MLB Team Roundup: Houston Astros

D.J. Short
Rotoworld

Follow @Rotoworld_BB and @djshort on Twitter.

Houston Astros

2019 Record: 107-55
First Place, AL West
Team ERA: 3.66 (3rd in MLB)
Team OPS: .848 (1st in MLB)

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What Went Right

From top to bottom, the Astros were the most talented team in the majors this season. Heck, maybe one of the most talented teams we’ve seen in years. That played out in the standings, as they set a franchise record for wins. Alex Bregman built off an impressive 2018 season by slugging 41 homers with a 1.015 OPS over 156 games, possibly putting himself in position to top Mike Trout for the AL MVP Award. The Astros should take home the AL Young Award, but the only question is whether it will be Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole. Both pitchers had amazing seasons. Yordan Alvarez is a shoo-in for the AL Rookie of the Year award after impressing with a .313/.412/.655 batting line and 27 homers over just 87 games. George Springer was limited to 122 games, but he still set new career-highs in homers, RBI, and OPS. After inking a two-year, $32 million contract last offseason, Michael Brantley stayed healthy while hitting .311 with 22 homers, 90 RBI, and 88 runs scored over 148 games. Yuli Gurriel showed a major power spike, finishing with 31 homers and 104 RBI. Despite missing five weeks with a hamstring strain, Jose Altuve still slugged a career-high 31 homers. Zack Greinke (3.02 ERA over 10 starts) was as advertised after being acquired from the Diamondbacks at the deadline. Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, and Will Harris were excellent in the late innings.

What Went Wrong

The Astros earned home field advantage in the World Series and later found themselves one win away from another world championship, but they dropped the final two games to the Nationals. While that’s going to sting with Astros fans for a while, there weren’t many negatives during the season. Josh Reddick was the only regular who underwhelmed, posting 14 homers and a .728 OPS (89 OPS+) over 141 games. Tyler White scuffled with a .650 OPS over 71 games, effectively clearing the way for Yordan Alvarez’s emergence. Wade Miley had a nightmare September before playing a limited role during the postseason. Brad Peacock was limited to six relief appearances during the second half due to shoulder issues. Collin McHugh was booted from the Astros’ rotation in early May and dealt with lingering elbow issues after that before being shut down in September. Prospect right-hander Forrest Whitley had a frustrating year in the minors, failing to make his way to the Astros, though he at least pitched better in the Arizona Fall League. The Astros’ trade with the Blue Jays for Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini didn’t work out as hoped.

Fantasy Slants

**Alex Bregman was a second-round pick in most mixed leagues this spring, so he more than delivered on that draft position this year by posting a monster .296/.423/.592 batting line with 41 homers, 112 RBI, and 122 runs scored over 156 games. He led the majors with 119 walks while striking out just 83 times, a stunning statistic in today’s game. Only seven qualified hitters struck out less often. Bregman had the lowest chase rate in the majors and saw increases in his fly ball rate and hard-hit percentage when he did swing, which provides some context for the jump in power. The only negative from a fantasy perspective was that his stolen base total fell to five. The Astros were very conservative in terms of running this year, so it’s no sure thing that will rebound next year. Still, Bregman is one of the elite hitters in the game, with eligibility at third base and shortstop to boot. Given his situation, he’s earned first-round status in 2020.

**Say hello to the new No. 1 starting pitcher on fantasy draft boards. Gerrit Cole had a great first year with the Astros in 2018 after coming over from the Pirates, but he took things to another level this season, posting a 2.50 ERA with 326 strikeouts and 48 walks over 212 1/3 innings. He led the league in both ERA and strikeouts. In fact, his strikeout total was the highest in the majors since Randy Johnson in 2002. Cole was a machine, fanning at least 10 batters in nine straight starts to finish the regular season. His ERA actually sat at 4.11 after his start against the White Sox on May 22, but he dominated with a 1.78 ERA over his final 22 starts. That remarkable run could give him the edge over teammate Justin Verlander for the AL Cy Young Award. The 29-year-old is in position for a record-setting deal in free agency this winter. He should unseat Max Scherzer on draft boards regardless of where he ends up.

