Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
Milwaukee ended the Astros' playoff expectations by winning the final series of the year in Houston. Although the team suffered from injuries for much of the year, the dual forces of an impressive offense and dynamic short relief largely offset the loss of ace Roy Oswalt to multiple DL trips. Houston probably should have won the NL Central, but Drayton McLane's tightfisted ownership kept GM Gerry Hunsicker from adding the starting pitcher the Astros desperately needed. Even though a couple of home playoff games would have offset the cost of keeping Shane Reynolds or acquiring someone like Pat Hentgen, McLane's penny-wise, pound-foolish attitude brought the Bagwell/Biggio Astros one year closer to rebuilding.
The bigger problem for Houston is that Roy Oswalt's injury might limit his effectiveness for years. His skills still compare favorably to almost any starter in the game, yet Oswalt currently appears as fragile as Pedro. Counting on him for more than 30 starts and maybe 200 innings is unwise. Wade Miller also isn't particularly durable, and as Tim Redding, Jeriome Robertson, and Kirk Saarloos look like rotation filler more than developing aces, the Astros must add at least one veteran starter.
Both Hunsicker and manager Jimy Williams received extensions, however Williams effectively ran the bullpen into the ground during the first half thanks to the lack of a set long reliever and every starter lacking either durability or consistent effectiveness. Although Billy Wagner, Octavio Dotel, and Brad Lidge emerged as the best 7-8-9 combo in the game, Houston unfortunately appears likely to move Wagner or Dotel to free money for a starting pitcher, preferably Texas native Andy Pettitte. At least Ricky Stone and Mike Gallo are decent middle relievers, and I see a few rising relief prospects here, but the Astros appear increasingly likely to need unlikely seasons from their aging position players to make the playoffs in 2004.
Of course, Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg both are stud hitters only entering their primes, Bagwell and Kent are solid aging veterans, and Craig Biggio nicely adapted to center field. Adam Everett also demonstrated surprising improvement, and although his offensive ability continues to diminish, Brad Ausmus at least plays decent defense. The downside here is that Richard Hidalgo provided as much offense as anyone on the team, yet Houston desperately wants to move his contract to open money for pitching. While losing Hidalgo actually wouldn't be a tremendous blow since Jason Lane deserves an everyday job, considering I only expect the Astros to receive replacement-level production at best from catcher, shortstop, and center field, losing a primary power bat will cost the team another couple of games.
Without tremendous upper level talent ready to step into the lineup, and with an aging cast of position players and several health questions on the pitching staff, the Astros will struggle to remain one of the NL's elite teams barring an extremely productive off-season. Unless McLane unexpectedly boosts the payroll for 2004, I don't envision Houston bringing back the talent necessary to win more than 85 games, likely leaving them behind the Cubs and Cardinals, not to mention on the edge of falling to the back of the pack unless several low-level prospects develop rapidly.
Jason Lane, 26, OF-R
If Houston deals Richard Hidalgo, Lane could run away with the NL Rookie of the Year award. His .43 career ground-fly ratio indicates immense power potential, and playing in Minute Maid only will add to his natural juice. He should recover fully from hernia surgery by spring training, so even if he enters next season as a fourth outfielder, he could emerge as quickly as Morgan Ensberg matured this season. Target Lane in every league since he almost qualifies as a post-hype sleeper due to Houston holding him back for the last couple of seasons.
Acevedo adapted nicely to Round Rock despite skipping high-A, and his solid plate patience should combine with developing power and decent speed to make him an option for Houston by the second half of 2004. Of course, his limited upside likely means he won't receive an extended shot at starting in the majors, but the Astros at least appear willing to employ rookie replacements as injury filler during the season. If he echoes these numbers at AAA New Orleans, consider adding Acevedo if he impresses upon his eventual promotion to the majors.
After an excellent AA season during which he compiled a .314/.393/.508 with a 50:75 BB:K in 455 at-bats, Alfaro nicely adapted to New Orleans once the Astros needed to promote him to replace Adam Everett. His relatively strong AAA performance should earn him an NRI as a minor league free agent, especially since he appears capable of fielding any position on the left side of the field. Although Alfaro offers relatively little upside to fantasy owners due to his lack of speed and likely peak value as a light-hitting reserve infielder, he also shouldn't hurt you as roster filler once he secures a regular role in the majors.
While a broken right hand cut his season in half, little in 2003 went right for Buck offensively. His strikeout rate climbed as his walk rate dropped, and moving from AA Round Rock to New Orleans eliminated much of his power. Perhaps Buck will mature into a reliable starter, however with the Astros' apparently infatuated with Brad Ausmus and Hector Gimenez only a few years away, I see little reason to invest in Buck right now despite his somewhat intriguing long-term upside.
A minor league free agent yet again but still a rookie, Bullinger needs to find a team desperate enough for solid relief work that they'll give the veteran a fair chance to win a roster spot in spring training. He isn't a dominant pitcher, but his consistently excellent control should earn him more consideration he apparently receives. While I still believe he should emerge as a solid fantasy option for a few years, he turns 35 next September and needs an unlikely break soon to fulfill those expectations.
