Thursday, March 22, 2018

Beyond The Astros Top 30: Right-Handed Relievers

As the old year fades away and the new season approaches, it's time to start looking at those players of interest who are beyond the Astros Top 30 (or 32 ... see below). These players may not ever make a Top 30 list (or they may), but a combination of projections, actual results, incremental improvements and intangibles keep them in the mix as interesting players to watch. I am not including any players in these posts who have already made their major league debuts since, presumably, anyone reading my blog is already very familiar with those players.

Now that all of the major players (Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, MLB Pipeline and Baseball America) have weighed in with their Astros Top Prospect Lists, I've integrated all of the rankings into one consensus top prospect ranking that includes 32 Astros players (16 were ranked on all four lists, nine were on three of four and the final seven were on two of four). I highly recommend checking out the included links for all of the great information provided.


Note: Although I included all of the left-handed pitchers in my previous post, I will be dividing the right-handers into relievers and starters due to the sheer number of pitchers I will be covering. Those listed as relievers are either currently being used in relief or appear to be headed in that direction.

RIGHT-HANDED RELIEVERS IN THE TOP 30 (in alphabetical order)

Riley Ferrell - November 2017
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Dean Deetz - MLB #18, FG #21, BA #22
Deetz is new to this list, having only converted full time to the bullpen late in the 2017 season at AAA Fresno (1.56 ERA and 1.212 WHIP in nine appearances), but the move was not unexpected since he will be able to focus on his plus fastball/slider combo and relegate his less than effective changeup to the dustbin. Deetz continued working in relief in the Arizona Fall League to help acclimate him to the role, but an 80-game suspension which came down in January will delay any further development as a reliever until late in the season. Although Deetz's pitches play up in relief, particularly due to a bump in velocity directly resulting from the shorter stints (fastball sits mid 90's and can touch 97 or 98 in relief), his walk rate tends to spike with the higher velo as well as his ability to locate takes a hit. Although it was a small sample size, Deetz did appear to get the walks under control in the AFL as he allowed only four walks to 23 strikeouts in 11 innings of work. Perhaps he found his sweet spot between velocity and command. Unfortunately, we will have to wait and see. Deetz was drafted by the Astros in the 11th round in 2014 out of Northeast Oklahoma A&M and turned 24 in November. He was ranked #18 by MLB Pipeline, #21 by FanGraphs and #22 by Baseball America going into the 2018 season.

Riley Ferrell - FG #17, MLB #20, BA #27
Ferrell was ranked #20 in the Astros system by Baseball America going in to 2016, but fell off the list in 2017 as a May 2016 surgical repair to an aneurysm in his throwing shoulder severely limited his playing time. After making 38 appearances in 2017, all but two with the AA Corpus Christi team, Ferrell hit the rankings again -- #17 by FanGraphs, #20 by MLB Pipeline and #27 by Baseball America. Ferrell uses a mid-90's fastball that touches 98 to set up a plus slider that is virtually unhittable when his command is on. Ferrell compiled a 3.67 ERA and a 1.204 WHIP in 2017, walking 14 and striking out 60 in 54 innings but improved to a 2.45 ERA and 0.775 WHIP from July forward. He ended the season with a 0.00 ERA and a 0.243 WHIP, allowing only a 0.75 batting average in his final nine appearances. His Arizona Fall League season was more of a mixed bag. His critics want to see better control/command from him, but I think he made really good strides in that area in 2017. With a little more consistency, he should be headed to Houston by season's end. Ferrell was drafted in the third round in 2015 out of Texas Christian University and he turned 24 in October.

RIGHT-HANDED RELIEVERS BEYOND THE TOP 30 (in alphabetical order)

Erasmo Pinales - July 2016
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Jesús Balaguer
Signed in April 2017, Balaguer is one of a growing contingent of Cuban players in the Astros system. Reported to have a 95-mph fastball at the time of his signing, I know virtually nothing else about Balaguer except that his results in his first season in the States were enough to pique my interest. He breezed through three games with rookie level Greeneville and five games with short season A Tri-City before he was finally challenged in his 10 appearances at Low A Quad Cities. For the season, he compiled a 2.73 ERA and a 1.061 WHIP, walking 15 and striking out 53(!) in 33 innings. Batters hit .175/.271/.263 against him; he converted four of his five save opportunities; he stranded 13 of 14 inherited runners; and he provided five innings of scoreless relief in three appearances in the postseason. Balaguer will be 25 in August so expect to see the Astros continue to push him through the system quickly.
Key: Balaguer will need to show that he can compete against more and more experienced hitters as he moves up through the system.

