here,” Wagner said. “Like, I was out a week because I was sick and I came back and I was late on fastballs, so I shortened up my swing and went to a toe tap and that seemed to help a little bit. And then spreading out on two strikes helped a lot, too. So those are my kind of two changes I made here, and it's worked so far.”

It’s not just home runs Wagner is squaring up. His exit velocities this fall include a 105 mph groundout and a 102 mph triple in addition to a 419-foot, 103 mph home run he hit last week.

In the at-bat preceding his home run Tuesday, Wagner drilled a comebacker up the middle that hit Angels righthander Jack Kochanowicz in the leg so hard that Kochanowicz had to leave the game.

“I think it's been in there,” Storey said. “I think we just haven't got to see it. I think he's done some things with his swing and it's just really repeatable. His barrel stays in the zone so long and kind of stays on plane and he is doing damage when he gets a pitch to hit, which is kind of often at this point.”

Wagner’s offensive surge has been his most visible development, but his defense has quietly improved behind the scenes, too. A second baseman in college, Wagner bounced between first, second and third base during the regular season this year. He has settled in as Saguaro’s regular third baseman during the fall and quickly taken to the position.

“It's funny because third base I didn't really play that much during the regular season, and that’s all I’ve played here,” he said. “So it's not a big change because I played third in the past, but it’s just (adding) an extra routine like side work before BP or more extra ground balls during BP just to help me get moving and get my hands going.”

The extra work has paid off quickly. Wagner has yet to make an error in 14 games and has become Saguaro’s most reliable infield defender.

“He's played predominantly third just because we didn't have as many third baseman on the roster, and he grabbed the bull by the horns,” Storey said. “He's our third baseman. He's literally made every play that has been hit his way and looks really good doing it.”

When the Astros won the World Series last weekend, they did so with a homegrown roster teeming with late-round picks and low-bonus signees. Starting center fielder Chas McCormick was a 21st-round pick who signed for $1,000. Infielder David Hensley, the starting DH in the clincher, was a 26th-round pick who also signed for $1,000. All-star second baseman Jose Altuve famously signed for just $15,000 out of Venezuela. Pitchers Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Bryan Abreu all signed for $100,000 or less on the international market.

With the way he’s playing in the Fall League, Wagner looks like he might just be the Astros next late-round, low-bonus, homegrown success story.

“What he's doing is just the tip of the iceberg,” Storey said. “You just go back to his preparation and his poise and his competitive edge that he shows every day. He wants extra work, wants to work as a routine and goes out there and plays the game. When you when you operate that way good things seem to happen, so I think we're seeing just the beginning of what Will Wagner has to offer.”

NEWS AND NOTES

Rangers righthander Kumar Rocker made his final start of the Fall League and had a decidedly mixed performance, flashing a swing-and-miss slider but also struggling mightily with his fastball command. The third overall pick in the 2022 draft threw only 31 of his 60 pitches for strikes, largely on account of missing with his fastball.

Rocker threw only 15 of his 33 fastballs for strikes and had two separate stretches where he threw seven straight fastballs for balls. Of his 11 swings and misses, nine came on his slider, one came on his changeup and one came on his fastball—an elevated 95 mph heater he got Orioles outfielder Heston Kjerstad to chase for a strikeout.

“I thought his last (start) was better, but I thought he's making steps in the right direction for sure,” Storey said. “Slider was really good at times, but then the fastball command escaped him a little bit, which we've seen a little bit in the Fall League. But when it comes down to it, he seems to make pitches when he has to make them and gets through these outings without giving up too much damage. Obviously, he would like to be a little sharper and a little cleaner, but after his last outing in Mesa and this one, I think he's had a pretty solid end to the fall.”

Rocker’s fastball sat 95-96 mph through the outing, while his slider ranged from 84-87 mph and his firm changeup sat 89-91 mph. He gave up repeated hard contact against his fastball but got help from his defense, including a spectacular diving catch by Phillies outfielder Carlos De La Cruz to end the second inning and prevent a run, and potentially two, from scoring.

Rocker’s final line was 3.1 innings pitched, four hits and three earned runs allowed, three walks and five strikeouts, although the line was somewhat misleading. The first run charged to him came as a result of a wayward throw by shortstop Jayce Easley that should have been ruled an error but was mysteriously ruled a hit. Rocker departed the outing with the bases loaded in the fourth, and Royals righthander Nathan Webb promptly served up a single to Braves shortstop Cal Conley that allowed two inherited runners to score, the final two runs charged to Rocker.

Overall, Rocker went 2-1, 4.50 in six starts in the AFL with 14 innings pitched, 12 hits allowed, 12 walks and 18 strikeouts.

Rangers

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