KFFL answers important fantasy baseball questions about each Major League Baseball team as spring training approaches. What must fantasy baseball players know about the Houston Astros?
How will Houston's move to the Junior Circuit affect fantasy play?
Welcome to the AL
In terms of player performance, the only likely change is that AL West teams, and not NL Central teams, get to beat up on the Astros a little more often each year. Houston's new division can now count two hitter-friendly yards, with the addition of Minute Maid Park, among its regular stops; The Ballpark in Arlington is no longer alone in a sea of very pitcher-friendly venues.
Naturally, the balancing of the number of teams in each league alters the player pools of AL- and NL-only leagues in equal and opposite ways. This development creates the chief issue that might be facing roto, head-to-head and any other type of league that operates with a single player universe.
Your league should have begun preparations when the then-pending move was announced prior to last season, but if not, all isn't lost. Commissioners of AL leagues are likely better off not adjusting the size of rosters in this first year - unless their current construction was already a source of imbalance - and assessing after the 2013 season. Overseers of NL setups may consider subtracting a roster spot, likelier a pitcher's, if they choose to modify at all.
Administrators are probably better off improving prospects in the player pool by a miniscule margin rather than stretching the resources further and risking total disparity in what they simply must accept as a transition year.
Where will Jose Altuve rank in the 2013 2B annals?
Undoubtedly, the safest roto commodity in Houston is the club's diminutive second baseman who batted .290 with seven home runs and 33 stolen bases in 2012. Managers of fake teams will most likely be all-in on him as a reliable mid-tier option at the position.
And, undoubtedly, he has an excellent chance to finish as a similarly ranked player, perhaps in the top 100 overall again. His contact rate of roughly 90 percent, his ability to spray ropes to all fields and his speed make him a safe investment.
But, although Altuve will be only 23 in May, it's extremely likely that moderately improving his skill set has already taken him pretty close to his greatest heights possible - no pun intended. Statistically, Altuve's upside is extremely limited because of lack of projectable power (15-homer seasons unlikely) and his aversion to drawing free passes (opportunities for 50-steal campaigns also out). What you see is what you get, which isn't bad. A number of players who could easily turn a significant profit will be available at the position, too, though.
What will the Astros do at first base?
Singleton in the wings
The organization signed Carlos Pena to be its designated hitter, primarily, but it wouldn't be a surprise if the still-somewhat-sure-handed mitt man logged more time at the cold corner. Ultimately, though, Houston would probably prefer to determine if Brett Wallace is a long-term solution at the position (or somewhat viable trade bait). He's improved a little, but he's still a butcher and likelier to be a DH if he sticks around.
The club also selected Nate Freiman from the San Diego Padres in the Rule 5 Draft. The 6-foot-7, 225-pounder is expected to platoon at first base and DH against southpaws, against whom he's been extremely successful. The 26-year-old hasn't played above Double-A ball, where he spent 2012 (and hit .298 with 24 home runs in 516 at-bats for San Antonio), so his presence is almost assuredly tied to the potential statistical advantage he'd provide.
All parties are keeping the seat warm for Jonathan Singleton, perhaps the best position prospect in the team's system. Freiman must remain on the major league roster all season if Houston is to keep him, it should be noted, and Pena and Wallace may prove to be ... something like adequate. Wallace also demonstrated real positives last season in the bigs, so he could be a nice AL-only play. If the Astros become discontent with their troika by August, however, they could look to jettison one or more of them and promote the alluring Singleton, who has yet to log an at-bat at the Class AAA level.
Who will close for this club?
The Astros entered the offseason in need of (if that's how they want to look at it) a setup man as well as a closer. A favorite for one of those roles is the man they reportedly targeted all along with the first overall pick of the Rule 5 Draft, which kind of sums up their bullpen situation.
Joshua Fields, 27, was a second-round pick in 2007 (but didn't sign) and went 20th overall in 2008. The power-armed right-hander was pretty much a bust until late in 2011, when he began to improve his control. He enjoyed a fine 2012 in the Boston Red Sox's system, and it's surprising that he didn't receive a call-up considering the parent team's problems in the bullpen.
Houston signed veteran righty Jose Veras to fill the role, but really, he's a tertiary fallback plan for most other clubs. A franchise with both eyes on the future would almost certainly be thrilled to see Fields, fellow hard-throwing right-hander Rhiner Cruz or both step up and claim backend jobs.
It's unwise to write off any situation as one devoid of fantasy hope. Fields and Cruz beg for an end-game call, maybe even more for the former. But the Astros generated a meager 31 saves, more than only two other clubs, in 2012. A dark-horse candidate, like lefty Wesley Wright or reclamation project Sam Demel, may emerge to thieve a couple of closures. If you try to squeeze blood from these turnips, you'll probably just end up bloody.
Minnix is baseball editor and a fantasy football analyst at KFFL. He plays in LABR and Tout Wars and won the FSWA Baseball Industry Insiders League in 2010.
The University of Delaware alum is a regular guest on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and Baltimore's WNST AM 1570.