Dorris has a fantastic back story and knows that, as a non-drafted free agent, he's playing with "house money" so he may as well enjoy himself. That attitude shows both on and off the field as the unorthodox sidearmer has bucked the odds so far to make it to AAA Fresno in his third pro season in 2017. Dorris started the season with 23 appearances at AA Corpus Christi before an early July promotion to Fresno, compiling a 4-2 record with three saves, a 3.00 ERA, a 1.222 WHIP in a total of 43 outings. He walked 28 while striking out 75 in 72 innings. And his numbers actually improved at the higher level (1.87 ERA, 1.040 WHIP and .185 BA).
Key: Historically, Dorris has struggled against lefty hitters and 2017 was no exception; southpaws hit .300/.398/.470 against him. He will need to figure out how to keep those pesky lefties in check in order to keep his forward momentum going.

Although used as a starter throughout the first four seasons of his pro career, Dykxhoorn was moved to the bullpen at the end of the 2017 season. That may have been a temporary move to facilitate the addition of high profile pitchers Forrest Whitley and Cionel Perez, but a permanent move to relief may turn out to be a good move for Dykxhoorn who has routinely put up better numbers in relief (through the back end of a tandem rotation or otherwise). For the season (all games with AA Corpus Christi), Dykxhoorn had a 5.45 ERA and a 1.579 WHIP in 76 innings as a starter (33 walks to 60 strikeouts) and a 1.93 ERA and a 1.243 WHIP in 23.1 innings of relief (7 walks to 24 strikeouts). That leads me to think that he lacks a consistent third pitch and his stuff may be a better fit for the 'pen. Dykxhoorn, who will be 24 in July, was drafted in the sixth round in 2014 out of Central Arizona College.
Key: If Dykxhoorn goes back to the rotation, he will have to find more consistency because when he gets hit, he has a tendency to get hit hard.

In each of the last two seasons, Ferrell started out in the rotation, but ended up relegated primarily to the bullpen later in the season where his stuff played up. In 31.1 innings as a starter in 2017, he had a 7.18 ERA, a 1.619 WHIP and 12 walks to 25 strikeouts. In 51 innings out of the bullpen, he had a 2.47 ERA, a 1.176 WHIP and 17 walks to 64 strikeouts. 2018 will be the fifth season for the 2014 36th rounder out of Connors State College (OK) and he needs to be challenged to AA. Put him in the Hooks bullpen and give him a chance to sink or swim by the Bay. Ferrell will be 24 next month.
Key: Leave him in the bullpen and challenge him to the higher levels!

Nick Hernandez - FG #28+
Hernandez's second season began with an excellent 24 appearances with High A Buies Creek in which he compiled a 1.59 ERA and a 0.853 WHIP in 34 innings (11 walks to 48 strikeouts). His numbers after his early July promotion to AA Corpus Christi weren't quite as flashy (thanks in part to one particularly brutal outing); in 24.2 innings, Hernandez had a 5.84 ERA and a 1.297 WHIP (15 walks to 22 strikeouts). And although his walk rate and home run rate were elevated (he allowed four home runs in the aforementioned brutal outing) at the higher level, he was still the go-to guy in high leverage situations, stranding inherited bases loaded situations on four separate occasions out of his 11 appearances. Hernandez was drafted in the 8th round in 2016 out of the University of Houston; he turned 23 in December.
Key: Other than keeping those walks in check, I think Nick just needs to keep being Nick! It's worked well so far for him.

Hill spent the majority of his season with Low A Quad Cities and High A Buies Creek with a short but successful fill-in stint at AA Corpus Christi thrown in. For the season, he had a 1.95 ERA and a 0.990 WHIP in 64.2 innings (26 appearances), walking 21 and striking out 68. If that wasn't good enough for you, from June 18th forward, he held batters to a .149 batting average with a 0.70 ERA and a 0.780 WHIP. With numbers like that, Hill isn't getting the notice that he deserves! Hill was drafted in the 25th round in 2016 out of the University of South Alabama where he had a reputation for great command and pitch sequencing. He will be 26 in August.
Key: Hill needs to be challenged. He should start the season in AA, but if he is able to come even close to his 2017 results, he should get kicked up to AAA sooner rather than later.

