The Astros have taken another bite at the toolshed college outfielder apple, and the early returns are promising.
In the later years of the Jeff Luhnow regime, the Astros began drafting power/speed outfielders in greater numbers, particularly from the college ranks. This tendency first emerged with the selections of players like Ronnie Dawson, Alex McKenna and Jordan Brewer, but has carried over into the James Click era as well with the Zach Daniels and Matthew Barefoot picks. Results from this group have been mixed- most of these players remain solid prospects and it’s likely that one or two will carve out big league careers, but we haven’t yet seen a big breakout come from this segment of the farm like fans have hoped for.
However, the Astros don’t seem discouraged from chasing this type of player. Just this past offseason, the club worked a trade for another player who very much fits this mold- ex-Troy and Phillies outfielder Logan Cerny. A graduate of Parkview, a powerhouse prep program that has been home to a long list of big leaguers and high draft picks including Jeff Francouer and Matt Olson, Cerny has long been lauded for his tools. In his prep days he split time between catcher and outfield, showing plus speed and arm strength as well as developing power, albeit from a busy setup and pull heavy approach. There was some lower-level pro interest, but a lack of confidence in the hit tool funneled him towards college, and he’d end up at Troy for a 3 year stint.
Cerny’s freshman year showed a lot of promise- he struck out 56 times in 238 PAs, but the quality of contact was very high with 25 extra base hits, including 9 home runs, out of 55 knocks. He also showed a willingness to work a walk, helping to create a very sold .267/.336/.495 slash line, which is more than respectable for a teenager in D1. His momentum was slowed by the 2020 season cancellation, but Cerny was able to pick up where he left off in 2021, bettering his freshman numbers across the board with a .332/.424/.694 line. It was at this point that scouts really started to take a strong interest in Cerny. The swing and miss concerns were still there- his strikeout rate in 2021 was actually higher than in 2019- but when he was making contact it generally led to explosive results.
While the contact numbers still gave some cause for concern re: Cerny’s pro projection, the big power/speed contributions (15 HR/12 SB in ‘21) raised a lot of eyebrows, and he was still young for the college class. Many felt that with a bit of minor league seasoning or perhaps a swing adjustment, Cerny could gain a half grade or so with the hit tool and really take off. In addition to easy plus raw speed, Cerny showed unique power potential for his size thanks to his freaky hip-shoulder separation and sudden bat speed. Approaching draft day, there was some buzz that he might be able to get into the mid day 2 range, but in the end he lasted until the latter stages of the second day, not coming off the board until the 10th round to the Phillies, for whom he’d sign a slot deal.
Troy University outfielder Logan Cerny is a different breed. Twitchy, explosive, hyper-athletic, Mookie-esque hips. Huge torque and separation at plate. Still getting stronger. 70 runner. 60+ raw power. Hit tool still developing. Some of the best clay in the class. Fun project. pic.twitter.com/bLhs5GJotu
— Joe Doyle (@JoeDoyleMiLB) June 27, 2021
Public side evaluators saw this as a big win for the Phillies- nobody was putting big numbers on his hit tool, but there was optimism that it could be good enough to carry the athleticism, and Philly was able to acquire his services for a bonus that typically goes to a lower upside org guy type. He would quickly become a popular sleeper in Phillies circles and even got some light national buzz, but his stay in the system was ultimately a very short one. He took 26 PAs for the FCL affiliate after signing in 2021, picking up 4 hits, 6 walks and 6 steals, before being promoted to Clearwater for the last 5 games of the season. He went just 2 for 15, but fans were still excited to see what he could do in a return to the level in 2022.
Ultimately, while Cerny would return to Low-A in 2022, it wouldn’t be for the Phillies organization. In need of upper level catching depth, Philly swung a trade with the Astros for Garrett Stubbs, who no longer had a spot available on Houston’s 40 man, exchanging the two players one for one. The Astros had basically no leverage when trading Stubbs, so coming away with an exciting athlete like Cerny felt like a win, even with expectations tempered a bit by the hit tool concerns. It’s always a little bit alarming when a prospect is traded by the team that drafted them so early in their tenure, but the Astros have had success developing other teams’ outcasts in the pasts, so he was able to maintain sleeper status through the drawn-out offseason.
— Astros Future (@AstrosFuture) April 13, 2022
The Astros prepared Cerny for his return to full season ball with a healthy dose of spring action, getting him at bats against the organization’s best arms. The center field spot in High-A was already spoken for- 2020 draft pick Zach Daniels not only has much more minor league experience, he’s also significantly older- so Cerny was able to focus on his skills without worrying about competing within the organization in the short term. We are just four games into his first full year as a professional, but those contests have gone swimmingly for the young outfielder. After a true to form opener in which he walked twice, struck out three times and stole a base, Cerny has homered in 3 consecutive contests, totaling 5 hits in that span as well as another stolen base, good for a .294/.455/.824 line.
There has still been plenty of swing and miss, and that isn’t likely to change, but he’s showing observers his blueprint for long term success- swing big, but be patient and keep the strikeout rate on the right side of 30%. Cerny’s big actions in the box are part of how he generates his prodigious bat speed, and the Astros likely won’t want to mess with that much, but they also translate to a pretty high whiff total. He’s not going to turn into Andrew McCutchen with a sprinkle of player development fairy dust, but there have been several very successful center fielders with this kind of profile, and with a well-refined approach Cerny could be next in line. It’s hard not to be at least a bit excited about getting that in exchange for a third catcher who no longer had a spot on the team.