For all their problems, the Astros usually get second base right. (Getty)
This week, we continue our usual series of MLB fantasy previews, wherein we consider 5-6 key questions surrounding each team. Baseball is coming, gamers. Pitchers and catchers report next month. Fantasy owners report immediately...
There's probably not a happier team in MLB that the Houston Astros are joining the AL this season than the Seattle Mariners. The M's have filled the caboose role on the AL Runs Scored chart each of the past four seasons, but compared to the lineup the Astros expect to field this season, Seattle's lineup looks like Murderer's Row. And to make matters worse, Houston heads to the DH-enabled AL, and an AL West that sported two of the top four run-scoring teams in the league (Angels and Rangers), after finishing with the second-worst ERA in the NL last season. This is the MLB equivalent of leading the lambs to the slaughter.
Last season, Houston scored 583 runs, the only team to clock in under the 600 mark. And with 794 runs allowed, fifth-most in baseball, the Astros' -211 run differential was 33 runs worse than the next closest team (Cleveland, -178). In terms of fantasy impact, this was like the tree falling in the forest without anyone there to witness it. Did it make a sound or didn't it? Well, when you have just one offensive player (Jose Altuve) and one pitcher (Wilton Lopez) ranked among the top 270 fantasy players of '12, you have to ask yourself if a draft was held without Astros, would anyone even notice – especially since Wilton Lopez is now a member of the Colorado Rockies?
Let's face it, Pressing Questions and the Houston Astros are kind of an oxymoron in the fantasy arena. But we press on with the task at hand, no matter how futile it may be. And we start in the obvious place …
Q: Can you show me the way to Jose Altuve?
A: Thanks to a .290 batting average and 33 steals, Altuve is getting top 5 consideration at second base in early '13 fantasy drafts. The pocket rocket has hit for average and has flashed speed in each stop on his quick ascent to the majors. He's a young player (just 22) but, although he has nice pop in his bat, he's probably never going to have more than 10-12 HR upside, and you can't really project him out for much more than the 80 runs he scored last season because he has, arguably, a worse crew backing him up in the order this year than he did last year.
Consider Altuve's splits last season in terms of runs scored per plate appearance. He averaged .14 runs per PA in the first half, with Carlos Lee and Chris Johnson lending support. But, in the second half, with those two off to greener pastures, Altuve averaged just .11 runs per PA. If he scores at a .11 rate this season in the same number of PAs (630), he loses 10 runs on his total (drops from 80 to 70).
So for Altuve to be a serious top 5 fantasy second baseman, he's likely going to have to do it himself by making great leaps in batting average and steals. The numbers he posted last season, as good as they were, were only good for No. 8 among 2Bs. Figure Altuve has to hit above .300 and steal 40-plus bases to justify a top 5 standing among second sackers, and that's too ambitious given his environment. I'll be looking for him around where he finished last season, right in that 7-10 range at 2B, sometime after the top 75 picks are off the board.
Q: Where's Jed? Jed's not dead, is he?
A: Jed Lowrie has 31 home runs in his past 232 games, a solid power contribution from a SS-eligible fantasy commodity. Unfortunately, those long balls have been spread across three injury-riddled seasons. Last season was especially frustrating, as he was second among shortstops in home runs through the first three months of the season (14), before an ankle injury sent his season into a major tailspin, one that he would never recover from (2 HR, .200 BA after the break).
Looking back on his recent past, check out Lowrie's DNP log: 107 games in '09 with a left wrist injury; 98 games in '10 with mono; 56 games because of shoulder issues in '11; and 60 games last season because of ankle and thumb injuries. If it looks like a lemon, smells like a lemon and feels like a lemon, well, it's probably a lemon.
The idea of a healthy Lowrie paints a nice fantasy picture given his SS eligibility. And I don't have a problem if you want to make a speculative play on Lowrie in the draft, but it should cost you no more than a late-round flyer.
