Astros Prospect Primer: Correa an elite talent
Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2015 season approaching, MiLB.com takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.
Shining star: Mark Appel, RHP
Appel enters 2015 in much better shape than a year ago, when he was limited in Spring Training following an appendectomy. The Astros' top pitching prospect struggled so badly last summer at Class A Advanced Lancaster that the team sent him back to extended Spring Training.
"I think we rushed him a little bit and sent him to Lancaster, but he wasn't ready," said Rodney Linares, who managed Appel last summer in California.
But Appel, following a restart at extended spring, actually finished his first full season strong, striking out almost a batter per inning at Double-A Corpus Christi after pitching to a 9.74 ERA with Lancaster. In the Texas League, he was 2-5 with a 3.69 ERA in seven games. He then struck out 24 batters in 31 innings in the Arizona Fall League. At Spring Training this month, Appel allowed seven runs in 10 2/3 innings.
"He's on a good trajectory right now after a down season last year," general manager Jeff Luhnow told MLB.com. "He ended the season strong and had a good [AFL] and a good camp, and he's exactly where we need him to be. He's one of the top Major League starting prospects in the game, and I expect he's going to be in Houston and be close to or at the top of our rotation for many years to come."
The Astros selected Appel No. 1 overall in 2013 and he's logged 121 1/3 innings in Houston's system.
"I'm very blessed to be able to be here," Appel told MLB.com at Spring Training. "It was a great experience for me. I learned a lot about what it takes to be able to get here and stay here, and I'm going to definitely work hard to get back."
"He's been great in Spring Training, and I think he's not only buliding on last season at Double-A, but building on the Arizona Fall League, when he was the best starting pitcher there," said Kevin Goldstein, the Astros' director of pro scouting. "He's been synced up, he's getting everything timed up right. His last appearance against the Yankees, he was sitting at 98 mph -- not touching, sitting. And so his arm and power stuff, everything is moving in the right direction. I'm really excited about what he's going to do."
Goldstein said Appel will start at Double-A and dictate his own progress, with reaching Houston by season's end not out of the question.
Breakout prospect: Vince Velasquez, RHP
Velasquez enters 2015 as the Astros' No. 2-ranked pitcher thanks to a mid-90s fastball and arguably the best changeup in the system. The 22-year-old righty missed two months last season with a groin injury following Tommy John surgery in 2010, and he's again been limited this spring thanks to a lat strain he suffered last year in the AFL.
But when healthy, Velasquez has been nasty. At Lancaster, he went 7-4 with a 3.74 ERA and struck out 72 in 55 1/3 innings -- that's 11.7 K/9. In 2013, he whiffed 142 batters in 124 2/3 frames while owning a 3.54 ERA.
A 2010 second-round pick, Velasquez will face another test this season at Double-A once he's fully recovered from the lat injury.
"Vince, he's a bulldog, he wants the ball, he's going to challenge every guy," said Linares. "He's got an above-average fastball and an above-average changeup. He's developing his third pitch -- it's kind of a slurve, not really a slider or curveball, but it's a pretty good pitch. When you mix it in with a 97 mph fastball and a changeup? It's unfair. I love Vince and what he brings -- he's intense, he's going right after you, he has a chance to be an elite pitcher with what I've seen from the last couple years. He's still young and still learning and he has a lot of upside."
At the crossroads: Domingo Santana, OF
Santana reached the Majors last year, but that's about all the positive things you can say about his experience there -- in six games, he went 0-for-17 with 14 strikeouts and one walk. Still, Santana is just 22, and with 41 homers over the last two seasons in the Minors, the potential for him as a power-hitting corner outfielder is there.
"The thing people overlook, everywhere he's played, he's been the youngest guy in the league," Linares said. "Domingo has tremendous upside but a lot of swing and misses -- he's working on that. We know he didn't have success in the big leagues last year, but it was an audition."
