Remember when the Astros were a dumping ground and they were lucky if they had two or three fantasy-worthy players? My, how times have changed. From Springer and Altuve to Keuchel and Giles, you can find fantasy talent all over the field. They’ve gone from having maybe just Bud Norris as a rosterable SP to a rotation filled with talent, and that’s where I want to focus today. Depending on your league depth, all five projected starters could be useful. In fact, Houston has six potential starters going into the preseason, so let’s take a quick look at them. I’ll start with the top fantasy value in my opinion and work my way downward.
Do you really need an argument for Keuchel being a top fantasy ace in 2016? If you do, just hand me your league entry fee now because you’ve already lost. Even if you attribute some luck to his Cy Young season (in BABIP and strand rate), you’re still looking at an extreme groundball pitcher with elite control and strong strikeout ability. The jump in K/9 is supported by many factors: increased swinging strike rate, increased swings out of the zone, decreased contact rate. He has shown a BB/9 of 2.2 and under the last two seasons. And HR/FB practically doesn’t matter when the total FB% is 19-20%. His number of quality starts is particularly valuable for leagues that count them. There’s no reason that he can’t maintain the majority of his 2015 stats moving forward.
I covered McCullers back in November, and you can read the article here. For 2016 his value in redraft could be a bit lower than dynasty simply because he may have an innings limit. Still, the strikeout ability is worth investing in, given many H2H leagues don’t run to the very end of the season so they can fit in playoffs before MLB teams rest their regulars.
After a strong 2014, he took a step back in terms of ERA, WHIP, and even K/9. However, there’s still a lot of talent here. His BABIP and strand rate were likely a bit lucky in 2014, but they swung to being near unlucky in 2015, so there’s a good chance he can fall somewhere in the middle moving forward. One thing I really like is that his walk rate remained strong — in fact, it improved slightly from 2.4 to 2.3 BB/9. Even if his K/9 stayed lower, a strong walk rate keeps him very rosterable. Besides, I see his strikeout rate improving in 2016. His first half was 7.0 K/9, but he maintained his 11% swinging strike rate from the previous year. In the second half he raised his K/9 to 8.0, along with another stable SwK of 11%. I’m ready to pencil him in for 8.0+ in 2016. He’s also managed to increase his GB% a bit, reaching 45% last season. If that trend continues (is he takings lessons from Keuchel?), with the correlating reduction in LD%, then his ERA and WHIP should easily improve and get below 3.50 and 1.20. Even at 29, he’s young enough to take another step forward.
Ever since Fiers’ strong rookie showing in 2012, I’ve been hoping he could take the next step. Now it seems a change of scenery could help him do just that. He book-ended his season with a bad April (5.79 ERA, 1.93 WHIP) and a blah September (4.45 ERA, 1.12 WHIP), but in between there was an intriguing skill set, and his overall season numbers of 3.69 ERA and 1.25 certainly aren’t bad. He struggled with control issues, posting a 3.2 BB/9. That is considered high now, but ten years ago it would’ve been solid, and he went from a 3.4 mark in the first half to 3.0 in the second half, so there may be room for further improvement. He attacks the strike zone (60% first pitch strike) and misses bats (10%, which supports his 9.0 K/9 despite the fact that he doesn’t possess a 95+ mph fastball. At first glance, Houston is known for having a home park that increases home runs, but Fiers came from Milwaukee, which is even worse, so in fact it’s an improvement for him. Also, given the divisional rivals and their home parks, the AL West is a bit more friendly than the NL Central for HR issues. That’ll come in handy for Fiers, who doesn’t have a strong ground ball tilt like Keuchel. Fiers is 31, so he’s not exactly young, but he’s still developing his game. I have faith he can at least repeat 2015, if not improve on it.
Doug Fister/Scott Feldman
The final spot in the rotation seems to be a battle between Feldman and Fister. Feldman may miss time early in the season, which gives Fister the inside track. In terms of career batted ball profiles, they’re nearly identical, with a good ground ball tilt. Even their career K/9 nearly match. Fister gets the edge in walk rate, and even in a bad year for him, he posted just a 2.1 BB/9. Some point to the fact that Fister needed to move to the bullpen to recover his skills, implying he may be better suited there moving forward. I disagree, because he suffered a forearm injury that cost him about a month. It stands to reason he was working out some of those kinks after he returned, and it may have also been why his May was so bad (6.00 ERA). As Jim pointed out, his pitch selection has really changed: no more slider, the four-seam is almost non-existent, and his curveball use is way down; most of this happened with the move to Washington. Was the team suggesting these changes to him? Did they perhaps cause his forearm issue in 2015? If so, being on a new team with a new pitching coach could help him get back to his former pitching repertoire, where he was more effective.
As for Feldman, I’m not as optimistic. With the weakest K/9 out of the bunch, he can’t offer a lot of fantasy value. In his recent years, he was simply an innings eater with an ERA below 4.00 but not impressive. He’s had a three-year rise in LD%, and though it’s not huge, it’s still worrisome for an older pitcher. He’s never fooled bats, and his HR/FB was the second highest of his career. Add in the fact that he had shoulder issues at the end of 2015, and you’re looking at a veteran simply hanging on and hoping to keep a roster spot. He works better as a swing man and long reliever on the current Houston team. I’d at least consider Fister in some league formats. I wouldn’t gamble on Feldman in 2016 unless you’re in a 30-team league and are in a bind.
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