International Reviews: Houston Astros
Total 2017 signings: 46.
Top 2017-18 signing: Several at $300,000.
The Astros were in their first period of a two-year penalty for exceeding their international bonus pool in 2016-17. They couldn’t sign anyone for more than $300,000 last year starting on July 2 and won’t be able to go past that amount again this year when the 2018-19 period opens. The Astros were still among the top teams in the league in overall signing volume, however, and added two pitchers from Brazil and Venezuela who several teams liked.
One of the Astros biggest signings (both in terms of talent and size) was Heitor Tokar, a 6-foot-7, 250-pound righthander from Brazil who got a $300,000 bonus on July 2. Tokar, 17, represented Brazil at multiple international tournaments and pitched well in front of scouts at last year’s MLB international showcase in the Dominican Republic, where he threw 2.2 scoreless innings with three strikeouts and didn’t allow a hit or a walk. There aren’t many teenage pitchers as big as Tokar, and those who are that tall tend to struggle keeping their long arms and legs in sync during their deliveries. Tokar, however, has exceptional body control for a big man, with easy arm action and sound mechanics that he’s able to repeat well to throw consistent strikes. His fastball parks at 88-91 and can reach 92 mph, generating groundballs and coming at hitters with steep downhill angle. His 80-84 mph changeup, arguably his best pitch, is advanced for his age and keeps hitters off balance. It’s further along than his slider, which gets slurvy and can reach the low 80s.
The Astros on July 2 also gave $300,000 to 17-year-old Venezuelan righthander Jairo Lopez, who trained with Javier Mendoza. At 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, Lopez isn’t anywhere near as physically imposing as Tokar, but he has a starter profile between his repertoire, delivery and pitchability. Lopez has solid pitching mechanics and fast arm speed, which once he gets stronger should help him add to a fastball that ranges from 88-92 mph. He commands his fastball well and can miss bats with it due to the pitch’s late riding life up in the zone. Lopez has tight spin on a low to mid-70s curveball, which is a potential out pitch, and has shown early signs of feel for a changeup.
Venezuelan outfielder Wilyer Abreu signed with the Astros for $300,000 on July 2 after training with Guido Mendez. Abreu is 18 and had been previously eligible to sign, so he was able to play right away in the Dominican Summer League, where he hit .286/.377/.345 with 14 walks and 29 strikeouts in 34 games. A skinny 6 feet, 180 pounds, Abreu is a lefty who stands out for his hitting ability in games and an advanced offensive approach for his age, with a line-drive stroke and mostly doubles power. He’s an above-average runner who should stay in center field with an average arm.
Another Venezuelan center fielder, Franklin Pinto, also signed with the Astros for $300,000 in July after impressing the Astros with his hitting ability and all-around game acumen. Pinto, 17, has a similar profile to Abreu, albeit as a righthanded hitter. He’s 6-foot, 160 pounds with a mature offensive approach and gap power. He’s a 55 runner who takes good routes in center field.
Ricardo Leon, who trained with Felix Luzon, is a 17-year-old Venezuelan lefthander the Astros signed for $300,000 on July 2. Leon jumps out for his size (6-foot-4, 165 pounds), physical upside and ability to reach 90 mph from the left side with likely more velocity in the tank once he puts on weight. Leon throws a changeup and a slurvy breaking ball, with scattered strikes.
The Astros signed two more Venezuelan outfielders from Javier Mendoza’s program for $300,000 apiece in July. One was 17-year-old Yefri Carillo, an athletic 6-foot-2, 170 pounds with plus speed and flashes of big power from the right side during batting practice, although he’s not as refined yet with his hitting ability in games. The other was Yimmi Cortabarria, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound right fielder who has shown big raw power during batting practice from the right side, though he’s working to cut back on his swing-and-miss in games.
Jose Betances, a Dominican righthander who trained with Edgar Mercedes, signed with the Astros for $285,000 on July 2. Betances, 18, had previously been eligible to sign and pitched briefly last year in the DSL, where he threw five relief outings. Betances has a strong, power build packed into his 6-foot frame and a power arm that has reached 95 mph. While the Astros saw him throw strikes, other clubs thought he was prone to bouts of wildness, and he did walk eight batters in 2.2 innings in the DSL. Betances also impressed the Astros with a hard slider that’s ahead of his changeup, so he has the stuff to miss bats if he can corral his stuff in the zone.