McCurry's 2017 season was more than a bit uneven, starting rough and ending rough but peaking with an excellent July (0.00 ERA and 0.913 WHIP in 11 games, 15.1 innings). Overall, he was 4-2 with six saves, a 4.43 ERA and a 1.410 WHIP, walking 12 and striking out 52 in 44.2 innings (35 appearances) for AAA Fresno. Known for using varying arm angles for deception, McCurry wasn't able to fool quite as many hitters in 2017 as his hit rate per nine innings spiked to an unsustainable 10.3. McCurry was originally drafted by Oakland in the 22nd round in 2014 and came to Houston in the November 2015 Jed Lowrie trade. He turned 26 in January.
Key: Consistency (and missing a few more bats)! McCurry has been incredibly dominant at times, but he hasn't been able to sustain that yet at the AAA level. He's had an excellent Spring Training and I hope to see him carry that over into the regular season.

I have been a fan of Pinales since I saw him in Tri-City in 2016. He can throw so many different pitches at widely varying speeds, can crank up the velo when needed, generates a lot of ground ball outs and swing-and-miss, and is almost as effective against lefties as right-handers. His 3.69 ERA (21 games with Low A Quad Cities and 12 games with High A Buies Creek) is inflated by a couple of bad outings. He only allowed multiple runs in five of his 33 appearances. He had a 1.131 WHIP and allowed a .198 batting average in 61 innings, walking 26 and striking out 63. He can give you multiple innings, close (six saves in 2017) and should be able to make a spot start since he was used as a starter prior to 2017. I really like his versatility. Pinales was signed in May of 2013 and will be going in to his sixth season, having turned 23 in November.
Keys: Now that Pinales has been moved to the bullpen, he should be able to move more quickly (and needs to). He was able to lower his walk rate in the second half of the season last year; I would like to see him maintain that.

Thome started the 2017 season with four appearances in High A Buies Creek and then spent the remainder of the season shuttling back and forth between AA Corpus Christi (28 games) and AAA Fresno (8 games). Thome performed well with Corpus Christi, going 4-4 with seven saves, a 2.85 ERA and a 1.195 WHIP (13BB:33SO in 41IP) and less well at Fresno, thanks in large part to one dreadful outing (in an overall dreadful 22-1 loss) in which he allowed five earned runs in one inning of work. Thome isn't a flamethrower, but has good sink on his fastball and induces a ton of ground balls. Thome was signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2015 and turned 25 in January.
Keys: Hit the ground running to show that he can compete against AAA hitters. His hit rate in Fresno last season, although a limited sample size, was far too high. As a NDFA, he almost needs to outperform draft picks; missing more bats is vital.

Thompson had a very similar season to Thome's, shuttling back and forth between AA Corpus Christi (31 games) and AAA Fresno (6 games) with similar results. Thompson was 2-3 with six saves, a 2.59 ERA, a 1.186 WHIP and 11 walks to 59 strikeouts in 59 innings at the lower level. And like Thome, one disastrous outing at the higher level (seven runs in one inning) really blew up his numbers. Also like Thome, Thompson needs to miss a few more bats. But one thing that really sets Thompson apart is his ability to strand inherited runners. He kept 26 of his 31 inherited runners from scoring. Thompson also gets his share of groundball outs, but his side arm delivery generates a nice amount of swing-and-miss through its deception. Thompson was drafted by the Astros in the 23rd round in 2014 out of Campbell University (NC) and will be 26 in June.
Keys: Miss more bats, improve his splits against lefties and prove he can compete in AAA. He was Mr. Consistent at AA; he needs to replicate that at AAA.

Others to Watch (in alphabetical order):

José Betances
Although Betances didn't make a good first impression in 2017 (eight walks and one strikeout in 2.2 innings), the sample size is just too tiny to make too much out of it, especially considering the young Dominican just turned 18 in October. When signed for around $280,000 last July, Oz Ocampo of the Astros described Betances as having a low to mid-90's swing-and-miss fastball and a hard slider, both of which project as plus pitches.

Robert Corniel
At first blush, Corniel's 2017 numbers may not seem very impressive (4.15 ERA and 1.471 WHIP in 18 bullpen appearances, 34.2 innings), but considering that he made all but three of those appearances in Low A Quad Cities after spending 2016 in the Dominican Summer League, that he had a 1.35 ERA and 0.975 WHIP (.146 BA) in his final eight games, and that he converted two saves in his four postseason appearances while allowing zero runs, he suddenly becomes more interesting. Corniel, who will be 23 in June, was originally signed in July 2012 and missed the 2014 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Luís de Paula
Signed in November 2016, de Paula got off to a good start in his first pro season in the Dominican Summer League, collecting four saves with a 1.38 ERA and 1.038 WHIP in 19 appearances (26 innings). However, he struggled at times with walks and he was 21 in November which means that he'll need to be moved more aggressively.

