Nobody beats the book like Houston. Their prospect lists require close-reading and separate buckets of research because you don’t want to miss a free Jose Urquidy or Luis Garcia if you don’t have to. Jake Meyers and Chas McCormick both popped from relative obscurity onto fantasy baseball rosters in 2021, and that looks like the way it’s going to go with Astros’ prospects. I don’t know what it is that keeps their guys underrated in general. I guess losing the picks to the cheating scandal didn’t help, nor did the cheating scandal (though it would be pretty hard to argue that it didn’t HELP help in a macro sense). Doesn’t matter for our purposes. The Astros have proven they can teach hitting with buzzers or without. Although they’re not highly ranked around the chamber, and spots are at a premium on the big league roster right now, this list has some of my favorite sleepers for near-term fantasy value, especially at the top.
Format: Position Player | Age on 4/1/2022 | Highest level played | ETA
1. SS Jeremy Peña | 24 | AAA | 2022
Ranked 189 on Eric Cross’ top 400 prospects released on December 10th, between OF Jordan Nwogu and 1B Anthony Garcia. Conservatively, that’s 100 spots too low. Guys like Nwogu and Garcia have an uphill battle to ever enter a big league lineup. If the season started tomorrow, Peña would likely be Houston’s shortstop. Alek Thomas is 17th on that same list. I prefer Peña, who hit 10 home runs and stole 5 bases in just 30 AAA games this year and recently became the gold glove shortstop in LIDOM, his second straight year winning that award. He’s a power-speed bat with big-league bloodlines and double-plus defense looking at an everyday gig to open 2022. I’ve been banging this drum for a while, and my arms are tired, but others will probably pick up the beat before long.
2. OF Jose Siri | 26 | MLB | 2021
Alexa, can you find me a time machine? I need to go back to whenever I lost Siri from my fantasy teams.
I paid $4 of a $300/40 spot budget to get Siri way back in 2017. Dude has been around a while, so it’s possible to see why Cincinnati finally moved on from his free-swinging ways after a 2019 season that saw him slash .186/.252/.245 with a 34.8 percent strikeout rate in 30 games at AAA. On the other hand, it’s not crazy for a 24-year-old to struggle in his first exposure to pitching at that level. If he’d been drafted out of college, he’d be right on time, and his double plus defense in centerfield should have probably bought him some time. Nonetheless, here Siri is looking like a big league option while Cincinnati searches for centerfield help. In 94 games at AAA this year, Siri slashed .318/.369/.552 with 16 HR and 24 SB. He still struck out 30.7 percent of the time, but nobody will care if he’s making that kind of impact, which is what he did in 21 games for the Astros, slashing .304/.347/.609 with 4 HR, 3 SB and a 34.7 percent K-rate. Everything happening here is interesting. Trouble is, Houston has more centerfielders than the team can field. Jake Meyers and Chas McCormick both look like capable major leaguers and cloud the outlook for Siri. Maybe they can trade somebody to the Reds.
3. SS Pedro Leon | 23 | AAA | 2023
Pedro the Lion is a pretty cool character in One Piece, but things have not really gone his way in the series. He’s not gonna be in this Netflix adaptation coming out, probably, because he doesn’t show up until the series has been running on a weekly basis for about 20 years, and Netflix tends to cut and run on anime attempts. But he had his big moments. Served his purpose. Is likely in the past forever now. Where was I going with this again? Oh yeah, I’m worried we’ve seen the peak of Leon’s dynasty value come and go. What if I told you he was a less gifted version of Jose Siri? They’re both power/speed guys with 30 percent strikeout rates. They’re both plus athletes. If Leon can handle shortstop, he gets the edge there, but Siri is an elite defender in center, which I think totally erases the positional advantage. Getting a little sidetracked in real-baseball thought there, but it’s part of the thesis: this is a risky player.
We probably haven’t seen Leon’s best, but what we’ve seen raises questions. He played 17 games at AAA this year and slashed .131/.293/.164 with 0 HR and 4 SB. Look a little like Siri’s first month at the level to you? One difference is Siri has been in the Reds’ system since 2013. 2021 was the Lion’s first chance at making the kind of gains available within the long grind of a stateside season. I’ve moved him around a bit on the list. I can’t tell if he’s a buy or sell. Probably just depends on context, but I doubt his teams are eager to sell given the momentum he seemed to be building in the middle of last season. For what it’s Wuertz, his ETA says 2023 here, but he’ll probably be up by September. I just don’t think he’ll play much until next year.
4. 3B Joe Perez | 22 | AA | 2023
A 6’2” 198 lb right handed hitter, Perez was a 2nd round pick out of high school in the 2017 draft. He played at three levels in 2021 and ended the season on a tear at the highest level, slashing .316/.373/.533 with 6 HR and 1 SB over his final 36 games at AA. I cut it up this way because in his first 33 games at the level, Perez struggled, hitting two home runs and slashing .209/.262/.287. I see his late-season rebound as a great sign for his future. Baseball is a game of failing and adjusting. A game of bouncing back. Way to get back, Joe.
5. RHP Forrest Whitley | 24 | AAA | 2022
At 6’7” 238 lbs, Whitley became the top pitching prospect in baseball as people (myself included) dreamed of his five plus pitches and surprising ability to repeat the base mechanics of his delivery. In hindsight, perhaps that late-night-driving-adderall story should’ve slowed the hype train more than it did. I don’t mean to minimize reality like an old modernist. I’m sure there’s way more than that going on, and that whatever story we got about that night was just a (possibly bullshit) fraction of that reality and that perhaps that whole episode never mattered and never indicated anything beyond a kid making one easy mistake and moving on with the rest of his life. Probably was that: nothing, and that to wonder about it in hindsight is simply a waste of energy.