The Astros signed 17-year-old Venezuelan center fielder Abraham Castillo for $150,000 on July 2. Castillo impressed the Astros with his hitting ability from the right side, along with above-average speed and a near-average arm in center. Castillo trained with Alvaro Diaz.
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Houston has also been one of the most aggressive clubs signing Cuban players in recent years. After righthander Elian Rodriguez, who received a $1.9 million bonus in June right at the close of the 2016-17 signing period, and catcher Lorenzo Quintana, whose $200,000 deal was exempt from the international bonus pools as a foreign professional, the Astros signed three Cuban players to six-figure deals during the 2017-18 signing period.
One of those players was 17-year-old lefthander Julio Robaina, who got $220,000 in September. Robaina pitched in Cuba’s 15U national league in 2016, when he posted a 4.71 ERA in 49.2 innings with 67 strikeouts and 36 walks, ranking eighth in the league in both walks and strikeouts. Robaina also played center field and hit well, batting .300/.462/.600 with three home runs in 78 plate appearances, but the Astros signed him to pitch. He’s 5-foot-11, 170 pounds with a fastball that has reached 90 mph and a diverse repertoire that includes a curveball, changeup and splitter. While Robaina’s strike-throwing track record is uneven, he impressed the Astros with his pitchability.
Righthander Franny Cobos, who signed with the Astros for $125,000 in August, played in that same Cuban 15U league in 2016 and was one of the top performers in the circuit, both as a pitcher and an infielder. As a pitcher, Cobos ranked second in the league in ERA (1.07), first in innings (75.2) and strikeouts (136), and he walked just 28 batters. At the plate, Cobos hit .463/.580/.707 in 164 plate appearances, ranking first in triples (10), second in stolen bases (24 in 31 attempts), fourth in batting average and OBP and third in slugging. That earned him a spot later that year on Cuba’s U-15 World Cup team in Japan, where Cobos pitched and played second base. Cobos has a sound righthanded swing, but after leaving Cuba he trained as a pitcher, which is where he will play with the Astros. Cobos lacks much physical upside, at a relatively filled-in 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, with a fastball that has reached 92 mph. His best pitch is a sharp-breaking curveball, which has good spin, shape and depth to help him miss bats. Cobos mixes in a slider and changeup, too, with good feel for pitching for his age.
The Astros signed 17-year-old Cuban shortstop Rolando Espinosa for $175,000 in August. Espinosa also played in the 15U league in 2016, batting .331/.432/.478 with 23 walks and eight strikeouts in 166 plate appearances, and was teammates with Cobos at the U-15 World Cup in Japan that year. Espinosa doesn’t have any loud tools, though they did improve after leaving Cuba. He’s 6 feet, 177 pounds with above-average speed in the 60-yard dash, solid actions and a strong arm at shortstop. He’s a righthanded batter who performed well and didn’t swing and miss much in Cuba.
One of the sleepers of the class who is already moving quickly is 21-year-old Venezuelan righthander Luis Garcia, who signed for $20,000 on July 2. When the Astros scouted Garcia, he was throwing in the mid-80s, then by the time he signed he was reaching the upper 80s. After that, his velocity jumped, and he performed well last year in the DSL after signing, with a 1.64 ERA and an 18-4 K-BB mark in 11 innings. Given Garcia’s age and what he had shown since signing, the Astros have pushed him to low Class A Quad Cities, where he has an ERA of 0.63 in 14.1 innings with 20 strikeouts and five walks. Now 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Garcia sits 90-93 mph and can reach 95 mph. He throws a lot of strikes and commands his fastball well, especially given his lack of professional experience. Garcia’s out pitch is a low-70s curveball, a swing-and-miss offering with big depth that flashes above-average. He hasn’t thrown his changeup much yet but he has shown some feel for that pitch as well.