Q: What about that other Jose (Veras)?
A: In standard 12-team leagues, every able-bodied closer will get drafted, so Veras needs to be in our discussion here. The physically-imposing journeyman with an exploding fastball/curveball combo and little idea of where it is going is expected to get the first shot at preserving wins for the Astros. And that's the first problem for Veras: this team might struggle to win 50 games. If you figure that a team, on average, picks up a save in about half of their victories, even a locked-in Veras probably has about a 25-save ceiling. But it would be crazy to assume that Veras is going to settle in as the team's stopper without a hitch. After all, he finished fourth (among those with 60-plus IP) in BB/9 (5.37), and he has practically no experience in a closer's role.
On the positive side, Veras has finished with an ERA under 4.00 in each of his past three seasons thanks to the fact that when he does put the ball over the plate, he's not very easy to hit (OPS allowed of .694 or less in each of past three seasons). So there is at least a little hope that Veras can make good in his first real shot at closing out games.
If Veras manages to hold things together in the first half, Houston will almost certainly shop him, and there's a high likelihood that the team that deals for him will be looking at him as set-up help for the stretch run and not as a closer. All things considered, Veras should probably be the last closer drafted. When that is, exactly, is dependent upon the ebb and flow of each individual league's draft.
Q:Any young Astro-nauts close to contributing?
A: Well, the Astros top nearly-ready prospect will have to wait at least 50 games before Houston can even consider him. Power hitting 1B Jonathan Singleton, who posted a .893 OPS and 21 home runs in 131 games at Double-A, was suspended by MLB for a marijuana-use violation, forcing him out of action for the first couple months of this coming season. He's arguably one of the top 10 offensive prospects in the game, but Houston wasn't going to be very motivated to start his service clock this season, anyways, given how bad the team is expected to be. I wouldn't be surprised if Houston gave him a September call-up this season, and kept him in Triple-A to open 2014 until the arbitration clock issue becomes a non-factor. That would set the team up to start pushing things in 2015, when last year's No. 1 overall pick, shortstop Carlos Correa, five-tool outfielder George Springer and top pitching prospects like Lance McCullers and Jarred Cosart are ready to blossom on the MLB stage. Until then, the team will be better off losing as much as it possibly can so it can keep stock piling top draft picks.
Astro pops: Here's a quick take on some other items of interest
• Lucas Harrell was a nice NL-only find last season (I speak from experience). He's a ground-ball inducing machine, and that limited his susceptibility to the long ball (just 13 in 193.2 IP), and his fastball ranked among the 12 best among qualified starters in terms of fastball pitch value, according to Fangraphs. Those are some components that at least make Harrell worth watching early on.
• If you were like me, you extended a 10-day fantasy contract to J.D. Martinez once or twice last season. He posted an .860 OPS in April to go with 19 RBIs and in June, he smacked five home runs and drove in 18 more runs. Those were usable numbers. Unfortunately, he delivered two other months with a batting average sub-.200 and was barely in the lineup the final two months of the season because of a demotion to Triple-A and then a hand injury. Despite what can only be regarded as an overall poor showing in '12, Martinez is only 25 years old and he at least showed improved patience at the plate in his second MLB tour last season. He was the victim of a big drop in BABIP last season and a greatly increased ground-ball rate. A tweak here or there and Martinez's star could be back on the rise. You needn't worry about drafting him but, like Harrell, he's worth keeping an eye on in deeper leagues.
• Tyler Greene slugged seven home runs in 39 games for the Astros after coming over in a trade from St. Louis. He owns a .850 OPS at Triple-A and has hit 23 home runs in his past 148 games at that level. He's expected to play a utility role out of the gate, but he's a name to put on the back burner in case a full-time role (say, a prolonged Jed Lowrie injury) ever opens up more playing time. The batting average won't help, but the power and speed (28 steals in 628 career ABs) could be a mid-season Band-Aid for someone in need of SS help.
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