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Pressing Questions: The Houston Astros

Brandon Funston
Roto Arcade

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At least from a fantasy perspective, there's a little more to get excited about in Houston this year. (USAT)

We continue our series of MLB fantasy previews, wherein we consider 4-5 key questions surrounding each team. Baseball is coming, gamers. Pitchers and catchers report soon. Fantasy owners report immediately...

As expected, the Astros took up residence in the AL West basement in '13, their first season in the Junior Circuit. At this time last year, there were but two Astros worth placement on mixed league fantasy baseball draft boards, those being pocket rocket second baseman Jose Altuve and closer Jose Veras. The good news for Astros fans is that, while reality still bites heading into the '14 campaign, the team's fantasy prospects have significantly improved. That was evident in a mock draft that we conducted with friends and family of Yahoo fantasy in January, where six Astros were drafted (Altuve, George Springer, Dexter Fowler, Jason Castro, Jonathan Villar, Chris Carter), and that doesn't include their expected closer to-be, Jesse Crain (more on him below).

Because of seven consecutive years of futility (finishing no higher than third in its division, including three straight last-place finishes), Houston has been able to compile a lot of high picks in the MLB draft. That has led to one of the league's most talent-rich farms at the moment. In the past two drafts, Houston had the top pick in each, nabbing shortstop Carlos Correa and starter Mark Appel, respectively. And, after finishing with a woeful 51 wins last season (worst win total in MLB since '04), Houston will again get the top choice among the '14 amateur crop.

So the promise of youth is the focus for Houston, and for fantasy owners looking to cash in on the team's talent offering for '14. The veteran Altuve is still the top roto commodity here, but five-tool outfield prospect George Springer is, perhaps, generating the most preseason buzz, as he was the second Houston player off the board in the above mentioned mock draft, this despite the fact that he may not see Minute Maid Park until the season is a couple months underway.

As we dive into the team's Pressing Questions, we'll use Springer as the springboard. Let's get to it ...

Q: What should we expect from George Springer, and where should he be drafted?

A: In our January mock draft, Springer just missed cracking the top 200 picks overall. The former UConn product is a legit five-tool talent. He's still very raw, but his bat speed makes up for a lot of the holes in his swing. He takes a playground approach at the plate, swinging from his ass most of the time. It's led to a lot of strikeouts in the minors, but he also has a good eye, which shows up in his healthy walk rates. And, last season, when he wasn't missing baseballs, he was launching them into orbit (37 home runs between Double- and Triple-A in '13). Add 45 stolen bases in his 135 minor league games last year and you can see why he's drawing plenty of attention from the fantasy world.

That said, Houston may opt to delay his MLB service time by holding him back in the minors for the first couple months of the season. But a 37/45 producer at the upper levels of the minor leagues really has nowhere to go but up. When he does eventually arrive in Houston, expect the Astros to give him run everyday in right field, with Fowler manning center. The batting average may suffer initially, but the power/speed combo is too dynamic to be completely stifled. Don't be surprised, assuming he plays 100-plus games, if Springer pushes 20/20 membership, with a batting average target of around .250. Draft accordingly.

Q: What about those other "draftable" guys?

A: As mentioned, the Astros had six players taken in the January mock draft. Second baseman Altuve was the top choice, and he should be a fairly well-known roto commodity, at this point. With him, you get the promise of a solid batting average (.280-.290) and 30-plus steals. Depending on how you view the other top second sackers, Altuve should land right outside the top 5 at the position on draft day.

Among the others, Springer clearly wins the upside comparison by a landslide, although three-true outcomes guy, Chris Carter, has the best chance on the team to push the home run needle above 30. He hit 29 bombs last season in his first go-round as a full-timer (585 ABs). If he can curb his prodigious K rate (36.2%) even a little bit, he should cruise by the 30-HR mark, albeit with an Adam Dunn-like batting average.

