Astros' Laureano ready to build on breakout
Hard-working outfielder goes from 16th rounder to MiLB OBP leader
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com
WEST PALM BEACH, Florida -- Ramon Laureano knew if he was going to be a professional baseball player, it would be as a member of the Houston Astros. That wasn't a premonition or pre-Draft demand. The Astros were the only team to talk to the Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Junior College outfielder ahead of the 2014 Draft.
The organization sent him a letter of intent to communicate their interest and asked which other teams had been in contact with him. The answer was none. They brought the Golden Norsemen star, who hit .429/.519/.786 with 13 homers and 22 steals over 51 games as a sophomore in 2014, to Minute Maid Park for a workout. Laureano felt that went well and knew he was likely headed to Houston that June, but without the interest of the other 29 clubs, he also knew there wouldn't be any pressure for the Astros to use a high pick on him. That proved to be true when they took him in the 16th round (466th overall) and signed him for $25,000. (By comparison, 15th-rounder Connor Goedert signed with Houston for $200,000, and 17th-rounder Ben Smith signed for $100,000.)
The numbers weren't a big deal to Laureano. All that mattered was the chance.
"I just told them, 'Sign me, man. You're going to get a good one,'" Laureano said. That's it."
As grateful as he was to his new organization, he vowed to not forget that feeling of being overlooked.
"Motivation is everything for me," he said. "Anything motivates me. Just being here motivates me. At that time, I was thinking about people telling me I'm not that good to make it. That's what I was thinking to prove them wrong."
Two full seasons of Minor League Baseball later, Laureano hasn't just given the Astros some solid value for their pick but has turned into the system's No. 8 prospect with the Majors well within his sights.
"They call him The Machine because he's obsessed with getting better and working," said director of player development Pete Putila. "It shows up physically in the way he plays, and then any information that we give him or coaches tell him to work on, he's really honest with himself. Or if he's trying to make an improvement and doesn't get it, he sees it and gets back to work. Such a hard worker, and it's good to see it come through in the performance."
The 22-year-old right-handed-hitter's breakout season came in 2016, when he began his second full season by hitting .317/.426/.519 with 10 homers, five triples, 19 doubles and 33 steals in 80 games at Class A Advanced Lancaster. Laureano is the first to admit that some of those numbers were inflated by the hitting environment in the California League, but true to his nature, that didn't mean he stayed comfortable either.
"In the Cal League, the ball flies," Laureano said. "I'm not going to lie -- it got me a couple extra bases, a couple more homers, a couple more doubles. In Double-A, the pitching is harder, and they threw inside. So you have to dominate [that inside corner]. Good thing I had focused on hitting the inside pitch the last few weeks in Lancaster, so that's why I feel like I did OK in Corpus."
The Dominican Republic native did a little better than OK upon his jump to Double-A Corpus Christi. Despite the move to the more pitching-friendly Texas League, Laureano actually improved his slash line, hitting .323/.432/.548 to go with 16 extra-base hits and 10 steals in his 36 contests with the Hooks. By season's end, his .428 on-base percentage was best among all full-season Minor Leaguers, his .955 OPS seventh and his 43 stolen bases tied for 11th.
That was enough success for the Astros to challenge their breakout star with a trip to the Arizona Fall League, and Laureano didn't disappoint. The 5-foot-11 outfiedler hit .295/.340/.477 with six extra-base hits and five steals in 12 games before leaving the prospect graduating school near the end of October.
But it was how he handled the jump from Class A Advanced to Double-A -- long considered the most difficult in the Minors -- that Laureano thought was the biggest part about his development in 2016. He talked about maintaining his approach of trying to hit off the fastball but added that he had to be a more keenly aware of his surroundings, going so far as to say he paid attention to which A's catching prospect was most likely to call for fastballs when behind the plate.
"This is what I think -- if you don't hit in Double-A, you're screwed because they throw you in all the time. I got my thumb messed up the first couple weeks. Sinkers in, everything in. ... I was sitting on the bench one day -- I had a day off -- and thought there had been something like 16 ground balls to third base in the fifth inning. They throw in all the time. You just have to be ready."
He's brought that attention to detail to Spring Training this year as a non-roster invitee to Major League camp, noting that he's already picked the brains of Hall of Famers and club legends Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, who are in camp as occasional instructors, and budding stars Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman. Bagwell's advice, in particular, was to focus on each day's task and not let anything cloud his vision. Expected to start 2017 back in Corpus Christi, Laureano seems already to have taking that advice to heart.
"In the moment, I don't reflect how close I am [to the Majors] because I live day by day," he said. "Whenever the moment comes, it comes. For me, I don't get too crazy about those things. Obviously, I dream about those things, but at the end of the day, you have to be ready for that day's game. You have to understand what that pitcher is going to do to you. Compete every day first."
The Astros will dictate when Laureano gets that call, and they aren't likely to be in a big rush having signed Josh Reddick and Nori Aoki as free agents this offseason to fill their holes around George Springer in the outfield. They'll likely continue to use Laureano at all three outfield spots, where his plus speed plays anywhere on the grass, to keep him as a versatile option, but on the offensive side, they'd like to see him improve on his 23.6 percent strikeout rate with the hope that putting more balls in play means more chances to utilize his speed and get on base. Otherwise, they're pleased with the remainder of his tools.
"The biggest thing for him is improving his contact a little bit more because the defense is there, the power is there," Putila said. "Everything is there. He's already performed at a pretty high level. That's what makes him unique. Not many guys hit .300 in High A, .300 in Double-A and .300 in the Fall League and calls to ask, 'Can you send me everything I'm doing wrong?' He's that kind of guy."
That's high praise for any homegrown talent, but especially for a 16th-round pick who didn't represent a significant investment by the organization. Then again, it seems the Astros have always been big believers in Laureano, even when they were his only believers.
"Big league teams are made up of freaks, physically in some way, and guys who work their butt off," Putila said. "He falls into that latter category. He just works like crazy."