Ranking the 5 Most Underrated Prospects in the Houston Astros' System
The Houston Astros’ farm system is widely regarded as one of the most improved over the last three years. Although the on-field product at the major league level has been uninspiring (to say the least), the organization has done an admirable job landing young, high-ceiling talent through trades and the draft.
Headed into the 2013 season, the Astros have an impressive collection of top 100 prospects in 1B Jonathan Singleton, SS Carlos Correa, OF George Springer, 2B Delino DeShields, Jr. and RHP Jarred Cosart.
Beyond those players, the Astros’ system is deep and loaded with potential impact talent—including several big-time sleeper prospects.
In selecting players for this article, I targeted prospects who are behind the developmental curve relative to their age, have a concerning medical history, lack significant professional experience or are simply under-appreciated.
Here’s a look at the most underrated prospects in the Houston Astros' farm system.
5. Max Stassi, C
One of the more highly regarded position players in the 2009 draft, Stassi fell to the A’s in the fourth round due to his strong commitment to UCLA. However, the Astros were able to lure him away with a $1.5 million signing bonus.
The stocky, 5’10”, 205-pound backstop received an aggressive assignment to Low-A Kane County for his full-season debut in 2010, where his raw plate discipline and lack of experience was obvious. Stassi’s defense was as good as advertised, however, as he committed only 10 passed balls and posted a 34-percent caught-stealing rate in 95 games behind the plate. Unfortunately, a lingering shoulder injury worsened during the 2011 season at High-A Stockton and ultimately required season-ending surgery.
Finally healthy entering the 2012 season, Stassi was once again hampered by injuries, as ankle and oblique issues limited him to only 84 games. Still, the 22-year-old enjoyed the best season of his professional career, as he batted .268/.331/.468 with 15 home runs and 83/27 K/BB for High-A Stockton.
To make up for time lost due to injury, the A’s decided to send Stassi to the Arizona Fall League to sharpen his skills. And he had a decent showing, batting .271/.314/.396 in 13 games.
Acquired from the A's in exchange for Jed Lowrie, Stassi gives the Astros additional depth behind the plate—a position at which they have no long-term solution. He won’t contribute in 2013, but if his defense returns to pre-surgery form, the 22-year-old could reach the major leagues at some point the following season.
4. Joe Musgrove, RHP
Selected in the supplemental-first round by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011, Musgrove didn’t make his professional debut until mid-2012. But after just eight innings (1.13 ERA, 9/0 K/BB) with the team’s affiliate in the Appalachian League, the 20-year-old right-hander was dealt to the Astros as part of a 10-player trade. Although he didn’t fare as well over nine innings with his new club, Musgrove did fan more than one batter per inning.
At 6’5”, 230 pounds, the right-hander has a massive frame that’s seemingly built to eat innings. Yet, despite his size, Musgrove doesn’t throw exceptionally hard, as his fastball sits in the low-90s but features lots of sink. To supplement the heater, he mixes in a curveball and splitter, both of which are thrown on a downhill plane and project to be at least average offerings.
With only 17 professional innings under his belt, the Astros will be cautious with Musgrove next season; however, expect the organization to gradually lengthen out his starts over the course of the season.
3. Robbie Grossman, OF
Drafted by the Pirates in the sixth round of the 2008 MLB first-year player draft, Grossman enjoyed a breakout season at High-A Bradenton in 2011, in which he batted .294/.418/.451 with 49 extra-base hits and 24 stolen bases. Yes, he struck out 111 times; however, the 6’0", 205-pound outfielder paced the minor leagues with 104 walks.
Grossman’s follow-up campaign in 2012 wasn’t as impressive, though that was expected with the jump to Double-A. At the time he was dealt by the Pirates in late July, the switch-hitting outfielder was batting .266/.378/.406 with 31 extra-base hits and 78/59 K/BB in 95 games for Double-A Altoona. He actually posted similar numbers—granted it was a smaller sample—with the Astros’ Double-A affiliate, Corpus Christi, as he batted .267/.371/.422 with 13 extra-base hits and 18/11 K/BB in 36 games.
There’s uncertainty regarding his power and whether it will ever develop to be anything more than big-league average; he may never show enough pop to profile as anything greater than a “tweener." Even though he still strikes out more than desired, his advanced plate discipline should allow him to reach base at a favorable rate.
If he has a strong first half of the season, there’s a decent chance that Grossman will see some time in the Astros’ outfield after the All-Star break. Given the lack of power, he’s most valuable as a center fielder. However, given the state of the Astros’ outfield—which is slightly stronger if Chris Carter sees some time in left field, amazingly—don’t be surprised if Grossman receives additional looks at both corner spots during Spring Training.
2. Vincent Velasquez, RHP
A second-round draft pick back in 2010, Velasquez missed the entire 2011 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. However, he was impressive in his return to the mound last season in the New York-Penn League, registering a 3.35 ERA and .223 BAA with 51/17 K/BB in 45.2 innings.
Despite his previous injury, the 6’3” right-hander showed more polish than expected, as well as the potential for a solid three-pitch mix. Velasquez’s fastball works in the low-90s with some action to the arm side and should be capable of sitting a few ticks higher once he adds strength to his projectable frame. Both his curveball and changeup are inconsistent, understandably, but could be above-average offerings at maturity.
Velasquez will make his debut at a full-season level at some point during the 2013 season, which will help gauge where he’s at in terms of development.
1. Rio Ruiz, 3B
Ruiz’s draft stock was impacted by a blood clot in his throwing shoulder as a high school senior that required surgery and kept him off the field. However, following his selection in the fourth round, he returned late in the summer to bat .252/.336/.400 with 15 extra-base hits and 32/16 K/BB in 38 games across two rookie-level affiliates.
A physically strong athlete at 6’1”, 180 pounds, he has a pretty left-handed swing that gives him a chance for an above-average hit tool at maturity. He has above-average power potential, but it may take him some time to showcase it with frequency. In general, Ruiz makes loud contact to all fields and is an advanced hitter with a mature approach for his age.
Defensively, Ruiz profiles as a big-league third baseman with a solid glove and smooth actions, as well as a plus arm that’s more than enough for the position. The blood-clot issue in his throwing arm is still concerning, and will have to be monitored closely not just in 2013, but over the duration of his career.
Although he’s a fringy runner, the 18-year-old has good instincts that lend to his average range. Ruiz’s future projection is largely tied to his potential impact bat, but for now he just needs to stay on the field and gain experience.