Last week the idea of a new and scary world was brought up—one in which the Pirates and their players are relevant in fantasy baseball. They have been at or near the very bottom of the pile in that context for years, to the point where it was a given they were the most bereft of fantasy utility. Now that they have started to climb the ladder though, who will take their place?
Thanks to a farm system that's empty up top, a few trades that moved fantasy staples off the roster, and a roster that's missing much of anything in the way of impact players, the new bottom feeder is the Houston Astros. While they do still have Wandy Rodriguez and Hunter Pence, the pickings are slim after that. There's some hope in the form of a few players that may keep them out of this position, but there are no guarantees for success.
Rodriguez has often been considered an excellent pitcher for fantasy purposes, as he's perpetually underrated. While he began the year slow, he's increased his strikeout rate as the season has gone on and is back to where he was expected to be performance wise—an ERA of 4.00, 7.7 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 on the year are impressive when you consider that prior to the All-Star break he was at a 4.97 ERA with 6.8 whiffs per nine. His SIERA is at 3.77 now, which isn't that much higher than his 2009 SIERA of 3.50, so it's safe to say he's back and is worth paying attention to in 2011 as well.
Pence has also seen his production come on strong after the break, following a slow start. Whereas he was hitting .263/.316/.427 in 323 at-bats prior to the break, he's brought his line up to a much more Pence-like .283/.325/.469 thanks to a strong start to the second half (a 909 OPS over 144 at-bats, fueled only partially by a .326 batting average). Those are your go-to Astros in a fantasy draft, but remember—until this July, there was more to choose from thanks to Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. The fact that Carlos Lee has finally fallen off in the way everyone outside of the Houston front office that signed him knew he would eventually hasn’t helped matters either.
Who else can you rely on from the 'Stros? Chris Johnson comes to mind, as he's impressed in his rookie season (.330/.356/.502 in 222 plate appearances). The problem with Johnson is that he has a BABIP of .401 at the moment. He had a big partial season at Triple-A, but it translated into a TAv of .262, right around the league average for the position (the line is more impressive than it looks, as it's supported heavily by his batting average). Johnson is probably more of a .260/.310/.420 kind of hitter than what he's shown himself to be—his 90th percentile was .261/.311/.451, which he has blown away, but has done so only because of that unsustainable BABIP.
Michael Bourn was a stud in 2009 thanks to a line of .285/354/.384 that came with 61 stolen bases. With a much more normal BABIP in 2010 though, his line has fallen to .252/.328/.324. He still has 42 steals (and is stealing at an 80 percent clip) but without the extra times on base and the higher batting average, there are better options for well-rounded production out there. It's easy to say this is just an off year for Bourn, but if you take a look at his career, he has more years like 2010 than like 2009 on the resume—he's a potential rebound pick for 2011, but not a sure thing.
Angel Sanchez is an intriguing name at shortstop if for no other reason than shortstop is a terrible position. His .244 TAv isn't good, even for a shortstop, but his upper level forecasts had him as an average shortstop and he's hit like that at times during the season. He has just 173 plate appearances on the season, and isn't an impact kind of name, but he's an under-the-radar option who may help fill out a roster in NL-only leagues next year, or even now if you're desperate. Similarly, Jason Castro has not played well for Houston, as a rookie catcher he's someone to keep an eye on down the stretch. You have to look at his 70th percentile or above to find even a league average performance, but it's a possibility, and as long as he doesn't continue to play below his 10th percentile in 2010 there may be some hope for 2011.
Brett Wallace posted a translated TAv of .242 in Triple-A before coming over to Houston, and has performed poorly since replacing Berkman at first. Wallace's ceiling may be league average first baseman, which puts him into the Adam LaRoche role in terms of fantasy utility, but he isn't quite there yet either. Since players like LaRoche are often ignored in mixed leagues and are considered later options in NL-only, Wallace doesn't have all that much appeal considering he hasn't reached that level yet.
There are plenty of interesting names here, but no one outside of Pence is the kind of player you need to be rushing out to draft, and even Pence fails to be a front line option. The rotation isn't that much different, though there's arguably more upside in it thanks to Bud Norris, who as of yet hasn't put it all together, but has teased us plenty of times with strikeouts. Brett Myers is not the kind of pitcher you bet on low 3 ERAs from year-after-year, and as his 3.80 SIERA can attest, he's been good, but not that good.
Just like the Pirates in the past, there are plenty of "what if" type players to choose from on the Astros, players to help you out in a deep NL-only league, or inexpensive options for filling out your roster at auction, but the number of impact players is as low as anyone else in the majors, which makes them a perfect replacement for the Bucs at the bottom of the fantasy pile.