**Hey, remember when it looked like Justin Verlander’s days as an elite fantasy starter were over? Me neither. The 36-year-old Verlander was better than ever this year, posting a 2.58 ERA over 34 starts while reaching 300 strikeouts for the first time in his career. While he served up a career-high 36 homers, he didn’t give up much else. His 0.80 WHIP was the third-lowest in a single-season in the modern era, trailing only Walter Johnson (1913) and Pedro Martinez (2000). Reaching 20 wins for the first time since 2011, Verlander finished the year as the No. 1 starting pitcher in Yahoo leagues, though the margin over teammate Gerrit Cole was razor thin. As for the AL Cy Young Award balloting, it could really go either way between those two. Verlander has been money since joining the Astros, so fantasy players should feel confident even as he moves into his age-37 season. Still, the age factor likely pushes him behind Cole on the big board.

**Kyle Tucker appeared first in line for a call-up if the Astros needed help at the major league level, but Yordan Alvarez got there first after blasting 23 homers with a 1.184 OPS over his first 56 games in Triple-A this year. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound slugger didn’t skip a beat with the move to the majors, hitting .313/.412/.655 with 27 homers and 78 RBI over 87 games while becoming the overwhelming favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year award. His strikeout rate (25.5 percent) wasn’t excessive and he showed plenty of patience while ranking among the game’s elite in terms of batted ball metrics. According to Baseball Savant, Alvarez ranked in the top-two percent in the majors in barrel percentage and the top-five percent in average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage. Even as a DH-only player, he projects to come off the board within the first few rounds in mixed league drafts next year.

**Odds are we’ve seen the best of Jose Altuve from a fantasy perspective, but what does that mean exactly? Given Altuve’s recent leg issues and the Astros’ conservative style of play on the bases, we can’t even count on 20 stolen bases at this point. He swiped 17 bases in 2018 and went just 6-for-11 in thefts this year. Putting that aside, he’s still a fantastic hitter. Among second-base eligible players, he ranked sixth (tied) with a career-high 31 homers and ninth (tied) with 89 runs scored. Keep in mind he only played in 124 games. His contact rate has taken a dip in recent years, but not enough to suggest you can’t lean on him in the batting average department.  Maybe Altuve isn’t a first-rounder anymore, but he’s still the “safest” option at a weak position.

**Carlos Correa still has the name recognition going for him, but we need to face some difficult truths here. We’re now talking about three straight seasons with fewer than 111 games played. It was nice to see a jump in his production this year — .926 OPS, up from .728 in 2018 — but he appeared in just 75 games due to a fractured rib and more back issues. The rib fracture was a freak thing, but the injury history can’t be ignored at this point. Shortstop is absolutely loaded, so Correa isn’t a top-10 option at the position as things stand today.

**Power numbers in MLB were thrown completely out of whack in 2019 and Yuli Gurriel stands out as one of the most unexpected beneficiaries. The 35-year-old socked 31 homers in 612 plate appearances, matching his total from 1,137 plate appearances combined between 2017 and 2018. He made contact at an elite clip — only 10 players had a higher contact rate — so he’s a safe play for batting average. However, the power surge carries questions, as he saw only a minor increase in his fly ball rate and his batted ball metrics (average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, barrel percentage) didn’t stand out relative to his peers. Factoring in the uncertainty of the baseball and his age, it’s hard to bet on a repeat.

**It’s probably time for the Astros to see what they have in Kyle Tucker. After putting up 34 homers and 30 steals with a .909 OPS over 125 games in Triple-A this year, the 22-year-old batted .269/.319/.537 batting line with four homers over 72 plate appearances in the majors. The MLB baseball in the Pacific Coast League makes it hard to put anything into proper context, but Tucker has been a highly-regarded prospect for a long time. Josh Reddick is still under contract for 2020, but Tucker is the more intriguing option at this point. We’ll have to see if the Astros agree. Depending on how things play out, Tucker will be worthy of rostering in most mixed leagues.

Key Free Agents: Gerrit Cole, Will Smith, Joe Smith, Collin McHugh, Robinson Chirinos, Wade Miley, Hector Rondon

Team Needs: Staring pitching is the biggest need, though the Astros will attempt to fill Gerrit Cole’s spot internally with a full season from Zack Greinke as well as Lance McCullers’ return from Tommy John surgery and some combination of youngsters like Jose Urquidy, Framber Valdez, and Forrest Whitley. With multiple free agents among their relievers, the Astros also figure to address their bullpen. Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado are both free agents, so something will have to give behind the plate.

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