For a team that is in full on rebuilding mode, it’s a little strange that the Astros infield is likely to be populated by the same players that were there last year. It’s a good thing to some degree because it means they’ve found a few guys who can stick at their position. The only bad news is that the guys they hope will stick at the remaining positions aren’t quite ready for the show yet.
The strength of the current infield is most definitely up the middle. Jose Altuve and Jason Castro had the most fantasy value on the team last year according to both our valuations and ESPN’s player rater. Despite the infield being stagnant, the outfield is going to look a bit different with Dexter Fowler now on the squad and George Springer on the way. That’s going to help the fantasy value of Altuve and Castro. Steamer projects Altuve to score 21 more runs than he did last year and projects Castro for 13 more RBI. Steamer is actually the most conservative of the projection models on Castro’s RBI total. Oliver has him at 78 RBI, and the fan projections have him at 74.
Aside from the shared benefit that will be the improved lineup around them, Altuve and Castro could actually be headed in different directions this year.
Castro just screams regression. Let’s start with his batting average. He hit .276 last year despite striking out 26.5% of the time. Of the 1,509 qualified hitters in the last decade, only 61 have had a K% of 26.5% or higher. Only four of those hitters hit .276 or better, and the average batting average of the group was .242. Castro managed the high batting average because of a .351 BABIP. To be fair, Castro has a 25.2% line drive rate in just over 1000 plate appearances, so he’s likely to continue to have an above average BABIP. He should be able to keep his batting average from killing you as a result, but every projection system expects it to drop to some degree. His power may also regress. His HR/FB rate of 16.5% would have been top 30 in the league had he qualified. Again, that was helped by good contact from Castro as he ranked 57th in average home run and fly ball distance. But it’s also likely that number regresses a bit even if it should stay above average.
As for Altuve, there’s not much reason to expect his other number to change all that much. That means that the projected increase in runs would really boost his value. He finished as the sixth most valuable second baseman according to ESPN’s player rater last year, so if the higher run total pans out, you have to think he’ll be a top five guy at the position. To do that, he’ll have to displace someone who finished above him last year, and I think Daniel Murphy and Matt Carpenter are in for some regression. Murphy reaching almost 700 PA again seems a bit unlikely, and Carpenter will be hard pressed to score anywhere near as many runs as he did last year. Altuve is currently being drafted seventh at the position and in the eight round of 12-team drafts. I think that’s excellent value as I have him fourth at the position and ranked just outside my top 50 overall.
The Astros also have Jonathan Villar up the middle, but he’s not the long term answer at that position. Part of the reason for that is that former #1 overall pick Carlos Correa is hopefully the long term answer at short. But even if Correa ends up having to move to third by the time he reaches the majors, Villar probably won’t maintain the role.
Of the 35 players that saw at least as many innings at short as Villar last year, Villar was 27th in defensive runs saved, 33rd in our defensive rating, and 34th in UZR/150. Scouting reports I could find from when Villar was in the minors described his defense anywhere from “error prone” to “an above-average defender and could rate as excellent.” He could certainly improve with just 500 innings under his belt, but the early defensive returns are concerning.
As for his offensive contributions, speed is really all he’s got. He stole 18 bags in just 241 PA last year and is projected to reach 30 this year by all projection systems we have listed on his player card. If he can get enough at-bats, he projects to approach 40 steals. Despite swinging and missing a lot, he walks enough to keep his speed from being rendered useless. But if you’re going to utilize Villar’s speed at your middle infield spot, you better protect him with high batting average guys. Of the 235 batters with at least 240 PA last year, Villar had the 24th worst contact rate (70.4%). That led to a brutal 29.5% K%. He never cracked a 74% contact rate in the minors, so this problem isn’t going away. Between the decent walk rate and his ability to use his speed to post a high BABIP, he’ll be able to keep his OBP around league average (.320-ish). But this is as empty as speed gets.
On the corners things are a lot less set in stone, and there isn’t as much value to be had. But because power is so scarce these days, Chris Carter is still an interesting name. Carter played about the same number of innings at first as Brett Wallace last year, so I guess technically he’s to be discussed here. But he also spent some time in the outfield and quite a bit of time at DH. He probably won’t see as much of the outfield this year, but he’s projected to finish close to the 585 PA mark he reached last year anyway.
In those 585 PA, Carter popped 29 bombs, which was the 15th highest home run total in the league. On a per plate appearance basis, he was a touch better than that with the 13th best PA/HR rate as he hit a homer about once every 20 plate appearances. The power was expected, but, unfortunately, Carter did something else that was expected; he struck out a lot. Contact and strikeouts have always been Carter’s bugaboo, but he had more problems than ever this year with a K% of 36.2%, which is about a point and a half higher than his career rate.
I assume a lot of fantasy writers will recommend you avoid Carter because of the brutal batting average. That’s a recommendation I’ve made in the past regarding a similar player, Adam Dunn. But with the scarcity of power, I actually think Carter is worth drafting if, like Villar, you can protect him with high average guys.
I used Zach Sanders’ method for ranking player production to take the Steamer projections and create some preseason fantasy rankings. The system essentially compares a player’s contributions in the five roto categories to average and adds up the five numbers to give you an overall value above replacement. After running Steamer through that system, Carter projected to be the 120th most valuable fantasy player this year. He’s projected to provide the 10th most valuable home run total for the year. He’s also going to be one of the 20 biggest drains on your batting average, but he can help your team more than he hurts if you’re actively loading up on batting average early in the draft.
When Carter is DH’ing, the aforementioned Wallace is likely to be at first. But he’s not worth wasting many words on because a) he’s got over 1000 major league PA with just 29 home runs, a 29.5% K% and a 93 wRC+ and b) because Jonathan Singleton could get called up anytime after the Super Two deadline if he gets off to a nice start at AAA. I also don’t want to spend too much time on Singleton because there’s no reason to consider drafting him given the uncertainty of his arrival date, if he even arrives at all this year. But if you’d like to read more on Singleton, check out this great piece by Scott Strandberg.
And finally, over at the hot corner, there is Matt Dominguez. Dominguez hit 21 home runs in 589 PA last year, and the projection systems expect him to do about the same thing this year. He’s got a little potential to improve his batting average from .241 becuase his BABIP is likely to rise from .254. But neither may rise that much because Domniguez doesn’t make great contact (18.7% LD%) and doesn’t have any speed to turn ground balls into hits. He projects to be a league average fantasy third baseman, so he should be left on the wire in mixed leagues unless you need an injury fill-in midseason.
He will be useful in AL-only leagues because anyone with one decent skill is useful in those leagues. But he also has value there because third base is a bit depleted in the AL. Alex Rodriguez is suspended, Manny Machado is injured, and Mike Moustakas has yet to pan out. He’s a top ten third basemen in that format.
In a few years, the “Depth Chart Discussions” posts about the Astros will be littered with talk of how soon their stud prospects will be called up and how they’ll produce when they get called up. We’re likely to see some of that later this week with Springer when Howard Bender writes up the Houston outfield. But for this year at least we know what the Astros infield is going to look like, and it actually doesn’t look too bad.