The advantage to having a few 100+ loss seasons in a row is a series of some very high first-round picks in the MLB draft. Couple that with a front office which excels at getting the better end of most of their trades and you have the Astros farm system-- without a doubt one of the best in the majors, the Astros' system boats many prospects who have the potential to become fantasy studs.
Fantasy Baseball Prospects - Houston Astros
George Springer (OF)
If you're a fantasy manager, you're probably already familiar with George Springer's name. He tore up the minors last year, splitting his time between AA and AAA, and coming three home runs short of a 40-40 season. His final stat-line of .303/.411/.600, 106 R, 37 HR, 108 RBI and 45 SB brings up comparisons to Matt Kemp and Ryan Braun, guys who in their prime could carry your team on their back some weeks. If the season started tomorrow, I'd wager that Springer would be sent to AAA for a month or so to ease his transition to the majors (as well as to push back his arbitration eligibility), but a strong spring could change all that. In either case, barring some sort of big setback or injury, you can expect him to be manning right field for the Astros by June.
It's undoubtable that Springer has so much raw talent, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him become a first-round pick in a few years. That's not to say he's a sure thing at all, however. The stat I didn't include with all the others above is his strikeout rate. Springer struck out in 29.7% of his plate appearances in 73 AA games last year and then 24.4% of the time in 62 games once he was promoted to AAA. What you think of George Springer's potential has a lot to do with how you think those contact skills can develop at the major league level. The Steamer projection system sees his strikeout rate for 2014 clocking in at 26.9%, which is rather generous in my opinion, considering the enormous leap in pitching quality he'll face in the major leagues (for comparison, the Oliver projection system expects SPringer to strike out at an astounding 39.8% rate). Let's say Steamer is right, and suppose the young Astro's strikeout rate hovers around 27% in 2014, give or take a few pips. Here's a list of every major league player who accrued enough at bats to qualify for the batting title and also struck out 27% (or more) of the time:
That's it. There were just 10 players in the major leagues last year who struck out as often as Chris Carter, and none of them was a rookie. I tend to believe that SPringer's strikeout number is going to be a bit closer to 30% myself, which would narrow that list down to the first six. Striking out over a quarter of the time and being a productive major leaguer at the same time is an extraordinarily tough task, and I don't quite know if its something you can expect from a rookie on a very young and inexperienced team.
Recommendation: None of this means you shouldn't draft George Springer, no matter how shallow your league. What it means is that you need to temper your excitement about his potential with the very real reality that he might have a rough transition year even if he does become a stud down the line. If I knew for sure that he'd start the season in the major leagues, I'd like Springer as a 17th-18th round pick. Since we dont yet know that for sure, however, he falls a bit in my personal rankings. If I were drafting today, I'd probably be targeting Springer in the early 20s.
Mark Appel (SP)
Appel was the Astros most recent first-round pick, and of all the prospects in their farm system, he has arguably the highest floor. While he didn't have a bad year, his limited time in the minors last season didn't exactly "wow" scouts in the way you might expect of a first overall pick. In 33 innings (which by the way should pretty much scream small sample size to all of you), he posted a 3.82 ERA with a 3.26 FIP. Considering how polished he is already, however, I think he's almost certainly due to see time in the majors next season. Expect to see him called up in late June or early July if he has a good start to his minor league season.
As for what he'll do when he's called up, that's a bit more complicated. Pitching prospects are notorious for being difficult to predict. There was a time last year when Trevor Bauer was in the dreams of every fantasy owner in the country. Now he's fighting for a rotation spot in a fairly weak rotation. Matt Harvey rode the hype were riding a similar hype train into the 2013 season-- he delivered on it and then some, that is before he got hurt the way so many young pitching prospects do. Both those examples are offered by way of saying that I don't quite know what to expect from Appel when he's first called up. He'll have a very rough and young defense backing him up, as well as a paltry offense that he can't count on to put very many runs on the board. For what it's worth, Steamer has Appel pitching to an ERA north of 5.0, though with the limited sample size, you have to take that number with a large grain of salt. Considering that he doesn't strike out a ton of batters (or at least he hasn't so far in his brief career), I'm seeing a player with an ERA between 3.80-4.20 with a WHIP to match, below-average strikeout totals and an at best modest win rate. Useful, sure, but I think Appel has much more to offer going into his 2015 season than he will to fantasy owners in 2014.
Recommendation: I don't think you can draft Appel in standard leagues unless he has already secured a rotation spot before your draft, which I consider unlikely. I might take him as a draft-and-stash guy in a 14-team league or in an AL-only format, but outside of that I have a hard time justifying spending a draft pick on a guy without a job when there are so many other interesting players on the board. Drafted or not, though, his is a name that demands the attention of GMs as the season progresses. While there are fairly long odds stacked against him being a stud off the bat, there's a reason he was taken first overall in the draft, and that upside can't be ignored. When he wins a job in the big leagues, he'll become a must-own player in every league.
Jonathan Singleton (1B)
Before the 2013 season, Singleton was the golden boy in the Astros farm system. He'd put up great numbers in 2012, posting a .284/.396/.497 stat-line with 21 homers and nine stolen bases in AA. Everything fell apart in 2013 though, first with a 50-game suspension for testing positive for marijuana, and then with his showing up to the team out of shape and overweight after his suspension had expired. In 73 games in AAA last season he hit only .220/.340/.347 with six home runs, hardly something for fantasy owners to get excited about.
