How The Astros' Unconventional Approach To International Pitching Led Them To The World Series
On the international market, most of the top players in Latin America sign when they’re 16 years old. Occasionally, they sign at 17. By the time they’re 18, they are considered “older.” Any older than that, the players are considered “ancient” and are largely ignored by teams.
The Astros went against that conventional wisdom in the middle of the last decade. They saw older international pitchers as an undervalued demographic and made a concerted effort to scout and sign them.
Now, on the eve of the World Series, the Astros are reaping the rewards of that approach.
The Astros will open the World Series with lefthander Framber Valdez and righthanders Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy as their projected starters for Games 1, 2 and 3 following the announcement that righthander Lance McCullers Jr. will miss the series. The Astros signed all three well past the age of most international signees and, because of the their ages, signed them for minimal bonuses.
The Astros signed Valdez when he was 21 for $10,000 out of the Dominican Republic. They signed Garcia when he was 19 for $20,000 out of Venezuela. Urquidy represented their “big” expenditure—he received a $100,000 signing bonus when the Astros purchased his rights from the Mexican League’s Sultanes de Monterrey when he was 19.
None were top international prospects, and all were largely overlooked by most teams due to their age. Now, they are the top three starters in a World Series rotation.
“There was just opportunity for players that might have been overlooked,” said Oz Ocampo, the Astros’ international director from 2012-2017. “I think what we focused on more than anything else was the talent level. Just what did these guys bring to the table and what sort of attributes, traits did they show? That’s what we focused on much more so than what the age was or whether they were July 2 guys.”
The Astros’ return from signing older pitchers at a discount goes beyond just the three starters. They also signed swingman Cristian Javier, who finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting last season, for $10,000 a week before his 18th birthday.
The reasons the pitchers went unsigned so long vary. Valdez had previous agreements with the D-backs, Rays and Brewers fall through because of concerns about the health of his elbow. Deteriorating political conditions in Venezuela made it difficult for teams to scout Garcia and other Venezuelan players. Urquidy was harmed by teams’ reluctance to deal with Mexican League clubs under an old system that MLB alleged was plagued by “corruption” and “fraud.” Javier was an outfielder until he was 16 and his fastball barely reached the upper 80s on a good day.
Still, the Astros pursued them. International area scout David Brito evaluated Valdez and Garcia at workouts put on by trainers and recommended them to his superiors. Mexico scouting supervisor Raul Lopez identified Urquidy as a target and international development coordinator Carlos Alfonso leveraged his extensive contacts in Mexico to help with the evaluation and negotiation processes. Dominican area scout Leocadio Guevara lived in the same small town as Javier and had known him since he was 7. It was at Guevara’s suggestion that Javier switched from the outfield to pitching.
“Back in those days, there were two big factors to take into consideration,” said Roman Ocumarez, the Astros’ Latin America scouting supervisor. “The first one is we had never been opposed to seeing or evaluating older guys. The other thing that was a big factor was back in those days we had two Dominican Summer League teams. So that gave us an extra spot for those type of arms.
“Me as a scout, I don’t get opposed to seeing guys 20 years old, 21 years old, especially since they were pitchers. If they were position players, that might be another hurdle. But we have always been open to evaluating guys that were older.”
The Astros weren’t entirely alone in scouting and signing older pitchers. The Padres signed Dinelson Lamet for $100,000 when he was 21. The Giants signed current Reds ace Luis Castillo when he was 19.
Few teams, however, signed older international pitchers as frequently, or with the same success, as the Astros did.
“We felt that if we’re seeing quality of talent, no matter what age they were, then we would be interested in those pitchers,” Ocampo said. “Just looking at these guys, and a lot of guys that we signed at that time, it really was more about ‘What’s the delivery? What’s the arm action? How does the body move? What kind of repertoire do they have? What kind of pitchability and command do they have?’ And then the makeup components. Mound presence, work ethic, competitive fire, the ability to learn and apply.
“It was really looking at those trends. Just the way that market was set up, there were players that fit that mold for July 2, but there were also players that fit that mold that were 18, 19, 20, 21. And so all these guys had a lot of those key attributes that we look for in pitchers. So when we had opportunities to try and sign them, we were aggressive in getting them into the system.”
Of course, it was also very little risk if they didn’t work out. Valdez, Garcia and Javier signed for a combined $40,000. Urquidy required more of an investment—the total fee paid to Sultanes was $400,000, of which Urquidy received 25% under the old signing system for Mexican League players—but that was still less than the minimum major league salary.
Fortunately for the Astros, it did work out, and at just the right time. The Astros faced a starting pitching shortage after they lost Gerrit Cole in free agency after the 2019 season and Justin Verlander to an injury that ultimately required Tommy John surgery in 2020. No help was coming from the club’s draftees, either.
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Since selecting McCullers in the supplemental first round in 2012, the Astros had overwhelmingly failed to draft and develop starting pitching. The club drafted and signed 82 pitchers from 2013-17. Only one, lefthander Patrick Sandoval, is currently a starter in the major leagues.
The Astros had the offense to continue their run of dominance into the 2020s, but without more starting pitching, the run was likely to end.
Unexpectedly, the unheralded international quartet stepped in and, in effect, extended the Astros’ window of contention. Urquidy broke out in 2019 and won Game 4 of the World Series while becoming a rotation staple. Valdez and Javier ascended to the rotation in 2020 and posted the two lowest ERAs among Astros starters to help lead the team to the ALCS. Garcia joined the rotation this year and was one of the American League’s top rookies.
“No one expects the guys that you had a part in signing, and watching their development from the Dominican Summer League all the way up to the big leagues, that they’d be Games 1, 2 and 3 starters (in the World Series),” Ocampo said. “Especially with the sort of stereotype, and I think unfair, that Latin pitchers are generally more reliever profiles and not starters.
“We already had high expectations. I certainly had high expectations for these guys, but these guys have exceeded them even more, and that’s just a huge credit to everybody that’s been involved in terms of their development.”
Even the most optimistic projections in the Astros organization didn’t see Valdez, Garcia, Urquidy and Javier becoming the pitchers they have. Their hope was Valdez would be a solid lefthanded reliever who could potentially move into the rotation if he developed a third pitch. Garcia and Urquidy had promise, but they were also 6-foot righthanders with more pitchability than stuff, a common profile in the amateur market. Even the Astros acknowledge signing Javier was a total flier.
And yet, they are now central to the Astros' World Series championship aspirations. Once overlooked, they are as responsible as anyone for extending the Astros run of dominance.
“It’s totally rewarding watching those kids in the big leagues,” Ocumarez said. “Every kid that we sign, when they get to the big leagues, in my situation, you start having flashbacks to the day you evaluate, the day you see the skinny kid with the spikes in their hand and maybe you started dreaming as a scout what potential this could be in the future. There is no word to describe that when you see them in the big leagues.
"With these guys, as a scout, you start thinking, 'Jesus, we were right.' "