After a normal offseason, Ronel Blanco would not have been in spring training with the Astros.
Houston did not add Blanco to its 40-man roster last winter, leaving the 28-year-old reliever vulnerable in the Rule 5 draft. Multiple industry sources said he was a virtual lock to be selected.
When owners lifted the lockout on March 10, the Rule 5 draft was a casualty. Blanco got a second chance with the Astros.
He made the most of it.
After almost no pre-camp buzz surrounding him, Blanco made the Astros’ Opening Day bullpen. He beat out multiple pitchers with MLB service time, including Josh James, Enoli Paredes and Brandon Bielak.
Blanco is another international scouting success story on the Astros’ pitching staff. Scouts Roman Ocumarez and Oz Ocampo found Blanco as a 22-year-old in the Dominican Republic. He signed for $5,000 in 2016.
Blanco is a big, hard-throwing righthander with a four-seam fastball that can run up to 97 mph. His slider is short and can sometimes be confused for a cutter. He throws both a changeup and curveball sparingly but got on the MLB radar because to his fastball/slider combo.
Blanco struck out 57 in 45 innings for Triple-A Sugar Land last season. He struggled with control earlier in his career—Blanco walked nearly five per nine innings in 2019—but devoted his two most recent offseasons to making mechanical adjustments to improve his control.
“My biggest focus was just attacking the strike zone, forgetting about the walks and attacking the strike zone,” Blanco said through an interpreter.
Blanco did not allow an earned run in 18 innings in the Dominican League, where he was teammates with Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña last winter.
“I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but it crossed my mind there was a possibility I wasn’t going to be here,” Blanco said of the Rule 5 draft. “I just continued working hard and, at some point, I’m going to be able to help the team.”
— Both outfielder Pedro Leon and catcher Korey Lee will open with Triple-A Sugar Land.
— Much like they’re doing with Leon, the Astros are experimenting with outfielder Tyler Whitaker at third base and shortstop.