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Reports From Instructs: Houston Astros (Pt 1)

After some covering the WWBA tournament for ESPN, I fell behind on some instructional league reports, so I’ll roll out the remainder lightning round style over the next few days. Normally, I need a few days to be able to see all the prospects in a camp and have an opinion, but fortunately the one game I saw of the Astros featured all of their notable prospects in camp. I have some history with most of the prospect hitters and while it was only one game, I got a good, updated feel for the players, so I’ll run through the roster in two parts.

I covered Lance McCullers a lot as an amateur for ESPN as the supplemental first rounder played his prep ball just down the street from my house. He started the instructs game I saw and continued to show progress in what ended up being a huge developmental season for him. I’ve seen McCullers hit 98 and despite the longest season of his career, he still worked 91-93, hitting 94 with some life and mixing in a two-seamer at 88-89. His curveball was it’s usual self, showing plus potential at 79-82, though he would get around the pitch and give it ¾ tilt at times rather than the preferred 11-to-5 tilt.

McCullers ultimate projection will depend on how he balances effort in his delivery and command. He showed an advanced awareness of this late in his high school season as he significantly improved on both fronts. While he lacks much projection in his athletic 6’1, 190 pound frame, the potential is there to work in the mid-90’s with an easy plus curve and he’s shown aptitude for an above-average changeup and average command. There’s some risk as McCullers creates some of his velocity by his arm being late to catch up with his body and his command wavers at times as he gets off balance. He isn’t a slam-dunk reliever as many scouts have said, who mostly worked for clubs that ruled out McCullers early in the spring due to his price tag and didn’t see him late in the year.

A surprising power arm closed out the game for the Astros, righty Dayan Diaz. The 23-year-old Colombian got ground balls and strikeouts in Lo-A Lexington this season but minor league relievers old for the level have a steep developmental hill to climb. Diaz threw an explosive two-seam fastball with plus life that sat 94-96 and hit 97, backing it up with an 82 mph curveball that he only threw once, but was easily above average and showed plus potential with sharp depth and 11-to-5 tilt.

Diaz is listed at 5’10, 156 pounds and didn’t look much bigger than that. He also has a longer arc to his arm action with a slight stab and a high effort delivery with some herky-jerky in it. Diaz generates the life with his three-quarters slot and takes and angle toward the right-handed batter’s box that, along with the run on his heater, helps give righties fits. While there are clear prospect downsides with age, effort in the delivery and the vagaries of projecting relievers, Diaz showed me late inning upside and is a guy to watch in 2013.

Nolan Fontana was a 2nd round pick in June and the shortstop formerly of the University of Florida is another guy I saw a lot of this season as an amateur. I had written that he clearly had the best plate discipline in this year’s draft class, a function of me seeing Fontana with a tight zone a number of times versus high-end pitching in the SEC. Fontana blew even my projection away by walking 65 times in 216 plate appearances in an aggressive post-draft assignment to Lo-A Lexington, though he was an extreme late-count hitter with 44 strikeouts.

I grew a little more concerned over the season that Fontana may have some trouble hitting for average and he was already limited as a gap power type with 10-12 homer potential at best, held back by his line drive approach. His low average and slugging at Lexington bear that out, but Fontana makes a living off of out-performing his tools. His defensive tools barely fit at shortstop but his outstanding instincts and footwork allow him to have a chance to stay there in the big leagues. He continued to control the zone in instructs, bunted, slashed line drives, made all the routine plays and looked comfortable doing it to where I’d have trouble betting against him becoming a solid big leaguer of some kind.

Preston Tucker is another guy I saw a lot of at UF this season and while’s he’s limited to a lefty-hitting bench 1B/emergency OF upside, I also like his chances for maximizing his tools and reaching his upside. With a thick frame, well below average speed and average raw power, Tucker is backed into a corner, but he shows some bat control and keeps his hands low, taking a direct path to the ball. He has a solid sense at the plate, a track record of hitting everywhere he’s gone and showed power to all fields in instructs, flipping a fastball away off the wall to the opposite field.

Domingo Santana is a long-levered athlete at 6’5, 200 pounds that has to be a great athlete with exceptional hands to not have his frame create holes in his swing. While he is an impressive athlete with quick hands and is only 20, his career 30%+ strikeout rates let you know this will be a concern going forward. In the game I saw, Santana’s front side was leaky and he had some real trouble identifying off-speed pitches. Still, on one pitch he was jammed by a fastball inside and one-hopped the wall down the line to the opposite field.

Santana is a 45 runner with big raw power and a right field profile that you can’t give up on, but has some clear issues at the plate to address to reach his ceiling. The problem for him is that identifying pitches can sometimes improve with experience but I feel is an innate ability that can’t be substantially improved after a certain amount of experience. He should gain more feel for his frame with experience, so expect some improvement here and the upside is huge, but a few more seasons without a breakthrough will eventually start to limit Santana’s big upside.