Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
Following a clubhouse coup that forced the dismissal of manager Larry Dierker, Houston hired Jimy Williams, effectively negating their impressive farm system with a manager that systematically plays veterans over youngsters. Somehow they still only missed the playoffs due to the injury problems suffered by Jeff Bagwell and a couple of pitchers. Lance Berkman continues developing into one of the best switch-hitting bashers in the game, however Richard Hidalgo and Daryle Ward failed to approach their potential. Only the incredible combination of two young aces(Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt) and the best late inning due in the game(Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel) allowed them to remain competitive. With Craig Biggio and Bagwell both continuing to slow, as well as the need for long-term deals for Miller and Oswalt in the near future, Houston faces some tough decisions in the near future if owner Drayton McLane continues refusing to significantly expand the payroll to accommodate their homegrown players.
Fortunately they may own the deepest farm system in the game. Nearly every pitcher at each of their full-season teams exhibited solid command, with most also displaying good dominance, and they possess a competent major leaguer, good back-up, and at least a decent prospect at nearly every position. However they also possess one of the weirdest systems. They were among the first teams to embrace draft-and-follows, and Houston's on a short list of teams regularly willing to draft and develop right-handers under six feet tall. The Astros were also the only franchise without a A+ affiliate, so prospect went to either Michigan in the Midwest League or Lexington in the Sally League, and then they jumped straight to Round Rock, perhaps the best hitters' park in the minors. While they've rectified this situation for 2003 by transferring their affiliation with Michigan to Salem in the Carolina League, the lack of A+ competition makes it nearly impossible to accurately evaluate the younger pitchers.
Offensively, Houston appears likely to return most of their starters next year. Bagwell, Biggio, and Berkman will likely anchor the right side of the field, and Brad Ausmus and Greg Zaun will play behind the plate with prospect John Buck likely ready in 2004. The other four positions are more complex. Houston's indicated they want a true centerfielder, allowing them to leave Berkman in right, which essentially leaves Richard Hidalgo, Daryle Ward, and Jason Lane competing for one slot, and all of them deserve regular playing time next year. I suspect they'll look to trade Hidalgo for a veteran pitcher, perhaps even Mike Hampton, allowing either Lane or Berkman to man center while they try to let Ward rebound. The left side of the infield appears likely to feature Jose Vizcaino and Geoff Blum again, though Julio Lugo could easily return following his season-ending injury to reclaim the shortstop job. Morgan Ensberg appears stuck in limbo since he's certainly ready for the majors but the Astros show no willingness to play him, so hopefully they'll deal him to a team desperate for a third baseman, perhaps involving him in a Colorado deal.
Miller, Oswalt, Kirk Saarloos, and Carlos Hernandez give them an extremely young and talented rotation. If they don't find a veteran, they'll let Jeriome Robertson, Tim Redding, and perhaps Brad Lidge compete for starts, however I'd like to see them either let Robertson start or add a veteran. Houston possesses one of the deepest collections of relief prospects in baseball, so they don't need to consider adding any veterans. Ricky Stone proved himself as a very competent middle reliever, and Brad Lidge, while essentially ready for the majors, is too much of a health risk to start. Nelson Cruz and Brandon Puffer could return to complete the pen, however I'd like to see Redding and perhaps Robertson complete the relief corps; Robertson gives them a second lefty, and Lidge, Robertson, and Redding give them three excellent long relievers. Most of their other pitchers seem about a year away, so re-signing a couple of the decent minor league free agents would make sense.
With their current roster and ability to deal prospects for any needed major league help, Houston seems likely to remain in competition for the playoffs for the next few years. Only severe injuries to Miller and Oswalt could prevent them from continuing to post winning seasons. With Buck and Chris Burke waiting to replace Ausmus and Biggio in a couple years, and assuming someone can convince Williams to let Lugo and Ensberg start, they shouldn't need to acquire any position players from outside the organization over the next few seasons. Even their bench remains rather impressive with a deep assortment of overpaid role players, but I don't believe Houston can win the NL Central as long as Williams plays his reserves while sitting superior offensive players. They can still play deep into October as a Wild Card, however the repeated playoff failures of Bagwell and Biggio suggest that these two historically great Houston veterans won't win a World Series if they stay with the Astros.
Jason Lane, 25, OF-R
While Lane's plate discipline continued to deteriorate at AAA, he provided Houston with helpful production in a limited role. I don't see any indication that he's ready to repeat his inflated .316-38-124-14-103 numbers from 2001 AA Round Rock any time soon, although he may further develop his offense with another year of AAA time. He's prepared to contribute in Houston if given the opportunity, however I don't expect him to earn more than about $15 in 2002 even assuming he starts.
