Pressing fantasy baseball questions: The 2018 Houston Astros

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These are not the Houston Astros I grew up with. It’s taken some getting used to.

The Astros of my youth wore Tequila Sunrise jerseys, toiled in the National League West, played in a dimly lit Astrodome (at least it looked dimly lit on TV). Scoring was generally at a premium. Home runs were rare. It wasn’t unusual for Houston to score less than 600 runs. Nolan Ryan won the 1987 ERA title — and went 8-16.

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There have been plenty of changes since. The Astros moved to the NL Central in 1994, and the AL West five years ago. Minute Maid Park opened for play in 2000, with runs easier to come by. And after four decades of relative mediocrity, the Astros started doing something. They made the playoffs six times between 1997-2005 (including a World Series trip), and after a tank-and-rebuild this decade, they’re now a juggernaut. Last year’s club won 101 games, led the majors in runs, and went all the way in October.

Jose Altuve, the team’s best player, is the reigning AL MVP and will go second overall in most fantasy drafts. Shortstop Carlos Correa is a likely MVP-in-waiting, and will be a first- or second-round pick everywhere. Alex Bregman is a fantasy darling. The pitching staff is deep, the front office is modern. You need to know your Astros.

Q: So Gerrit Cole trades the National League for the American League. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

A good thing, a change of scenery at the right time. Cole leaves the sinking Pirate ship for one of the American League bullies, and he also inherits a favorable pitching park. Although Minute Maid sure looks cushy and friendly to the hitters — never more than during last year’s World Series — it has actually been a run-depressing atmosphere for years.

Checking in with the Bill James Handbook, here’s the scoop. Over the last three years, Minute Maid has cut run scoring by nine percent, trimmed averages by four percent, and been about neutral (plus one percent) on home runs. Those stats don’t equate to Death Valley, but this has been a misunderstood venue for some time. Cole also gets to ride shotgun with the stacked Houston offense, and the Astros bullpen should also be a plus.

To be fair, Cole is leaving a home park that was hard on homers and a mild tax on scoring, too. And last year’s 4.26 ERA won’t be acceptable, though he’s unlikely to allow 31 home runs again. His previous high for gophers in a season is a scant 11. Entering his age-27 season, Cole has room for possible profit as the No. 22 starting pitcher in early Yahoo drafts.

Q: Can we trust Marwin Gonzalez to approach his breakout year?

Here’s a player I hold a fair amount of skepticism on. I say that ruefully, as Gonzalez was one of our pet guys last year. We love out-of-nowhere stories, and versatile guys who grab a host of positions.

But Gonzalez doesn’t have plus defensive value at any specific position, and the Astros probably prefer him as a rover. It’s the type of player who could easily be squeezed if others emerge. Gonzalez did improve his walk and strikeout rates last year, but a 49-point jump in BABIP is surprising without a corresponding increase in hard-hit rate, and Gonzo’s HR/FB clip was suspiciously high, even if he did get the ball in the air more often.

At the end of the day, I view Gonzalez a little like a middle-relief hero from the previous year. Don’t pay the freight for the breakout, don’t chase last year’s feel-good story. Find the new story, and get in on the ground floor — get in cheaply.

Q: Is Alex Bregman worth the helium?

Two things are undeniable with Bregman, who turns 24 in a month. First, he’s a young, talented player, with an exciting upside, a potential five-category star. And second, most of the fantasy world has taken note, desperately wants in.

The expert and high-stakes community are driving the bandwagon. Bregman’s NBFC ADP checks in around 32 (a third-round pick in most leagues), and that’s where he’s generally falling in industry drafts. In Yahoo, you can get him a round or even two rounds later, with an ADP in the 50s.

Maybe it sounds like recency bias, with Bregman having some clutch moments at the end of the World Series, but he was nothing special for most of October (.208/.256/.417). Granted, the pitching competition is elevated in the playoffs, and Bregman did knock four post-season homers. More importantly he was a second-half monster, slashing .315/.367/.536 with 11 homers and nine steals in his final 71 games. If Bregman does that over a full season, he’s worth the Top 20 ticket currently assigned to Carlos Correa.

Yahoo owners who take the Bregman plunge will enjoy dual eligibility (SS-3B), and a player insulated by a deep lineup. I’m not saying Bregman can’t justify his current NFBC ADP, but I am generally not comfortable pricing in significant full-season improvement to any player, even someone with Bregman’s obvious pedigree. A fourth-round ticket is more interesting to me, though I recognize that probably locks me out of Bregman in industry leagues.

Then again, maybe this photo justifies the bump. Bregman’s lived in the gym since Houston’s victory parade, ripping his upper body, and he’s also overhauled his diet. It’s easy to laugh in a meme-ish way at Best Shape of His Life stories, but conditioning is obviously critical to peak performance. Maybe it’s time to bump Bregman up a round on my own board.

Astros Projected Lineup

CF George Springer
3B Alex Bregman
2B Jose Altuve
SS Carlos Correa
RF Josh Reddick
1B Yulieski Gurriel
LF Marwin Gonzalez
DH Evan Gattis
C Brian McCann

SP Justin Verlander
SP Dallas Keuchel
SP Gerrit Cole
SP Charlie Morton
SP Lance McCullers

CL Ken Giles
RP Chris Devenski
RP Joe Smith
RP Will Harris
RP Brad Peacock

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