Pressing Questions: The Houston Astros

The Houston Astros were such a flaming disappointment in 2011 that the team has actually been relegated, bumped to the American League, effective 2013. We're all anxious to see which low-power, .320-OBP scrapper will emerge as this team's regular DH, but that will have to wait. The Astros must first slog through the 2012 season as lame-duck National Leaguers. This group finished dead-last in the senior circuit in ERA last year (4.51) while scoring the third-fewest runs (615) and ranking next-to-last in total homers (95), so it can be reasonably argued that they don't do anything well.

The questions surrounding this team are many, although mixed league fantasy owners probably wouldn't describe any of them as "pressing." These are more like festering questions...

Mark Melancon was traded to Boston during the off-season. Please tell me that doesn't mean Brandon Lyon will get another chance to close. Please.

We can make no such assurances at this time. Sorry. Lyon is in the mix for the closer's role, coming off a disastrous, injury-shortened season (labrum, biceps). He was a mess over 13.1 innings last year before hitting the DL (11.48 ERA), but recall that he delivered back-to-back respectable campaigns in 2009 and 2010. Lyon will earn $5.5 million this season, the final year of his deal, so he'll likely find himself on the trade block if he can demonstrate that he's regained competency.

In any case, Houston will be auditioning potential closers during Spring Training. This job has not yet been filled. Wilton Lopez is a possibility — we at least know he'll have a late-inning role — and 26-year-old David Carpenter is in the discussion, too. Carpenter made 19 appearances in Triple-A last season, allowing just 15 hits, six walks and no runs, striking out 21 batters and recording nine saves. He held his own at the major league level after a late-June callup, striking out 29 batters over 27.2 innings and posting a 2.93 ERA (and a frightening 1.48 WHIP). Another reliever to monitor here is Juan Abreu, a strikeout machine who turns 27 in April. Abreu was acquired from Atlanta in the Michael Bourn trade. He struck out 77 hitters in just 57.2 innings at Triple-A last season, then fanned another 12 in a 6.2-inning late-season cameo with the Astros.

We should also note that Houston used the top pick in the Rule 5 draft on Rhiner Cruz, a flame-throwing 25-year-old with a long history of throwing non-strikes. You like the arm, but command is a serious problem.

Are there any hitters here worth drafting in a standard public league? Anyone at all? El Caballo, maybe?

Carlos Lee led Houston in each of the Triple Crown categories last year, batting .275 with 18 home runs and 94 RBIs, but his numbers were actually substandard for a mixed league first baseman. Last year, the average top-20 1B hit .297 with 26.1 homers and 96.4 RBIs. Lee has outfield eligibility as well, of course, and his numbers will play at that position, or in a utility spot. Still, there's nothing here to get excited about. Lee will be 36 in June, his best seasons clearly behind him.

Just to underscore how remarkably uninteresting Houston's lineup is for fantasy purposes, here's a look at the projected auction values for the team's highest-ranked position player at each starting spot (via Lindy's fantasy preview, where I've been known to contribute):

C Humberto Quintero, $0
1B Carlos Lee, $4
2B Jose Altuve, $1
3B Jimmy Paredes, $3
SS Jed Lowrie, $4
OF Jason Bourgeois, $5
OF JD Martinez, $3
OF Brian Bogusevic, $2

So we're basically saying that this entire batting order is worth just $22 of a $260 auction budget (and when we set those prices, Lowrie was in Boston). For comparison's sake, we priced guys like Michael Young and Eric Hosmer at $22.

The Astros' roster offers a handful of speed specialists — Paredes, Altuve, Bourgeois, Jordan Schafer — but little power. Martinez might very well lead this team in homers in 2012 (because someone has to), although he's never hit 20 in any pro season.

OK, so there aren't really any high-impact bats here. How 'bout the starting rotation? Can Bud Norris make another leap?

In his age-26 season, Norris improved his fantasy ratios substantially, lowering his ERA from 4.92 to 3.77 and his WHIP from 1.48 to 1.33. He wasn't quite an asset in those categories last year, but he was less of a liability — and his xFIP was 3.73, so it's not as if he was unusually lucky. His walk rate dropped significantly while his K-rate remained excellent (8.52 K/9). Norris is definitely on the radar for mixed leaguers, as is the soon-to-be 33-year-old Wandy Rodriguez. We won't have to fret about the transition to the A.L. for another year.

The obvious problem with this pitching staff from a fantasy perspective is that the team is just criminally bad. Houston won only 56 games last season, the lowest total in baseball, and there's no reason to think this group will reach 70 in 2012. There are some good-enough arms in the rotation, but none capable of a Steve Carlton in '72-style performance. Norris won just six times last year, as the Astros scored two runs or less in 10 of his 31 starts.

Surely there are some interesting prospects in Houston's system, right? Who should we care about for dynasty purposes?

This franchise has replenished its farm system via trade in recent years, dealing away Bourn, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence for a decent collection of minor leaguers. In fact, the two most intriguing prospects in Houston's organization — 1B/OF Jonathan Singleton and RHP Jarred Cosart — arrived in the Pence deal. Singleton is a 20-year-old with on-base skills and significant power potential. He's one of the top 1B prospects in all of baseball, although he's unlikely to assist fantasy owners this season. Both Singleton and the 21-year-old Cosart seem likely to open the season at Double-A. Cosart is a hard-thrower with a respectable breaking ball and developing change, a potential top-of-rotation starter, though hardly a can't-miss prospect.

The dynasty crowd will also want to file away George Springer's name for later use. Springer was the No. 11 overall pick in last year's draft, a toolsy power-speed outfielder from UConn. In 700 career collegiate at-bats, he hit .346 with 46 homers and 76 stolen bases in 88 attempts. But like Singleton and Cosart, he isn't expected to crack the major league lineup anytime soon. There's hope for the future, Houston, but maybe not for the present.

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