Jason Alfaro, 24, 3B-R
If Jimy Williams succeeds in driving Morgan Ensberg out of the organization, perhaps Alfaro will receive a shot at the third base job. While he repeated AA this year, he also played in about 50% more games, and all his qualitative numbers improved. He demonstrated good plate discipline, patience, and even posted the best averages of his career. Of course playing in Round Rock gives any hitter a significant advantage, but Alfaro looks capable of developing into a competent major leaguer give his skill improvement. He's not a draft target, although he could help as mid-season roster filler if he's promoted to Houston.
Eric Bruntlett, 24, 2B/SS-R
A ninth round pick in 2000 out of Stanford, Houston jumped from the Appalachian League to Round Rock in 2001. He managed a decent .266/.340/.342, even receiving a September promotion to New Orleans, however other than displaying better speed, he posted almost identical numbers this year. I'm not sure if he can contribute in the majors, but his position flexibility gives him an intriguing future as a speedy utility infielder. Bruntlett could help some teams if promoted to the majors in 2003, although I don't expect him to make a significant impact at least for another few years.
Kyle Logan, 27, OF-L
I don't expect Logan to emerge as anything more than a fifth outfielder given his limited offensive capabilities, but he managed to post relatively similar stats in 2002 to his .314/.369/.492 line at AA Round Rock in 2001. While his poor plate discipline makes him a risky roto gamble, if he's promoted for someone like Brian L. Hunter next year and you need speed, consider spending a buck or two to secure his services.
Dave Matranga, 25, 2B-R
He only committed six errors in 81 games in the middle infield, and since he offers a little power and speed, most teams would give him a chance to compete for a job in Spring Training. Instead the Astros re-signed Orlando Merced and Jose Vizcaino, and might even keep Mark Loretta to keep their bench loaded with veterans. Matranga doesn't offer any specific category help, but he's a capable middle infielder who shouldn't hurt you if you need to roster him upon his eventual promotion.
Colin Porter, 26, OF-L
Porter offers a meager overall offensive contribution, but his speed and acceptable walk rate could make him a useful bench player. Like Zephyrs' teammate Kyle Logan, he's essentially prepared to be a fifth outfielder in the majors right now. Whenever you hear Astros' owner Drayton McLane using an inflated payroll as an excuse not to keep a homegrown stud or add midseason help, remember that Houston gave Brian L. Hunter $2.2M over two years when both Porter and Logan were capable of providing the same skills for a third of that price.
Henri Stanley, 24, OF-L
Houston signed the 5'10" Stanley out of Clemson as an undrafted free agent in 2000. He didn't impress in his first 165 at-bats at Rookie ball, but he dominated the Midwest League in 2001, compiling a .300-14-76-30-75 stat line, along with a more impressive .408 OBP and .525 SLG. Aside from a decrease in steals, Stanley basically repeated that line while skipping A+. While he obviously benefited from Round Rock's advantages, his very good plate discipline also insures him more widespread consideration as a prospect next spring. The depth of the Astros' major league outfield makes him a poor draft choice, however he deserves a chance to play in the majors. If Houston can't find room to protect him on the 40-man roster, Stanley merits selection as a Rule 5 pick both for his long-term upside and immediate qualifications as a backup; he wouldn't hurt you for a couple bucks at the draft.
J.D. Arteaga, 28, LH Swingman
Arteaga didn't suffer from any home run problem until Houston began using him more as a starter instead of letting him settle into a left-handed middle relief role. After joining the Astros last season from the Mets, he compiled a relatively solid 90:27 K:BB in 139 AAA innings, so his struggles this year definitely surprise me. He seems to own sufficient skills to merit consideration as bullpen filler, but Houston's great pitching depth likely limits him to AAA until he leaves the organization.
Kirk Bullinger, 32, RH Reliever
Bullinger's pitched for seven different franchises in his 11-year career, only reaching the majors for a total of 12.1 innings between three different teams. He's even averaged three different teams a year for the previous six seasons, so spending all year in New Orleans is an impressive accomplishment for someone with his history. Perhaps he'll finally get a chance to break camp with some club next spring after compiling these solid stats, however his lack of dominance limits his upside. I don't expect he'd hurt a fantasy team, but make sure he's in a stable role and demonstrating good skills before rostering him.
Mark Guerra, 30, RH Starter
Houston added Guerra following his release from the Mets in mid-2000, and he's displayed excellent command over the past two-and-a-half years since returning to a rotation spot. As he's now re-signed with the Astros in each of the last two seasons, I won't be surprised if he remains in the Zephyrs' rotation for another season. He's a dependable AAAA starter that doesn't appear to possess the dominance necessary to remain effective in the majors, so unless he's willing to convert to middle relief in 2003, I don't expect he'll see more than a cup-of-coffee or two.
Brad Lidge, 25, RH Swingman
The 17th overall pick in the 1998 draft out of Notre Dame, Lidge more than doubled his career innings pitched total this year. He'd missed most of the last three seasons while compiling a 4-3 professional record - four wins and three surgeries. While he demonstrated excellent skills in the minors this season and deserves to spend 2003 in Houston, I'd let him spend a couple of years dominating out of the bullpen. A Lidge-Dotel-Wagner combination could allow the Astros' young starters to only pitch six innings or less if necessary, and he's a great Dollar Days target next spring, even if Houston lets him win a rotation spot.
