Friday, April 13, 2018

The Astros Cuban Contingent

The Cubans are Coming! The Cubans are Coming!

Everyone knows the impact that 1B Yuli Gurriel had for the Astros in 2017, his first full season in the major leagues. And more and more people are starting to get familiar with a few other highly-ranked Astros prospects in OF/1B Yordan Alvarez, LHP Cionel Perez and RHP Rogelio Armenteros. But what many may not realize is just how aggressive the Astros have gotten in signing Cuban players over the last few years. The numbers went from ZERO Cuban players in the system prior to the September 2014 signing of Armenteros (scouted by former Astros scout Alex Jacobs) to 14 players currently. Oz Ocampo, former Astros Director of International and current Special Assistant to the General Manager for Baseball Operations, and Astros Senior Scouting Advisor Charlie Gonzalez (with the Astros since November 2014) kicked things into high gear following that first Cuban signing. Let's take a look at The Cuban Contingent.

Cionel Pérez and Yoanys Quiala - August 2017
Photo by Jayne Hansen

AAA FRESNO

RHP Rogelio Armenteros - 2018 Stats thru 4/21: 5.65 ERA and 1.674 WHIP in three starts (14.1 IP)
Armenteros was ranked higher by Baseball Prospectus (#5) than the other outlets (#11 from FanGraphs and #12 from MLB Pipeline and Baseball America) primarily because BP placed a higher value on Armenteros deception, ability to throw five pitches for strikes and ability to locate to either side of the plate. And, although, Forrest Whitley is considered a much more elite prospect, Armenteros was WTHB's 2017 Pitcher of the Year due to his sheer dominance and present results. At the time I wrote:
There were a number of very good pitching performances in the Astros minor league system in 2017, but no one was quite as dominant as Rogelio Armenteros. Armenteros split his season between Corpus Christi and Fresno and compiled a 10-4 record with a 2.04 ERA, a 1.043 WHIP and 38 walks to 146 strikeouts in 123.2 innings. His stats were almost identical at the two levels with the main difference being an astonishing 8-1 record in his 10 starts at the higher level.
In any event, his plus change up, plus control/command and overall pitchability have most pundits agreeing that Armenteros has very little left to prove in the minors and should be able to contribute as a back of the rotation starter in Houston whenever he is needed. Armenteros was signed by the Astros in September 2014 and he will be 24 in June.

OF Alejandro Garcia (R/R) - 2018 Stats thru 4/21: .293/.341/.415 in 10 games
Garcia, one of the Astros Cuban signings in 2015, had an uneven season in 2017. After hitting only .202/.244/.325 in 42 games with AA Corpus, he was promoted to AAA Fresno on June 1st and managed a .269/.312/.356 line in his 50 games at that level, despite really fading down the stretch. He had an overall .235/.278/.341 line with 18 doubles, two triples and four home runs in 92 games as compared to his .291/.323/.365 line in 2016 in 94 games (26 games at High A, 51 games at AA and 17 games at AAA). One of the biggest differences between his 2016 and 2017 campaigns was his ability to hit against left-handed pitching. In 2016, Garcia hit .337/.352/.488 against lefties vs. .220/.281/.354 in 2017. Adding to his on-base woes, Garcia rarely walked in 2017 (nine walks to 45 strikeouts in his 92 games). It looks as though his 2017 season might have been a bit of a fluke down season for him (here's his FanGraphs page). Garcia will be 27 in June.

AA CORPUS CHRISTI

OF/1B Yordan Alvarez (L/L) -  2018 Stats thru 4/21: .275/.387/.471 in 13 games
Alvarez came to the Houston system in an August 2016 trade with the Dodgers for RHP Josh Fields and has been ranked either #3 or #4 in the Astros system by the various sites. The reason that he is ranked so highly is because of his bat. He provides average defense with an average arm and below average speed, so it was his 2017 offensive line of .304/.379/.481 in 90 games split between Quad Cities and Buies Creek that set him apart. Alvarez hits with authority to all fields and his power (17 doubles, three triples and 12 home runs) should continue to develop with more experience. His bat control and strike zone discipline have worked very well for him so far in his professional career. He will be 21 in June.

LHP Cionel Pérez - 2018 Stats thru 4/21: 4.50 ERA and 1.750 WHIP in 2 starts (8 IP)
Pérez signed with the Astros in December 2016 for a reduced payment of $2 million (down from $5.5 million) due to concerns over potential elbow issues. In his first season in the States, he appeared in 12 games with Low A Quad Cities and five games with High A Buies Creek, compiling a 3.90 ERA and 1.252 WHIP in 80.2 innings, before his promotion to Corpus Christi in mid-August. He had mixed results in four appearances at the higher level, but ended the season with a strong final appearance of the season. In a total of 93.2 innings, Pérez allowed 27 walks and struck out 83. Pérez features a low 90's fastball that can hit 96, a plus slider and advanced control and command. Improvement in his curveball and changeup will be needed for him to remain in a starting role, but his fastball/slider combo should ensure that, at minimum, he would be very effective in relief ... as long as that elbow continues to hold up. Pérez, who will turn 22 next week, is ranked #6 by MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs, #13 by Baseball America and appears in Baseball Prospectus's "Next 10."

