There weren't a lot of expectations placed on the Houston Astros entering the 2012 season. Vegas pegged them to win 63.5 games before the year, and when I gathered eight friends for an over/under pool, only one person had the nerve to call "over" on this group. (Perhaps Erin had some inside information, living in Houston, or maybe it was a heart over head pick. Either way, she's on pace to scoop that one.)
Now that we're three weeks into the campaign, I'm ready to hop on the Metro. These Astros are competitive, at least for fantasy purposes.
You're not going to find a lot of pop with the current lineup, but don't dismiss Houston out of hand. The Astros have scored 95 runs in their 20 games (fourth-best in the National league) and they've collected 17 steals (tied for second in the NL). Much like the Astros of yesteryear, the guys who played in the dome, this club nicks and pings you into submission, death by 1,000 cuts.
Friday was another case in point, as the Astros made good use of their nine hits, rolling to a 6-4 victory over Cincinnati. There wasn't a Houston homer to be found, but five singles, two doubles, a triple and a couple of steals padded the offensive line nicely.
The lineup runs out of steam near the bottom of the order, like a lot of NL clubs do, but you can make a strong case that the top five hitters in Houston are under-owned in Yahoo! fantasy groups. Make the jump and let's give them all a look under the spotlight:
-- Jordan Schafer (54 percent) is making things go from the leadoff spot, with 15 runs, seven steals and a .345 OBP. He'll never be a dynamic power source, but he has a couple of homers, too. His increased batting eye (10 walks) is the key here; Schafer has reached base safely in all 20 games. He'll be parked at the top of the order, running freely, all season.
-- Jose Altuve (56 percent) is all about slashing, line drives all over the park (23.8 percent of the time, in fact). He's off to a .378 start, with a homer and four steals, and you'll love watching Altuve on a nightly basis. It's no surprise the 5-foot-7 powder keg ripped through the minors so quickly; he rocked a .389/.426/.591 line at two stops last year, forcing the Astros to promote him from Double-A. Look for a plus average going forward, along with some pop and a bushel of steals (25 or more). I can't understand why Altuve isn't closing in on universal-league ownership; I'd take him over Jemile Weeks (68 percent), Omar Infante (64 percent), Daniel Murphy (61 percent) and Neil Walker (57 percent), just to name a few.
-- J.D. Martinez (68 percent) is one of those hitters who never had the scouts that interested, but what's wrong with a .342/.407/.551 line through 298 minor-league games? He still has some split issues to work out - improvement is needed on the road and against right-handed pitching - but he's held his own through 72 big-league games (.283 average, .790 OPS). If you project his career MLB stats to a full season, you get 20 homers, 83 runs and 121 RBIs. I wouldn't chase that RBI total, but a .285-85-20-85 type of season looks very attainable. He might have been dropped in your league after a quiet week; check the wire.
-- Carlos Lee (65 percent) is perfectly named for his club and uniform number; literally, this is Colt 45. He's still giving us a neutral average and strong run production (on a pace to top 100 RBIs), and you have to admire any batter who has more walks than strikeouts. It will be interesting to see if Lee sticks in Houston all summer, because he could be of use to a contending club.
-- Jed Lowrie (9 percent) is the most underrated name in the Top 5, another slasher (26.8 line-drive rate) who covers a couple of infield spots (shortstop, third). Don't let his 6-foot-0, 180-pound frame trip you up; he's posted 20 homers over 861 pro at-bats. The key with Lowrie never changes; he just needs to stay healthy and a breakout can happen.
There's one final Astro to open your mind up to, closer Brett Myers (55 percent). His handshakes are just as good as anyone else's. Myers is 4-for-4 on conversions this month, allowing just one run over 5.2 crisp innings (3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K). And he's the rare closer who carries dual eligibility, a handy thing to take advantage of. Myers will probably be dangled in trade talks all year - a non-contending club has no reason to carry a high-priced closer - but in the meantime, he's the owner of this bullpen. Any team can support a 25-save closer if they coddle the man in charge, and that's what skipper Brad Mills is going to do.
When you add it all up, this is another lesson in how important it is to know all of the teams inside and out, even the unexciting, small-market clubs. Every Astro we discussed in this piece was drafted outside the Top 220, on average, in Yahoo! leagues this spring (oddly, they all fell between 223 and 242). Stay open minded at all times, gamers. There's some roto goodness to be had in every city.