Santana hit .296 with 16 homers, 81 RBIs and a .384 on-base percentage in 120 games at Triple-A last year after hitting 25 long balls in 2013. He enters 2015 ranked as Houston's No. 3 prospect and No. 72 overall, according to MLB.com, although it's worth noting that Baseball America has him pegged as No. 12 among Astros prospects, critical of his poor bat control, slow swing and plate discipline. Though Santana's power and age are on his side, 2015 could be a critical year for him to show he's more than an all-or-nothing slugger.
"Obviously he's slated to return to Triple-A, but I think people put a little too much into the big league stint," Goldstein said. "He did struggle in sporadic at-bats, and it's hard to get into a rhyhthm like that. He's still young, still has a classic right-field tool set. He can hit -- big, big power. He can play the outfield and he has a plus arm. He certainly looks the part. He's a big, physical guy, he is getting better and improving on his swing path. I expect not just a big year, but a good year for him."
Full-season debutant: A.J. Reed, 1B
Reed showed his power last season, hitting a dozen homers in 68 games after the Astros selected him in the second round of the 2014 Draft. The No. 42 overall pick hit .289 with 54 RBIs and 20 doubles in 249 at-bats, split evenly between Class A Short Season Tri-City and Class A Quad Cities.
The lefty was an ace pitcher in college, going 12-2 with a 2.09 ERA at Kentucky, but Houston prefers he focus on playing first base. Last year he led the nation's Division I hitters in homers (23) and slugging (.735), helping him earn College Player of the Year and SEC Player of the Year honors, plus the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award.
Now, he'll have plenty of chances to show off his power in the Cal League.
"He's got big, big power and led the nation in home runs at Kentucky, and he hit a few for us -- he adjusted to wood quicky," said Goldstein, who also mentioned third baseman J.D. Davis as a strong power combo with Reed at Lancaster. "Both these guys are both big guys with big power. We could have some fun looking at box scores in the middle of the lineup there."
Back and healthy: Carlos Correa, SS
Correa, limited to 62 games last year after breaking his right fibula in June, is now fully recovered and authoring an impressive Spring Training, his third with the big league club, where he's hit .297 with two homers and five RBIs in his first 17 games. Linares and Goldstein said they expect the shortstop, who added a ton of muscle this winter, to begin at Double-A.
"He's one of those guys that's going to be mentioned with the elite," Linares said.
"There's no doubt in my mind, he's an elite prospect, if not the best prospect in baseball," Goldstein said.
The Astros' No. 1 prospect, still just 20, hit .325 with six homers, 57 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 249 at-bats before landing on the DL last summer. In 2013, he hit .320 with 86 RBIs in 117 games.
Linares compared him to two other former top-ranked prospects: Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.
"I've been around the game a long time, I've seen a lot of good players, especially the young ones -- Harper and Trout -- and I've seen them when they were young, and you've got to put Carlos in their category," said Linares. "He's one of those guys who don't come around all the time. He's a special talent, but he's a great human being off the field. He has plus power, plus hitting ability, he can hit with two strikes, he can run, he's got a great arm, accurate -- he's a highlight reel.
"He's a special talent, and the thing that stands out is his makeup," said Goldstein. "The makeup is off the charts, just how good he is now, and he wants to be better. He puts all the work in, does all the right things -- he's a leader in every clubhouse he's been in."
"The only thing that's going to stop Carlos is health, and he's healthy," Linares added. "He's growing into his body -- I think he's put on 25 pounds of muscle during the offseason. I have no doubt he's going to be one of the best because of the way he goes about it."
More to keep an eye on: Goldstein is looking for a big season from Lance McCullers, a right-hander and 2012 first-rounder. "He has such powerful stuff that it's hard to control, but he's had an absolutely outstanding spring," Goldstein said. "Big stuff, mid-90s heat, always one of the best curveballs in the system. He's throwing a lot more strikes, you can see he showed up with a purpose."
Danny Wild is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow his MLBlog column, Minoring in Twitter.