RHP Yoanys Quiala - 2018 Stats thru 4/21: 4.73 ERA and 1.350 WHIP in 3 games/2 starts (13.1 IP)
Quiala's transition to AA Corpus Christi following his mid-June 2017 promotion from High A Buies Creek didn't always go smoothly, but he seemed to have pretty much tamed the beast by season's end. Cumulatively, Quiala had a very nice 2.55 ERA and a 1.180 WHIP in 108.2 innings. He walked 24 and struck out 92. Prior to his signing in June 2015, the Cuban native was said by Baseball America to feature a 90-95 fastball, touching 97 and a plus slider with late bite, to go along with a changeup and splitter. One thing I've noticed about the Cuban contingent is the extreme work ethic from most. After seeing Quiala in Quad Cities in 2016, I hardly recognized him when I saw him next in August 2017. He had transformed himself, easily losing 25 pounds or more, and adding a lot of muscle. I would not bet against the 2017 Carolina League All-Star as he keeps progressing through the system. Quiala turned 24 in January.

C Lorenzo Quintana (R/R) - 2018 Stats thru 4/21: .250/.308/.583 in 6 games
Quintana is defintely on the older side for this list, having turned 29 in March. He made his U.S. debut with Corpus Christi on April 7th after spending seven seasons in Cuba, the last of which was the 2014-2015 season so he will definitely have a little rust to shake off. He was signed by the Astros in October for a reported $200,000. Quintana hit .310/.377/.438 in 422 games in Cuba with 62 doubles, nine triples, 35 home runs, 204 RBI and 232 runs scored. Over those 422 games, Quintana walked 126 times while striking out 206 times, but in his last two seasons, he improved to a ratio of 58 walks to 52 strikeouts in 118 games. He has a lifetime 30% caught stealing rate and has been known to steal a base or two himself. In his 2013-2014 season, he stole 15 bases and was caught six times. Quintana is said to be a good contact hitter who uses all fields, but beyond that, I haven't seen much written about him.

HIGH A BUIES CREEK

RHP Jesús Balaguer - 2018 Stats thru 4/21: 4.05 ERA and 1.200 WHIP in 3 bullpen appearance (6.2 IP)
Signed in April 2017, Balaguer was 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.

RHP Carlos Sierra - 2018 Stats thru 4/21: 4.00 ERA and 1.222 WHIP in 4 bullpen appearances (9 IP)
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. He will be 24 in October.

SS Anibal Sierra - 2018 Stats thru 4/21: .277/.358/.489 in 15 games
Sierra was known more for his offensive abilities than his defensive prowess when he signed in July 2016 and that still appears to be the case. In 2017 he hit .201/.271/.290 in 113 games, the vast majority of those games with High A Buies Creek. He is said by Baseball America to be a true shortstop with a good internal clock, soft hands and a solid arm; however, he did collect 23 errors at the position in 2017, suggesting that his bat isn't the only aspect of his game that may need improvement.. Sierra turned 24 in February.

UNASSIGNED (EXTENDED SPRING TRAINING OR DOMINICAN COMPLEX)

RHP Franny Cobos
Cobos just turned 17 in February and I know virtually nothing about him except that he is a converted position player who features a 91 mph fastball and he signed last August for a reported $125,000.

IF Rolando Espinosa
I know even less about Espinosa, including his birthdate, but he should be nearing 17 (if he's not already there). Espinosa also signed in August 2017 for a reported $175,000.

Elian Rodríguez
Rodríguez did appear on one of the top prospect lists, at #29 out of #30 in Baseball America's Prospect Handbook. But others have backed away from him due to the poor control that resulted in a 7.46 ERA, 2.211 WHIP and 30 walks to 19 strikeouts in 25.1 innings in his first season with the Dominican Summer League. He's a hard thrower with a fastball that tops out at 97 and a hard slider. He also has a good pitcher's build and plus athleticism, but MLB Pipeline noted that he is "more power than polish" as they dropped him off their top list for Astros prospects going in to the 2018 season. Signed in June 2017 for $2,000,000, Rodríguez turned 21 earlier this year.

LHP Julio Robaina
Robaina, who turned 17 in March, features a low 90's fastball, a slider and a curveball that projects to be a plus pitch. He signed in September 2017 for a reported $220,000.

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