James Click’s front office had limited drafting resources for the first two years of his tenure, but that didn’t stop them from continuing the club’s trend of finding solid roster filling options with little upfront investment. Some of the best examples so far include 2020 undrafted free agent Justin Dirden, who has quickly worked his way up the ladder this season, and utility infielder Will Wagner, son of former Astros closer Billy, who has since established himself as a future big league behavior moved in in the 15th round of 2021. Despite his elite bloodlines, Will stayed under the radar for much of his amateur and pro career, but that’s beginning to change with his continued strong performance.
As a member of the 2017 prep class, Wagner was a well-respected but not very desirable prospect from Virginia, considered by most to be a solid but unspectacular college player. He’s never been a standout athlete, tempering projections, but solid defensive infield acumen and impressive hitting skills were strong enough that he had little trouble receiving D1 offers. He ended up committing to Liberty and compiled two seasons as a full-time starter, plus a handful of extra starts in his freshman year and the abridged 2020. He was one of the tougher outs in the A-Sun in each of those campaigns. He released a .382 OBP as a 20-year sophomore in 2019 and a .399 as a fourth-year junior in 2021, while also increasing his slugging percentage from .444 to .538.
The high-level production sparked a real interest in Wagner, but he was still grappling with questions about his athleticism and COVID, forcing him to stay four years, made him a senior prospect by draft day 2021, so he three remained available until noon, when the Astros finally called his name. Houston was a logical target, and not just because of his father’s success there – although Will didn’t flash stopwatches or radar guns, Will was able to demonstrate some defensive versatility, playing both second and third base in college, and his plate discipline numbers were in elite territory, so he checked a lot of typical Astros boxes.
At 22 on draft day, the clock was ticking more or less instantly for Wagner, so the Astros wasted no time bringing him to a pro field later in the summer with Low-A Fayetteville. There, Wagner continued to demonstrate top-notch mastery of the striking zone, hitting .299/.388/.436 with 5 steals in as many attempts in a 31-game taste. His strong performance gave the Astros enough confidence to immediately push him to High-A Asheville to start 2022, where he was able to sustain his production with a .276/.392/.405 slash in 199 PAs. His power production remained limited, but with a BB/K ratio of 32/41, he continued to look like a very polished hitter.
With just 76 total minor league games under their belt, the Astros went ahead and pushed Wagner to the Double-A in early June. It understandably took him some time to settle down after promotion – he was under Mendoza’s management for most of the month – but his performance has gradually improved since early July, to the point where he’s gone through 63 games now has a very respectable .258/.372/.387. Wagner may be 24 now, but given his level of experience, it’s difficult to have big issues with what he’s done so far at Double-A level. There were concerns that Wagner’s below-average racquet speed might make him vulnerable to speed in the upper minor keys, but so far he’s proven his moves are efficient enough to get things going on the record.
No one would deny that Wagner has limitations in his game – his power lies mostly in the gaps with the occasional pull side-shot, but left-handers who control the zone like he does don’t grow on trees, especially those with multiple infields can bypass positions to boot. The rare set of skills he can provide makes him one of the more likely major leagues in the system after Major League, in my estimation, although he’s unlikely to ever be that close to the top of the system.