At the start of last season, fantasy owners usually did a little dance when they saw that any of their players were lined up against the Houston Astros for a three-game set. Before the All-Star break, the Astros scored just 351 runs and averaged .235 -- only the Marlins were a more pitiful team offensively. To put that into perspective, the league was averaging 399 runs and a .254 batting average. And somehow Houston's pitching staff was even worse than its hitters, posting a league-worst 4.83 ERA in the first half, while hitters smacked them around at a .282 clip.
The second half of 2013, however, told a different story (for the hitters, at least). As the lineup started to pick it up, the pitching staff still struggled and remained near the bottom.
Given the Astros were playing their first full season in the American League, once can expect hitters and pitchers to have a tough time against players they never regularly faced. That theory doubles when you consider how young this team is. For instance, this 2014 Houston Astros lineup has new center fielder Dexter Fowler as the elder statesman -- at just 28 years old on Opening Day.
While your fantasy roster won't necessarily be littered with Houston Astros this season, being bad for so long has been good for the Astros' minor-league system. This June, they'll have the first overall pick for the third consecutive year -- a major-league record -- and a standout player will join fellow first overall draft picks SS Carlos Correa and P Mark Appel in Houston.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Dexter Fowler, CF
2. Jose Altuve, 2B
3. Jason Castro, C
4. Chris Carter, 1B
5. Marc Krauss, DH
6. Robbie Grossman, LF
7. Matt Dominguez, 3B
8. L.J. Hoes, RF
9. Jonathan Villar, SS
1. Scott Feldman, RHP
2. Jarred Cosart, RHP
3. Brett Oberholtzer, LHP
4. Jerome Williams, RHP
5. Brad Peacock, RHP
Others: Paul Clemens, Dallas Keuchel, Alex White
Bullpen: Chad Qualls (Closer), Matt Albers, Josh Fields, Jesse Crain
Which players should mixed leaguers even consider on Draft Day? This isn't a talent-rich roster just yet, but it is better than what we saw just a year ago -- the only Astros worth a look in mixed leagues last season were 2B Jose Altuve and closer Jose Veras. There will likely be seven players drafted throughout a 23-round mixed-league draft. Once again, Altuve tops the list as the team's best fantasy player -- he'll be gone in the single-digit rounds, as he currently ranks among the top 10 second baseman because of his fleet feet on the basepaths (35 steals in 2013).
After Altuve, however, it's a long wait until the next Astros player's name is called. Figure after Round 15, you'll hear free-swinging slugger 1B Chris Carter's name, along with prospect George Springer. (Although, if Springer hasn't locked down the job late in spring, his draft stock would obviously fall.)
Catcher Jason Castro and SS Jonathan Villar will be picked in the middle to later rounds also. Although, Castro's draft value is of great debate, as some have him pegged as a top-12 catcher, he's still entering his prime and he brings a bat that could knock in some runs hitting third.
CF Dexter Fowler and 3B Matt Dominguez are looking like some good upside sleeper picks in the final rounds. Fowler comes over from Colorado to bat leadoff for a shaky offense, and Dominguez looks to be either a surprise on the hot corner or the first guy fantasy owners cut in April.
The world wants to know -- who will close for a team that might win 65 games in 2014? Unfortunately, this could be a question people are asking well into the middle of the season. Here are the candidates for the job:
• Chad Qualls: After a huge rebound season as the setup man for the Marlins last season, the 10-year veteran has a shot to close games for the Astros -- a job he hasn't had for four years. He'll turn 36 years old this season, and he's only two years removed from a three-team season in 2012, when he posted a 5.35 ERA.
• Jesse Crain: While the Astros likely want Crain installed as their closer full-time, they still need him to come back healthy from offseason biceps surgery, so until then, the job is up in the air. Even if he does return healthy, after starting the season on the disabled list, Crain is far from a set-in-stone gamestopper. He's coming off one of the best seasons of his 10-year career -- but he has four career saves. FOUR!