Chad Qualls, 24, RH Starter
A second round pick in 2000 out of the University of Nevada, Qualls debuted in 2001 at A Michigan with a very impressive 15-6 record and 3.72 ERA on 125:31 K:BB in 162 IP over 26 GS with 149 hits and 8 homer allowed. After his rather stunning performance in 2002, Qualls now seems likely to jump to a high place in most lists of Astros' prospects. He demonstrated more dominance while jumping past A+ into a fantastic hitters' park. Brad Lidge and Jeriome Robertson are both closer to contributing in the majors, but Qualls' skills merit a AAA spot and probable mid-season promotion as he seems more likely to emerge as a top starter given his track record of both skill and health. He's an acceptable draft pick, however you can probably wait until he reaches the majors to pick him up as I doubt he'll receive much mainstream media attention due to his subjectively poor record and ERA.
Santiago Ramirez, 24, RH Reliever
Ramirez should go high in the Rule 5 draft if he's not protected, since while he probably needs more than 21 innings at AAA, he's likely only a season away from emerging as a dominant reliever. He's averaged a 9.2 K/9 since reaching A-ball in 2000, and he shows little indication of developing the longball problems that can plague Astros' pitchers at Minute Maid. Assuming he continues displaying excellent skills when he returns to AAA next spring, he'll merit fantasy consideration upon his pending promotion to Houston.
Jeriome Robertson, 25, LH Starter
He received practically no consideration as a prospect following a 2001 that he spent entirely in relief at AA Round Rock. Robertson returned to starting after his promotion and earned recognition as the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year. Unfortunately he's never dominated hitters even when starting in A-ball, and his strikeout rate has decreased after each promotion. I don't believe he'd hurt you as an inexpensive fifth starter, but he offers much more upside as a top left-handed middle reliever unless he develops a specific strikeout pitch.
Tom Shearn, 25, RH Reliever
Shearn emerged as an impressive relief prospect upon his 2001 conversion to the bullpen while repeating AA at Round Rock. Although he couldn't maintain an 11.1 strikeout rate after reaching New Orleans, his overall skill set strongly merits consideration for a job in Houston next spring. A 4.4 BB/9 suggests you should wait until he demonstrates equally solid skills with the Astros before rostering him, however he could easily emerge as a quality fantasy option, likely displaying more dominance than relievers higher on the depth chart like Ricky Stone and Brandon Puffer.
John Buck, 22, C-R
He's solid defensively and gives the Astros a great replacement for Ausmus in the near future, however I'd even send him back to AA for another couple of months, so I don't expect him in the majors before September. Houston traditionally keeps a decent backup at AAA, using Raul Chavez the last few years, and he's probably a better option than Buck for 2003. Of course, since the trade of Garrett Gentry leaves Buck with practically no competition in the Houston system to replace Ausmus, I'll be shocked if he's not the Opening Day starter in 2004. Definitely look to add Buck if you want a decent catcher, since while I don't expect much offense from him in his first season, his minor league numbers indicate a lot of upside.
Chris Burke, 22, 2B/SS-R
A .300-3-17-21-47 line in 233 at-bats at A Michigan in 2001 indicated he deserved a promotion, and the lack of a A+ affiliate forced the Astros to send him to AA in only his first full professional season. The 10th overall player selected in the 2001 draft, Burke committed 23 errors while playing 94 games at second and 43 games at shortstop this year. Normal development patterns indicate he needs another half-season of AA time to consolidate his skills after skipping a level, although I have a feeling Houston might promote him anyway with the intention of replacing Biggio in the starting lineup in 2004. Burke's not ready for AAA, and he will struggle if not given more time at lower levels, however the combination of his SB upside and the expectation he'll play several seasons in Minute Maid raise his fantasy value above what we'd normally expect. I wouldn't select him before Buck, but Burke is another excellent draft pick who can either help you at a weak position in a year or two or provide help elsewhere as attractive trade bait.
Anthony Acevedo, 24, A Lexington(Sal) OF-L
Travis Anderson, 24, A Lexington(Sal) RH Reliever
1. Minnesota Twins(M.Cuddyer, M.Restovich, T.Sears, L.Ford, J.Mauer, J.Morneau)
6:30: Anaheim@San Francisco
We've predicted Frisco over Anaheim in seven since the end of the Division Series, and I see no reason to change that prediction now. I finally scored with last night's win, so now we'll see if Bonds atones for his strikeout and fielding miscues from Saturday or if Troy Glaus steals Bonds' World Series MVP.
Like every other Game Seven, anyone reading this page must watch it, preferably along with everyone they've ever met.
Oh, and as long as you don't live in of those weird places that doesn't observe Daylight Saving Time, including Arizona, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and part of Indiana, set your clocks back an hour if you forgot.
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