When Singleton was right, he looked like a player who could help you in HR, RBI and BA, with a little bit of speed thrown in. That's a nice player to have any day, and I think that player is still in there with him. Singleton is the type of player who's not used to failing like this, and I think he'll come into this next season with a lot to prove to himself and the organization that he hopes will fund his career. He'll start the year back in AAA, but a solid year could see him called up to the big leagues by midseason. Chris Carter is an interesting sleeper pick, but he's hardly the type of player to block Singleton. If Jonathan can hit again and keep his personal life in order, he'll be in the majors by July.
Recommendation: With so many question marks between him and the major leagues, Singleton isn't a player who you can justify spending a draft pick on in most fantasy formats. Deep mixed leagues and AL-only formats could see him going in the later rounds (think 22nd or later), but there's simply too much in the air surrounding him right now to make him a very good pick. I will note that fantasy owners should keep an eye on how he does in Spring Training and AAA for the first month of the season. If he hits well early, he'll be a prime grab-and-stash guy. Singleton still has a ton of upside, and if he looks to be knocking on the door of the big leagues, he's a guy you'll want to have ready in your system if you can afford the bench spot.
Mike Foltynewicz (P)
I'll admit right now that Foltynewicz is the type of player that I tend to get overexcited about. There's something about a fastball hitting 100 mph that makes me think of Justin Verlander every time, even when the comparison isn't even appropriate. I'm just a sucker for velocity like that. The problem with Foltynewicz is that his fastball is really his only premium pitch. He throws a slider and curveball, as well as a changeup to keep batters honest, but right now none of them is a plus or even an above-average offering. If Foltynewicz can develop these pitches in the coming season, he could become a force in the Astros rotation. If not, however, his future is probably at the back end of the Astros bullpen. In either case, I expect to see his name among the September call-up class. If he manages to keep a hold on his rotation spot he could be an interesting spot starter late in the season for deeper leagues or streamers.
Recommendation: Without a clear path to the big leagues before September call ups, Foltynewicz isn't draftable even in the deepest of leagues. He's more a name to keep in mind and to monitor. In the event that injuries or a great minor league performance win him a spot in the Astros rotation in 2014, he's someone that could provide some value to fantasy owners. Look for him in 2015 more than 2014, though.
Max Stassi (C)
Stassi is a nice name to keep track of in deeper leagues or two-catchers formats. He's obviously blocked by Jason Castro right now, but should Castro be hurt for any length of time and require a trip to the DL, I could see Stassi getting the call to replace him on the roster. By all accounts, he's a solid defensive catcher whom the Astros would probably like to give a shot, if for no other reason than that it might increase his trade value down the road. He's a particularly aggressive hitter at the plate, so he'd hurt you in batting average, but if you're in a deeper league and in a bind for a catcher, he might provide some power down the road. Just a name to keep in mind now, though.
Recommendation: A depth guy strictly for deeper leagues, there's no reason to own Stassi until you actually need him.
Domingo Santana (OF)
Santana has good power, to which his numbers in the minors will attest. He's hit over 20 home runs each of the last two seasons, and even though he's behind much more talented players like Dexter Fowler and George Springer on the Astros depth chart, he's another name to keep an eye on in the event of injury or when the September call ups come around. You need to be honest with what you're signing up for if you roster Santana, however. He's a big strikeout guy who's probably going to post batting averages around .230 in the major leagues. He's probably only a guy deep league owners would care about, and then only if they're at a point where they'd be willing to punt batting average in favor of power.
Recommendation: Like Stassi, there's little reason to own Santana until he wins a job and you find that you need him in the lineup.
Keeper Consideration Players for 2015+
I don't expect any of these players to see major league playing time in the coming 2014 season, but if you're playing in a keeper league I'd keep my eye on these names:
Carlos Correa (SS)
Correa is the obvious name on this list. A first overall pick, he has a rare combination of contact skills and power that make him a very tantalizing prospect, provided he can stick at shortstop. This is a guy whose ceiling is 20+ home runs with a .300 batting average and little bit of speed. He destroyed low-A as a 18 year old, and while you of course don't expect him to put up .320/.405/.467 slash lines every step of the way, he's a must-own player in long-term keeper formats.
Lance McCullers, Jr. (P)
McCullers has the kind of strikeout stuff to make a fantasy owner drool a little. He posted a K/9 rate over 10 in the minors last season, and when he's not striking guys out he generates a ton of ground balls, which keeps his HR% below average. If McCullers can learn to command his pitches better, this is a guy that could pitch as the No. 2 man in a starting rotation. If not, he's probably the in-house candidate for closer of the future in the Astros system. The next season will be an important one for McCullers, as it will probably determine whether he'll end up in the rotation or the 'pen, but in either case I see him being a contributor even in standard leagues a year or two down the line. He's definitely a name to monitor going forward.
Rio Ruiz (3B)
Ruiz is the type of player who might go unnoticed in fantasy circles because he doesn't really stand out in any one category. Instead, he's just solid across the board, providing a decent batting average (.260) with a little bit of speed (12 SB) and a little bit of power (12 HR). Much of his value is tied up in whether or not he can stick at 3B, but if he can and he continues to develop, he'll have a place on fantasy teams in the future. He's probably not worth a look outside of a deep keeper league, but if you play that kind of format and 3B are scarce, Ruiz is a name to keep in mind. He's not a star, but he's got a higher floor than many.