Burke's lack of power grew particularly evident during his second season at Round Rock, a necessary step as he skipped high-A since Houston lacked an affiliate at that level. However he demonstrated significantly improved speed while thoroughly refining his plate discipline. After spending the last couple months with Team USA, he looks completely prepared for a promotion even if his SLG remained under .400. Burke remains the likely replacement for Jeff Kent at second base, as well as Craig Biggio on top of Houston's lineup. He looks like an excellent pick for anyone looking for a disciplined speedster to anchor their middle infield for the second half of the decade.
We almost grabbed Houlton during the season in a sim league due to his intriguingly effective performance at Round Rock, a remarkable achievement since he skipped high-A on merit this year. Of course, his struggles at New Orleans make us glad we waited since his prospect star doesn't seem quite as bright right now. Houlton still owns great command and should develop into a fine starter, however I don't view him as a more than fantasy roster filler right now since he likely could use another few months of minor league seasoning.
Disappearing power potential and position flexibility suggest Huffman soon will earn the AAAA player label and then never progress beyond that limited definition of his skills. Unless his decent plate discipline and latent tools can keep his batting average over .300, he may not ever receive more than a couple of cups-of-coffee in the majors, so he certainly isn't a viable fantasy option.
While Logan owns sufficient skills to remain in the upper minors, meager plate discipline and limited upside indicate a player who barely merits regular AAA at-bats. Don't expect him in the majors any time soon.
Despite decent patience, Matranga's history suggests little fantasy upside in any category. I see no evidence that he'll emerge as more than an acceptable defensive replacement in the majors.
While he effectively demolished PCL pitching in his third tour at New Orleans, nothing here suggests much upside other than his speed. A .06 BB:K in the majors, even in this small a sample size, is a horrible mark, yet in line with the trend he established in the minors. Considering Porter's lack of plate discipline, he likely won't maintain his power production even in more playing time in the majors. Of course, his combination of speed and limited patience makes him the perfect fifth outfielder for Houston given their recent reserves, and if he breaks camp in the majors, wager a buck or two if you're desperate for steals late in the draft.
Anyone who remains reasonably effective at Round Rock despite weak dominance intrigues me as a prospect, and considering Powell's great control, I expect him to remain successful at AAA New Orleans next season. A strong AFL showing thus far should insure Houston continues moving him towards the majors. Unfortunately, his likely eventual move to the bullpen gives him little value until he reaches the majors, however you also shouldn't forget about Powell since he could contribute to fantasy teams almost as soon as he debuts.
In 2002, Qualls compiled a 6-13 record and a 4.36 ERA on a 142:67 K:BB in 163 IP with 174 H and 9 HR at AA Round Rock, so 2003 qualifies as an essentially wasted year for him. I know he skipped high-A last season due to the Astros' lack of an affiliate at that level, yet Qualls' 2002 performance suggested the potential for succeeding at AAA New Orleans this year. The obviously don't view him as a great prospect since Houston didn't even give him a mid-season promotion, so if his current organization doesn't like him, you have no reason to target him in fantasy leagues despite his respectable upside.
Although Rosario remains a decent long-term prospect, he required major shoulder surgery in August and likely will miss all of 2004. Given the Astros' decent pitching depth and his limited immediate upside, he merits no consideration in fantasy leagues next spring.
Given Saladin's .3 career homer rate and reasonably good command, he could snag a big league bullpen job as soon as next spring. His somewhat limited upside could keep him in the minors for a few more years, and I wouldn't target him for fantasy teams until he demonstrates he can maintain his skills in the majors, but Saladin should enjoy a decent relief career.
Converted to starting this season, Sessions posted the best overall performance of his career as he suddenly appears ready to contribute in the majors. I suspect Houston will send him back to New Orleans to begin next year, but if he can echo these numbers, he could join the Astros by mid-season in almost any role. However, given his questionable skill history, don't target him until he demonstrates this level of skill in the majors.
We questioned the promotion of Colin Porter over the more disciplined Stanley during the season, and Stanley's lack of a September call-up suggests Houston doesn't view him as an asset in the majors. Of course, considering he posted a .314/.408/.542 season at Round Rock(TL) last year, an improvement in a similar performance at Michigan(Mid) in 2001, we see no reason Stanley can't develop into a reliable starter. He should emerge as no less than a very solid reserve outfielder by 2005, and if given the necessary opportunity next season, he could help almost any team. As soon as he secures a big league roster spot, consider Stanley for your team since he offers $20 potential without any significant downside.
Aside from players listed above, no other Houston prospect deserves consideration in 2004 fantasy drafts.
Only the presence of the ready-for-prime-time Jason Lane elevates this system above the lowest levels of the majors. While Chris Burke should displace Jeff Kent in 2005, I see no one else likely to contribute as more than backup over the next year or two, and the established organizational preference for veteran backups limits the available opportunities for some of the borderline Houston prospects. Despite the upside of hitting prospects heading to Minute Maid, they Astros' lineup already appears quite full since Bagwell, Berkman, Ensberg, and even Adam Everett appear rooted in place. With Lane, Burke, and perhaps Buck set to join them soon, and a pitching staff that looks somewhat crowded after the Wagner trade, Houston is not a good place to look for any obvious prospect depth.
Current ranking of potentially helpful fantasy depth for teams discussed thus far in 2003, based on both the quality and quantity of players ready to contribute in the majors, as well as consideration of the trade value of minor league draft picks from the lower levels of each system:
1. Minnesota Twins(Restovich, Mauer, Crain, Balfour, Bartlett)
1. Jason Lane, OF
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