Spring Training Notebook: Joe Perez, Alimber Santa Among Astros Standouts
WEST PALM, BEACH, Fla.—For years the Astros have been known as an organization that did an excellent job of developing velocity and breaking balls. That helped Houston rebuild its bullpen on the fly in 2020 with an influx of rookies.
But in 2021, the impact of draft penalties and graduations was apparent. All of a sudden Houston lacked the number of power arms around the minors that had been commonplace for it in previous years.
A trip around the back fields in West Palm Beach makes it clear that the Astros are starting to develop a new wave of power arms. Among the most notable development stories is righthander Alimber Santa, a 2020 signee out of the Dominican Republic. Santa is an athletic, projectable hurler with a fastball that sits mid 90s and a high-spin curveball in the high 70s that averages north of 2,700 rpm. Blessed with plus arm speed, Santa generates plus velocity with ease, and with fluid mechanics and direct motion to the plate he projects to add additional velocity in the coming years as he adds strength.
“Our Santo Domingo area scout, Hassan Wessin, did a great job identifying Santa,” said Astros assistant general manager Pete Putila. "He was 88-91, threw strikes, and spun a breaking ball. He has since added size and strength to help him get up to 98 along with adding a slider."
The story behind how Wessin found Santa is interesting. He trusted what his father told him.
“A week before I started scouting my dad told me to go take a look at a little academy that was close to his workplace at that time because he saw a young pitcher that looked good," Wessin said. "So, the first workout that I ever did was there and after I saw Alimber Santa I invited him to our complex for our next workout. I think we saw him one more time and we agreed to sign him.
"The two things that gave me confidence in signing Santa were the ability to throw strikes and the confidence that he could get anybody out."
Santa was part of a group of electric arms at Astros camp and in their South Florida contests. Also keep an eye on Julio Robaina, an undersized lefthander with a smooth operation and innate breaking ball feel. He mixed in a sweeper in the high 70s that flashed over 13 inches of break consistently, as well as another variation with more depth. His fastball was in the low 90s and he showed two variations in a sinker with good arm-side run and a four-seamer with more of a vertical shape. The 21-year-old signed out of Cuba in 2017.
OTHER ASTROS TO WATCH
—The Astros’ second round pick in 2017, Joe Perez’s first years in pro ball seemed to have more setbacks than steps forward. A Tommy John surgery was followed by a shoulder injury before a rough 2019 at short-season Tri-City. Then came the coronavirus pandemic and a lost 2020 season.
It all meant that Perez entered 2021, his fifth pro season, with no full-season experience and no real pro success.
He’s been making up for lost time since then. He had a solid 2021 season where he reached Double-A, earning him a spot on the Astros 40-man roster during the offseason. This spring, he’s done nothing to slow that ascent. The club’s No. 5 prospect, Perez has an upright and simple swing, showing raw power without sacrificing contact or approach. He started in a major league game on March 24 and went 2-for-2 with a double. He continued to make impressive loud contact throughout camp and hit another double during a March 28 Triple-A game at the Astros complex. Perez credited his health and normal offseason routines as a big driver of his success in 2021 and strong play this spring. He's a prospect who could find himself moving up the team ranking in the coming months.
—The Astros drafted Las Vegas prep product Tyler Whitaker in the third round and signed him to an over-slot bonus of $1.5 million. He showed good raw power in batting practice and is already a physical presence with a frame that still projects to add strength. The Astros moved Whitaker back to the infield after he played in the outfield during his senior season at Bishop Gorman High. He’s still a work in progress in the field and at the plate but offers some of the most tantalizing upside in the Astros system.
—Chayce McDermott, a fourth-round pick out of Ball State in 2021, looked strong during his bullpen work on March 28. McDermott has a smooth, rhythmic delivery and a deep arsenal of pitches. He features a slider, a curveball, a changeup and a cutter to go along with a low-to-mid-90s fastball with above-average ride … Another member of the Astros 2021 draft class, Spencer Arrighetti, looked good during his intrasquad scrimmages during a March 27 camp day. He sat 92-94 mph from a lower release height and flashed added ride on his fastball, a marked improvement from his 2021 metrics.
—Ray Gaither was signed as a nondrafted free agent out of Dallas Baptist and showed a deep arsenal of pitches including a slider and cutter that flashed above-average and a four-seam fastball with good shape that sat 92-95 mph.
—Adrian Chaidez was drafted out of UCLA in the 15th round in 2021 and showed loud stuff pitching for the High-A squad against the Marlins High-A squad. He didn’t throw a fastball below 94 mph and mixed in a slider with sweepy shape that missed bats. A college reliever who struggled to harness his stuff, he looks like a name to monitor.
—Preceding Chaidez in a March 29 game was long-limbed righthander Misael Tamarez, who sat 94-96 mph over his inning of work with an easy operation that generated good velocity with little effort. He mixed in a low-80s slider and a changeup but struggled to hit his spots consistently over his inning of work.