Not only did the Astros post a losing record last year, but their fifth-place finish was their worst since 1991, when they played in the NL West and had a rookie named Jeff Bagwell starting at first base.
The performance left them reeling for answers. They fired manager Cecil Cooper and replaced him with Brad Mills. They also returned to a defense-first mentality at shortstop, allowing Miguel Tejada to walk and handing the starting job over to rookie Tommy Manzella, whose primary contribution in Fantasy will be his impact on the pitching staff.
Unfortunately, the rest of the personnel remains more or less the same. The Astros brought in Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon to compete for the closer role, but either would be a clear downgrade from two-time NL saves leader Jose Valverde. Brett Myers signed a one-year deal after spending eight more or less disappointing seasons in Philadelphia, which only adds more uncertainty to a starting rotation headed by Roy Oswalt, who has an inoperable bulging disk, and Wandy Rodriguez, whose breakthrough at age 30 might go down as a career performance. Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino both have upside at the back end of the rotation, but neither has performed with the consistency necessary for Fantasy use. Together, the five give Fantasy owners plenty of sleepers for the middle-to-late rounds, but not much certainty.
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Of course, the state of the Astros' pitching staff won't mean anything if the team can't generate enough offense, and with Manzella, Kazuo Matsui and Pedro Feliz all offering below-average production at their respective positions, that offense will have to come from aging veterans Lance Berkman and Carlos N. Lee. Without a big step forward from fourth-year outfielder Hunter Pence, the Astros likely won't score the runs they need to get back in the race. And with most of their prospects still in the low minors, they'll need some time to reverse the slide.
Breakout: Bud Norris, SP
With only 55 2/3 innings under his belt, Norris doesn't fit the mold of most breakthrough candidates in these team outlooks, which underscores how far behind the rest of the pack the Astros have fallen in terms of player development. But the 25-year-old right-hander showed enough improvement over 10 starts last year to at least enter the discussion in mixed leagues. He rebounded from a rocky start to post a 1.57 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over four September starts, recording 24 strikeouts in 23 innings. His shaky command might prevent him from making a real impact in Fantasy, which is why he'll go undrafted in most leagues, but his strikeout potential makes him worth watching right out of the gate. If he picks up where he left off last September, you'll want to pick him up off the waiver wire.
Bust: Hunter Pence, OF
As one of the few Astros hitters with upside, Pence seems like an odd choice as a bust candidate. But perception is nine-tenths of the law in Fantasy, and the perception on Pence gives him more credit than he deserves. Yes, he made his first All-Star team last year, and yes, he slightly improved his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. But some publications give the impression he made miles and miles of progress last year, and that's simply not true. In fact, he actually regressed in the second half, walking less, striking out more and posting a mediocre .792 OPS. His 27 years of age is the only indication he's on the verge of a breakthrough, and that's not reason enough to pass on players like Carlos Quentin, Jason Kubel and Johnny Damon for him.
Sleeper: Roy Oswalt, SP
Long considered a Fantasy ace, Oswalt has occasionally slid to the late rounds in early mock drafts after a bulging disk sidelined him for the final two weeks last year. Surgery isn't an option because it could cause him to lose feeling in his left leg -- a frightening possibility that perhaps has Fantasy owners overestimating the severity of the injury. Oswalt has pitched with it for three years now and would have continued to pitch last year if the Astros hadn't fallen out of the race. The only new development from the previous two years was his high ERA, which likely had as much to do with his participation in the World Baseball Classic as anything else. You won't slip Oswalt's name past anybody on Draft Day, making him not a sleeper in its purest form, but he's a prime candidate to outperform his draft position if owners continue to run scared.
| ||Pos.|| |
|1||Michael Bourn||CF||1||Roy Oswalt||RH|
|2||Kazuo Matsui||2B||2||Wandy Rodriguez||LH|
|3||Lance Berkman||1B||3||Brett Myers||RH|
|4||Carlos N. Lee||LF||4||Bud Norris||RH|
|5||Hunter Pence||RF||5||Felipe Paulino||RH|
|6||Pedro Feliz||3B||Alt||Brian Moehler||RH|
|7||J.R. Towles||C||Top bullpen arms|
|8||Tommy Manzella||SS||CL||Matt Lindstrom||RH|
|Top bench options||SU||Brandon Lyon||RH|
|R||Jeff Keppinger||INF||RP||Jeff Fulchino||RH|
|R||Geoff Blum||3B||RP||Tim Byrdak||LH|
|R||Jason Michaels||OF||RP||Sammy Gervacio||RH|
|A well-rounded hitter, but not much of a slugger. Has distant shot at winning job this spring.|
|2||Jordan Lyles||19||SP||Class A||Double-A|
|Still some question marks, but dominated last year. Could rise quickly if it becomes a trend.|
|3||Jiovanni Mier||19||SS||Rookie league||Class A|
|Still a long way to go, but projects as future All-Star. Probably not a big power guy, though.|
|Middle relievers rarely appear on this list, but Gervacio has stuff to close if Lindstrom falters.|
|5||Jon Gaston||23||OF||Class A||Double-A|
|Among leaders with 35 homers, but played in hitter's park. Move to Double-A could expose him.|
|Best of the rest: Ross Seaton, SP; Collin DeLome, OF; Chris Johnson, 3B; Andrew Locke, OF; Polin Trinidad, SP; Brian Bogusevic, OF; Jay Austin, OF; Sergio Perez, SP; Tommy Manzella, SS; Brad James, SP; Tanner Bushue, SP; Jose Vallejo, SS; Gilbert De La Vara, RP; T.J. Steele, OF; and Chia-Jen Lo, RP.|
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