Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com is visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Houston Astros.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Houston Astros came up short in their quest to return to the postseason in 2016, ultimately finishing within five games of claiming an American League Wild Card berth. However, the club, for a second straight year, continued to churn out impactful big leaguers at an impressive rate.
Yet it's Houston's crop of high-ceiling teenage pitching prospects in camp this year that has club officials buzzing about what their big league rotation may look like a few years from now.
Right-hander Franklin Perez, the Astros' No. 6 prospect, sits atop that list after his impressive full-season debut at Class A Quad Cities in 2016, where he was the only 18-year-old to make 10 starts in the Midwest League. A third baseman early in his career before shifting to the mound and signing for $1 million in 2014, Perez appeared in 15 games overall, posting a 2.84 ERA with 75 strikeouts and one home run allowed in 66 2/3 innings, and he nearly cracked MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list as a result.
"He's really impressive," Astros farm director Pete Putila said about the young righty. "It's a firm, plus fastball and a good curveball with a solid-average slider, and his changeup is his best pitch by far. It's a mature arsenal that still has room to grow as he gains experience, and he's a real hard worker who just keeps getting bigger and stronger."
Putila also believes that Perez's background as a position player has been key in his development on the mound, especially as it relates to his mechanics and repeating his delivery.
"That he was a third baseman gave us the opportunity to kind of start from scratch with him," he said, "and for that reason, our staff isn't having to coach bad habits out of him -- but rather we can have him work on the right things."
Franklin isn't the only Perez in Houston's system to follow closely in 2017, as the Astros also have high hopes for Cuban lefty Cionel Perez. Ranked as the Astros' No. 16 prospect, Perez originally was offered a $5.15 million bonus last September, only to have the deal voided when a physical raised concerns about his elbow. The 20-year-old hurler signed for a reduced rate of $2 million in December.
Perez has more experience than the typical international signee. He debuted in Cuba's top league in 2013-14 at age 17 and then paced the circuit in ERA the following year before defecting in May 2015. But after Perez's long layoff and the aforementioned concerns about the southpaw's elbow, the Astros are handling him with care this spring.
"He hasn't pitched competitively since before we signed him," Putila said, "so he's getting a slow ramp-up during camp, and we're hopeful he'll get some innings before it's done.
"He's a smaller-framed guy, but the ball comes out of his hand surprisingly well and allows him to pitch at 90-94 mph with his fastball," said Putila about the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Perez. "You can tell he already has good feel and it's not a high-effort delivery, so he should be able to command the ball to both sides of the plate."
Signed out of the Dominican Republic at age 21 in March 2015, left-hander Framber Valdez spent his entire professional debut in the Dominican Summer League before heading stateside and dominating across four levels as part of a breakout 2016 campaign. Working mostly as a starter, the Astros' No. 30 prospect posted a 3.19 ERA and racked up 79 strikeouts while generating more than three times as many ground-ball outs as flyouts in 73 1/3 innings.
"He has unique stuff," Putila said of the 23-year-old southpaw. "It's kind of a natural-cutting fastball and a big hammer curveball at 76-80 mph, with a changeup that has a lot of bottom to it. He gets ground balls with everything, and the curveball is a true out pitch."
While Valdez has yet to pitch above the Class A Advanced level, there's a growing belief within the organization that he could reach Houston at some point this season.
"He's young, but he also has the stuff, when in the zone, to pitch in the big leagues," Putila said. "He rocketed through the system last year and has pitched well enough here to create a little bit of a stir."
Also opening eyes this spring has been 19-year-old first baseman Yordan Alvarez, whom the Dodgers signed for $2 million last June, only to ship him to the Astros six weeks later in exchange for reliever Josh Fields. He batted .351 in Cuba's top league as a 17-year-old in '14 and then raked at a .341 clip during his brief pro debut last year in the Dominican Summer League.
"He's looked really good; there's a lot of people talking about him," said Putila. "He's a big kid, but also really quiet at the plate, with easy power including to the opposite field. He knows what he's doing out there because of his age and background and carries himself like a pro, and he'll likely go straight to full-season ball out of camp. He'll be a fun guy to watch this year."
Agreeing in principal to a below-slot deal with Bregman, the No. 2 overall Draft pick in 2015, ultimately allowed Astros to land prep outfielder Daz Cameron -- the son of former big league outfielder Mike Cameron -- who got a $4 million bonus as the No. 37 overall pick.
Though Cameron batted just .143 in 21 games at Class A Quad Cities early in 2016, the Astros' No. 9 prospect did make progress following a demotion to extended spring camp, and he was finally starting to settle in offensively in Short-Season ball when a pitch broke his left finger and ended his first full pro season in July. Now fully healthy, the Astros believe Cameron is in a much better position for success entering the 2017 season.
"He did a lot of work with our hitting coordinator, Jeff Albert, last year, working on his posture and some things like that should help improve his contact," said Putila.
"He's young, so it'll be interesting to see the progress he makes in his second year. It seems like it's always like that with high school and JUCO guys, because it's such a big jump and requires an adjustment period. But we expect good things out of him."
Putila also has high hopes for right-handed reliever and 2015 third-rounder Riley Ferrell, who missed much of his first full season after having an aneurysm removed from his throwing shoulder last May. The former Texas Christian closer has been impressive in the early going in Minor League camp, and the club views him as someone who could move quickly now that he's healthy.
"Riley was dominant last spring, just blowing guys away, before suffering what was really a freak injury," said Putila about the Astros' No. 24 prospect. "He was one of the few guys we've drafted on a straight reliever track [to the big leagues], and we think he's going to be an impact bullpen arm for us with his mid-90s fastball and hard slider."
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.