Brendan Feldmann
Feldmann, a non-drafted free agent out of Lindenwood University in Missouri, was kept in the rookie level Gulf Coast League despite allowing his only earned run of the season in his first of 12 appearances. He only pitched 16.2 innings, but that may very well have been by design to limit his workload as he pitched 121 innings, including four complete games, in his final year with Linwood. In any event, his 2-1 record with two saves, a 0.54 ERA, a 0.600 WHIP (one walk to 21 strikeouts) and the fact that he stranded 10 of 13 inherited runners is enough for me to say, "Watch this space!," regardless of where he pitches in 2018 and in what role. Feldmann will be 24 in April.

Ángel Heredia
It is not an exaggeration to say that 2018 is a make or break year for Heredia as it will be his seventh season in the Astros organization. Heredia was out from late May of 2016 to mid-August 2017 and, although I don't recall ever hearing that he had Tommy John surgery, the timeline would fit. He only appeared in seven rehab appearances at the end of the season between the Gulf Coast League and Tri-City. A small-sized pitcher, Heredia has shown some promise in the past, but he will have to hit the ground running this season to maintain his roster spot in AA Corpus Christi. He will be 26 in July.

Martin, drafted in the 20th round in 2017 out of the University of Nashville, did make three starts in his 12 appearances so a relief role is still a maybe, but he did fare somewhat better in relief. His 3.86 ERA and 1.439 WHIP are somewhat inflated by one bad outing, the final of his season. When signed, he was said to have a high 80's to low 90's fastball, a changeup that projects as above average and the ability to spot the ball to both sides of the plate. Martin was a short season A Tri-City All-Star in his first season and I'll be interested to see what he does in his sophomore season. Martin turned 23 in December.

McKee has one of the lower hit rates and one of the higher walk rates in the system. If he can rein in the walks, he could be interesting to watch. Drafted in the 18th round in 2016 out of Mercyhurst College (PA), McKee has a good pitcher's build and features a low 90's fastball and a plus slider. In 41 innings (17 appearances) in 2017 for short season A Tri-City, he had a 3.51 ERA and a 1.268 WHIP, walking 33 and striking out 53. Batters hit .137/.303/.194 against him; I will be keeping my eye on that middle number in 2018. McKee will be 24 in June.

Ramsey was signed by the Astros as a minor league free agent in December 2017 (after spending time in the Rays, Marlins and Brewers organizations). He spent most of his 2017 season with the AA Biloxi team as a 27-year old (he turned 28 in September), going 3-3 with 27 saves, a 3.65 ERA and a 1.353 WHIP, walking 18 and striking out 58 in 44.1 innings. It's hard for me to get too excited about someone his age who has only pitched in five games at AAA and who has been less than stellar in Astros Spring Training games, but since he was ranked highly in the Marlins organization going into 2015 before getting derailed by back issues, I will give him the benefit of a doubt.

Sierra had a successful season in 2017, compiling a 3-2 record with two saves, a 2.83 ERA and a 1.099 WHIP in 29 appearances between Low A Quad Cities (4 games) and High A Buies Creek (25 games). He walked 24 while striking out 60 in 57.1 innings of work and held batters to a .186/.273/.290 line. HOWEVER, he allowed 17 of 24 inherited runners to score. Sierra may have had a great season, but he needs to get better at putting out fires. The Cuban-born right-hander will be 24 in October.

Peter Solomon - FG #28+
Solomon may get an audition as a starter in the Astros organization, but since he primarily pitched in relief for Notre Dame in his final season before getting drafted in the fourth round, I'm including him with the relief corps. And since he only pitched one inning in his first pro season, there's no way to really know. Solomon is said to have a low to mid-90's fastball, a fringy slider and a curveball that flashes plus. However, there are a whole lot of buts in the scouting reports. He's had shoulder issues, control problems, needs to add bulk to his projectible frame and struggled in a starting role with Notre Dame. I will be keeping an eye on him, but it appears that he has a few hurdles to overcome when he gets down to work in 2018. He will be 22 in August.

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