While you ponder how many Altuve rookie cards you want to stock up on, let's hit some bullets from the Friday sandlots:
• Don't look back, Javy Guerra, someone might be gaining on you. The LA closer is dealing with a sore foot - a residual from Brian McCann's line-drive Wednesday - and it kept him out of the mix for Friday's series opener against Washington. Kenley Jansen stepped into the save-grabbing role nicely, retiring three of four men and pouring in 11 strikes on 17 pitches. It's very important for Guerra to have a sharp outing or two when he returns to action, because another misstep would put Don Mattingly in a ticklish position.
Nationals lefty Ross Detwiler took the loss in this game; while he was out-pitched by Clayton Kershaw, his final line wasn't bad (6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 4 K). Here's hoping Detwiler sticks in the Washington rotation all year - I don't want to hear about Chien-Ming Wang - because there's an obvious breakout profile here. Detwiler was the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft, and he threw 66 strong (if under the radar) innings in Washington last year (3.00 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 2:1 K/BB ratio). He's at home against Arizona next week.
• Daniel Bard marked his territory in the Boston rotation, working seven strong innings at Chicago (6 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K) and firing 63 or 97 pitches for strikes. His next turn is at home against an Oakland club that's offensively challenged, so plan on that as a possible stream. You'll find him available in 64 percent of Yahoo! leagues. I didn't include Bard in the Friday edition of Shuffle Up for starting pitchers (no personal stake here, I just felt a bullpen shift could be imminent), but here are some prices going forward: $8 in the rotation, $15-16 if he shifts to a save role.
The White Sox lineup has plenty of guys who aren't producing, but it would be nice if Robin Ventura could figure out a fit for the No. 2 position. Brent Morel (.171/.216/.200) crippled that spot for a few weeks, and lately it's been Alexei Ramirez (.203/.232/.266). Come on, skip, you need to be smarter than that. Perhaps catcher A.J. Pierzynski (.377 OBP, more walks than strikeouts) will get a trial at some point. At least the three biggest walkers on the roster thus far (De Aza, Dunn, Konerko) are locked into the 1-3-4 spots. But Ventura needs to find someone productive for that No. 2 assignment.
• When Josh Reddick sees Baltimore on the schedule, his production spikes. It's a shame he'll hardly see these guys now that he's in the AL West. Reddick clocked a homer at Camden Yards on Friday and now has a .359 average and six homers in 24 Baltimore games. He shows an odd platoon split for his career - his OPS is 111 points higher against lefties - but hopefully Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill will figure it out. Reddick would probably be a bottom-third hitter on most clubs (if he were even a starter), but he's forced into the No. 3 slot in Oakland, a production spot. He's out there for your consideration in 94 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
• It's far too early in Jesus Montero's career to make strong assumptions on anything, but it's interesting to note that he's rocking a 1.218 OPS in his five catching games this year, as opposed to a .510 OPS in the 14 stints as a DH. In many cases there's a correlation between offensive production and having a spot in the field; Frank Thomas, to name one notable slugger, absolutely hated to DH and it showed in his splits. All that said, Montero handled the DH gig just fine on Friday, thanks, collecting a homer and single as the Mariners cruised to a 9-5 win. The stealth M's are now 11-10 after a four-game winning streak, putting them in second place in the AL West. Not even hitting Brendan Ryan in the No. 2 spot (predictable collar) could stop this surging group as it hit the YYZ.
• Make it four straight useful starts from Cory Luebke (and three straight wins), as he turned in a quality turn at San Francisco (6 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 3 K). He's always loved pitching out of a suitcase, posting a 2.75 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in his road work. I can't wait until his luck at Petco normalizes (3.69, 1.12). The Padres bullpen was steady enough to close up. Andrew Cashner allowed a homer in the eighth, opposite two strikeouts, while Luke Gregerson worked a scoreless seventh and Huston Street was smooth in the ninth. Chase Headley scored two runs and knocked one in; the home-road splits make perfect sense in his case (he rocks on the road, he's punchless in Petco). Maybe someday we'll get to see what he can do in a neutral environment.
• A bunch of Friday's news came early and from matters off the field, so let's play traffic cop. The Bryce Harper celebration is right here, the Mike Trout promotion party is in full swing here, and the Mike Scioscia bullpen shuffle is over here. One thing to keep in mind as you play with your shiny new toys; potential tends to be an overrated commodity in most non-keeper leagues. The best time to shop a Harper or a Trout might be before they ever take a major-league at-bat. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I don't know your league as well as you do, but just keep an open mind.