• Josh Fields: As a rookie last season, Fields was a little shaky early on before settling in as Veras' setup man. Once the latter was dealt to Detroit, Fields took over the closer's job and performed admirably, picking up five saves in six opportunities.
• Matt Albers: The 31-year-old reliever is the dark horse among this group, having never posted a major-league save in his eight-year career. He should remain save-less throughout 2014.
As you can see, it's quite a mixed bag of save chances above. Don't invest in anyone too highly.
What's the floor and ceiling of prospect George Springer in 2014? Springer is one of the most anticipated arrivals in the fantasy baseball world, headed for the Astros' outfield (likely right field). Ideally, his near 40-40 ability in the minors will translate to near 40-40 ability in the majors, but considering there have been just seven 30-30 seasons in the past five years, we'll all be happy if Springer posts just that.
Baseball America rates the 6-foot-3, outfielder as the 18th-best prospect in 2014, which happens to be 11 spots behind SS Carlos Correa, who is still a couple years away from pushing Villar out of a job. As BA mentions, Springer's arrival could also be delayed in order to delay his major-league service clock for an extra year. This makes sense considering the Astros are nowhere near contending. So why not save for the future?
So if we're looking at four months of production from Springer, what's the best to hope for?
Springer's ceiling, if he's able to wait on pitches and dial back his strikeout rate, is a 18-home run hitter, with 60 RBI, 25 steals and a batting average closer to .275 than .295. That makes him an OF4 if that was over a full season. But since we're looking at this like it's a four-month season for him, that makes him an OF3 or higher, really. Why higher? Because you're adding his four-months of stats to the stats of whichever player you're using in his slot until he arrives.
That's a lot of ifs, though.
His floor, if we're still looking at a four-month rookie season, is that he hits .235, with a lot of strikeouts, a 10-12 homers and 40-50 RBI. That makes him a late pick or waiver-wire pickup as an OF5 with two-homers-in-a-game upside, which also makes him a cheap daily fantasy option with good matchups.
Matt Dominguez, 3B -- Much like you'll see with Chris Carter, Dominguez offers a big bat at a corner position, but he hasn't yet learned patience at the plate. A good spring and a solid start to the season could move him up in the batting order, which would certainly help his RBI opportunities. For now, it's all about upside for a guy you can draft in the final round. A hot start makes you look like a brainiac, whereas a slow April makes him an easy cut to shrug off.
Jason Castro, C -- Normally, I'm a huge fan of 27-year-old catchers, but considering Castro has really just one season of good stats (as a starter), it's tough to rank him in the top 12 at his position. His peripherals indicate that he'll be successful hitting in the three-spot, but there are several good catchers among the top 10-20 that have more consistent backgrounds at the plate. The Astros also have a thumper of a catching prospect behind Castro in Max Stassi, but he won't leapfrog Castro until he proves he can stay healthy.
Chris Carter, 1B/OF -- In his age-27 season, Carter has a chance to follow up his first full season as a starter in the majors in Houston, with another power-heavy year where he takes some steps forward in patience at the plate. Doing the math, he smashed 16 homers in just 67 games for Oakland in 2012, then he slammed 29 homers out in 148 games last season. As this lineup develops, Carter will have more RBI opportunities, but he'll have to pull back his majors-leading 212 strikeouts if he's going to make the climb from "corner infielder you like but don't love" to a fantasy first baseman you got on the cheap.
AL-only guys to know
Scott Feldman, SP -- Outside of pitching on a team with a bad offense and an unnamed closer, Feldman isn't too bad of a late-round pick in mixed leagues to help stabilize your ERA and WHIP. But really, you usually want a guy with wins upside, whereas Feldman's best attribute these days might be his ability to chew up innings.
Jonathan Singleton, 1B -- A former top prospect, Singleton will have to put last year's drug suspension behind him, as he works to make the team out of spring training. He'll most likely end up at Triple-A Oklahoma City to start the season, but know that he ranked near the top with Correa and Springer just one year ago.