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Fantasy baseball 2013 team previews: Houston Astros

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Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve won't hit for power, but he'll be a cheap source of steals.

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If you've been reading these team previews with any regularity, you know that I typically try to start them on a somewhat-positive note. It might be a summation of 2012 or a look ahead to 2013, but there's usually at least a few good nuggets for every team, no matter how bleak the outlook might be.

And then there's Houston.

There really isn't much to say. The Astros went 55-107 a year ago, and were rewarded by being shipped to the American League West, perhaps the strongest division in baseball. They only have three players (Jose Altuve, Bud Norris and their closer, likely Jose Veras), who are locks to be owned in mixed leagues. Chris Carter, Carlos Pena, Fernando Martinez, Lucas Harrell and Jordan Lyles could provide some value in deep mixers and/or AL-only leagues, but that's about where the fantasy train ends for this team.

So in looking for something positive, I guess I can say this: I really enjoy the @HowManyAltuves Twitter account.

Projected roster

Lineup:

1. Jose Altuve, 2B 2. Tyler Greene, SS 3. Chris Carter, LF 4. Carlos Pena, 1B 5. Brett Wallace, DH 6. Justin Maxwell, CF 7. Fernando Martinez, RF 8. Matt Dominguez, 3B 9. Jason Castro, C

Starting rotation:

1. Bud Norris 2. Lucas Harrell 3. Jordan Lyles 4. Phil Humber 5. Dallas Keuchel

Others: Erik Bedard, Jarred Cosart, Brad Peacock

Bullpen: Jose Veras (closer), Wesley Wright, Xavier Cedeño, Josh Fields, Chia-Jen Lo, Rhiner Cruz, Sam Demel

Key questions

? Will Bud Norris become the pitcher fantasy owners want him to be? Heading into 2012, Norris' age-27 season, everything appeared to be trending in the right direction. He lowered his ERA to 3.77 from 4.92 and his FIP to 4.02 from 4.17. His strikeouts per nine innings fell, though to a still-impressive 8.25, but more importantly he cut his walks per nine innings by more than a full free pass to 3.39. While still a high number, it helped make it appear that a more mature Norris was pitching to contact more and not taxing his arm quite as much. As he entered his prime years, Norris looked like a pitcher primed to take the next step in his development.

It came as a surprise, then, that Norris regressed in 2012. His walk rate crept up slightly, but his ERA and FIP jumped to 4.65 and 4.23, respectively. He gave up 1.23 homers per nine innings, the worst ratio of his career since his 55.2-inning cup of coffee in 2009. His velocity dipped and rose in all the wrong places. His average fastball fell to 91.8 mph from 92.6, his slider dropped to 84.2 from 86.3, but his average changeup registered at 85.3, up from 83.1 in 2011. The six-mph difference from fastball to changeup isn't going to fool many major league hitters, and it showed in Norris' results. On top of all that, he's leaving behind the cozy NL Central for the menacing AL West. Gone are the Cubs and Pirates, replaced by the Rangers and Angels. I've been one of Norris' strongest supporters over the years, but I'm staying away this season.

? Are there any prospects to be excited about this year?Actually, yes, there are, and I'm glad you asked because this was starting to become my most depressing team preview yet. Jonathan Singleton, a 21-year-old first baseman, was a good bet to make the majors this season before earning himself a 50-game suspension for testing positive for marijuana. Still, he might be able to force a promotion with a strong showing at Triple-A. In 131 games at Double-A Corpus Christi last year, he hit .284/.396/.497 with 21 homers, 27 doubles and 79 RBI. Even if he's still a year from the majors, he should be on your radar if you're a keeper league owner in a league that uses minor league taxi rosters.

George Springer, a 23-year-old outfielder, had a huge year with High-A Lancaster in 2012, hitting .316/.398/.557 with 24 homers, 21 doubles, 87 RBI and 32 steals. It would be nice if he had a little more experience above that level given that he's 23, but last year was also just his second professional season. He'll start the year at Double-A Corpus Christi, and is a good bet to earn a promotion to Triple-A, at the very least. The story is the same here as it is with Singleton. Make sure he's on your radar if you're in a league that uses minor league rosters.

? Is Jose Altuve underrated? No matter where you get your fantasy rankings, you're probably not going to find many people ranking Altuve any higher than eighth at his position. I think I have a pretty favorable view of him, but there are still six second basemen I'd take ahead of him. But are we all underrating him?

In his first full year in the majors, at age 22, Altuve hit .290/.340/.399 with 33 steals, which was essentially a seamless transition from the minors. In 382 career minor league games across four levels, Altuve hit .327/.386/.481 with 117 steals. His bat probably doesn't have any more than 10 homers in it, but you can bet on good rates and 30 steals. That's a pretty nice floor for a second baseman. He won't score a ton of runs for a leadoff man because of the Astros' paltry offense, but no one will lose a league this year because of having Altuve at second. The reason we're not underrating him is because the position has gotten a lot deeper in recent years, and Altuve is the one guy who will start in a 12-team league who won't get to at least 16 or 18 homers. If you own him, you'll need to make up your power deficit elsewhere.

Sleeper

Carlos Pena: You won't feel good about the pick when you make it, but Pena should be a cheap source of power with at least a decent OBP. He's untouchable in a league that uses batting average, but if you don't need to worry about that, there's enough to like here as long as he fits in the overall balance of your team. His OBP fell to .330 last year, but he also posted a career-high 30.3 percent strikeout rate. If that comes back down to his career level of 26.8 percent, he should hit his usual .350 OBP.

Bust

Jose Veras: Someone will eventually have to talk himself into Veras since he's a closer, but I'm definitely planning on having my relief situation squared away before being forced to turn to Veras. He has had two solid years in a row, but even those came with FIPs in the mid-3s. That's not exactly the stuff of a lockdown closer. He walked more than five batters per nine innings in 2012, and doesn't figure to get a ton of save opportunities in Houston.

Breakout

Chris Carter: Carter posted an .864 OPS with 16 homers and 39 RBI in just 260 plate appearances with the A's last year. He leaves behind the terrible hitter's environment at O.co Coliseum in Oakland for Houston's Minute Maid Park, one of the friendliest parks for a power hitter. He'll also get a full season's worth of at-bats this year. This could end up being the cheapest source of 25 homers in 2013.

AL-only guys to know

Lucas Harrell: The 27-year-old went 11-11 with a 3.76 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and 3.75 FIP in 2012. He also had 140 strikeouts in 193.2 innings, making him a decent option for the backend of your rotation.

Jarred Cosart: Cosart posted a 3.52 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 7.03 strikeouts per nine innings in 87 innings at Double-A Corpus Christi last year. He earned a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City, racking up a 2.60 ERA, 2.98 FIP and 7.81 strikeouts per nine innings in 27.2 innings. He'll likely start the year at Oklahoma City, but could be in Houston before too long.

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