Fowler was acquired from Colorado in the offseason in exchange for outfielder Brandon Barnes and pitcher Jordan Lyles. He's always been a tantalizing talent, and his former Coors Field home certainly inflated his draft-day price tag. But now that he's in Houston, his downside becomes much more of a concern. After all, his career OPS is nearly 200 points higher at Coors compared to his road mark (.880 vs. .694). And even though he enjoyed the Colorado home cooking for five full seasons, he only once hit above .266 or swiped more than 19 bases. There's also little power to speak of as his career-high in home runs is 13. And, as long as we're piling on Fowler here, might as well mention that he's just 7-for-37 (.189) in his career at Minute Maid Park. There's at least 40 other outfielders that should be off the board before you even consider Fowler's services.

As for the other notables, catcher Jason Castro is the consolation prize for those in one-catcher leagues who decide to punt the backstop position until the bitter end. With totals of 18 home runs and a respectable .276 batting average in a '13 season that only got better as it went along (.896 OPS after the All-Star break), he makes an intriguing case for not paying a premium at the position in your draft.

Shortstop Jonathan Villar, part of the bounty that Philly sent to Houston in a trade for starter Roy Oswalt a few years back, has the potential to steal 30-plus bases. But he whiffs often and is slated to hit at the bottom of the order, and his defense is suspect, at best. A 22-year old with just 210 MLB at bats under his belt, he's another late-round flyer that you shouldn't hesitate to cut loose early in April if things get off to a rocky start.


Q: What about Jesse Crain - is he going to be the closer?

A: Although it's not set in stone -- it's conceivable Chad Qualls (very old) or Josh Fields (very wild) could ascend to top of the bullpen heap in spring training - Crain, assuming he comes back fine from offseason surgery for biceps inflammation, is most likely to get closing opportunities out of the gate. And for that reason, Crain needs to be drafted in all standard 12-team leagues or larger. Even in Houston, a team that won just 51 games last year, a closer matters. The team had 32 saves in '13, which was last in the league. But Jose Veras, last year's closer, offered plenty of value in the stopper role, posting a 2.93 ERA, a K-per-IP and 19 saves before being traded to Detroit at the end of July. Although he has little closer experience (the same could be said for Veras last season), Crain is certainly capable of producing like Veras. He's coming off a three-year stretch for the White Sox in which he posted a 2.10 ERA , a .203 Batting Average Against and 176 strikeouts in 150 IP. So, yes, even as one of the last closers off the board, Crain needs to be drafted/rostered.

Q: How about the rotation - any diamonds in the rough?

A: Umm, no. "Ace" Scott Feldman, a December free-agent signing, is only slightly intriguing but, he, like the rest of the rotation, offers little in the way of strikeout upside. Only Minnesota and Colorado produced fewer Ks from their starters last season than Houston. Among the four starters that struck out at least 90 batters last season, only Dallas Keuchel returns, and he posted an ERA above 5 and a WHIP north of 1.50. As I said, nothing to see here, moving on ...

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Astro pops: Here's a quick take on some other items of interest

First baseman Jonathan Singleton was rated by Baseball America as the team's No. 1 prospect heading into '12 season and was behind only shortstop Carlos Correa before the '13 campaign. But last year turned out to be a disaster for the power-packed lefty slugger. First he was suspended 50 games for marijuana use. Once he returned, he was extremely out of shape, leading to reduced bat speed and, consequentially, a rash of strikeouts and a sunken batting average. But Singleton seemed to be back on the right track in winter ball. Playing in the Puerto Rican professional league, he posted an OPS above .900 in 35 games. With post-hyper Brett Wallace doing little to stake his claim to first base real estate in Houston, Singleton is one to watch. If he gets off to a nice start in Triple-A, he could punch his ticket to Houston by the summer.

AL-only leaguers will want to take note of third baseman Matt Dominguez's 21 home runs and 77 RBIs for Houston in '13. He does a good job of putting the bat on the ball, and his increased fly ball rate last season bodes well for his prospects of topping the 20-home run threshold again in '14. He still won't be a good bet for anything better than a .250 batting average, but the HR and RBI upside make him worth the minimal price you'll likely have to pay for him in AL-only formats.

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