Straight facts though: it’s hard for humans to pitch at that size. Hard to pitch at any size, of course, but it’s a moving-pieces magic allowed to few humans: the ability to throw a baseball 90+ miles per hour. That’s just the base level of the magic trick. Beyond that, you have to learn the physics of spin, which comes secondary to controlling your whole body like you’re doing the most intricate dance in the world. And you have to do it the same way every time to be the best version of yourself. Hence, hyper-athletic pitchers (like Jacob DeGrom and Greg Maddux) tend to get the best results and age most gracefully into the role.
All I’m saying is red flags were present. Just like with MacKenzie Gore, who’s delivery was always likely to become a problem as the lithe muscle fibers, ligaments and tendons that made him great grew old and brittle like you and me sitting in our chairs writing and reading.
I’m still interested in Whitley. I’m not trading for him in a dynasty league, unless the other team is simply unloading sunk costs, but I’ll keep him in the queue if doing a startup. Houston’s pitching development team is still among the best in the world, and Whitley remains a talented enough player to pop back into our lives someday.
6. 3B Shay Whitcomb | 23 | A+ | 2023
I initially wrote this name as Slay, which is what it stayed for so long I began to think Slay was the man’s given name, which began to make sense the more I learned about the player, who does in fact, slay in the batter’s box. He’s custom-built for Houston in that he’s a pull-everything type of hitter with enough experience and feel that he does exactly that with aplomb. In 58 games with High-A Asheville, the 6’3” 202 lb righty slashed .300/.358/.601 with 16 HR, 16 SB and a 31.5 percent strikeout rate. It’s more or less impossible to know how his pitch selection will hold up against elite pitching, but so far his homer-hunting selective aggressiveness has dominated his peers, and I’m starting to think Houston has itself a scouting steal from Division II UC San Diego in the 5th round of the 2020 draft.
7. RHP Hunter Brown | 23 | AAA | 2022
Another Division II college scouting find plucked in the 5th round, this time in 2019, Brown has moved quickly through Houston’s system, covering three levels in just 34 games with the shutdown year in between his 1.5 pro seasons. In roughly 50 innings at each level, his strikeout rate dropped 9.5 percentage points from AA to AAA this year, from 35 to 25.5 percent, but his WHIP dropped, too, from 1.50 to 1.33, as he cut his walk rate from 13.4 to 9.7 percent and boosted his groundball rate from 52.6 to 47.7 percent. All this is to say Brown does not possess precise command, but he does have nasty stuff. It’s not a Robbie Ray situation because few guys are that nasty, but I think the road forward is similar in that Brown’s goal should be to get ahead early. Just aim for the strike zone and hope for the best until you get ahead. I’m sure Ray’s approach is more complex than that, but the gist is Just Throw Strikes, and that’s what separates Brown from his big league debut. He might get smoked with just area-code accuracy, but he’s not consigned to that fate forever. Command can improve with reps, especially high-stress reps with good coaching and confidence.
8. OF Matthew Barefoot | 24 | AA | 2023
Speed is the reason Barefoot makes the cut, which makes plenty of linguistic and rotisserie sense. He’s a bit like Whitcomb: an explosive pull hitter from the right side with some swing and miss that’s countered by pitch selection and exit velocity. I’m not saying they’re trying to replicate George Springer, necessarily, but you could do worse as a scouting team trying to fill that park with big leaguers. Barefoot trekked three levels, slashing .299/.352/.564 with 16 HR and 17 SB in 66 games at the first two stops. His 36 games in AA were less impressive: .175/.226/.299 with 4 HR, 4 SB and a 34.2 percent strikeout rate. Two ways to look at this: A) just a typical tough stretch at the end of a long three-level season, or B) evidence that Barefoot lacks the hyper-elite coordination to hit big league pitching. Me, I like to keep an open mind. Sorry I presented it as a binary. Plenty of room for nuance here and plenty to gain from keeping Barefoot on your radar.
9. C Yainer Diaz | 23 | A+ | 2023
There’s guys who figure something out, and then there’s Yainer Diaz. He was sent to High-A Asheville shortly after being acquired from Cleveland for Myles Straw. There, Diaz became Vlad Junior for a month. In 25 games at the new level, Diaz hit 11 home runs and slashed .396/.438/.781 with just 17 strikeouts (16.2%). That’s a big-time hitter’s environment, but if Diaz picks up anywhere close to where he left off, people will start taking his consistently positive outcomes a little more seriously. More likely he returns to his free-swinging, light-contact ways, but Houston seems to be communicating something well if the early returns are any indication.
10. C Korey Lee | 23 | AAA | 2023
I was all over the place with this spot. Korey Lee gets it because he’s a first-round pick who covered three levels in 2021, slashing .273/.340/.438 with 11 HR and 4 SB in 88 games. So here we have a catcher who’s outcomes haven’t been especially loud even when he was excellent for 29 games at High-A, slashing .330/.397/.459 with 3 HR and 1 SB. No matter how I think he’s got more perceived value than RHP Alex Santos, SS Cristian Gonzalez or Tyler Whitaker, all of whom could easily have more value than Lee this time next year. Keep Gonzalez on speed dial for an early glow-up, by the way.
Thanks for reading!
I’m @theprospectitch on Twitter.