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Astros not devoid of fantasy talent after all

4/1/2013

The Houston Astros own baseball's best record -- OK, so it's a bit misleading! -- after Sunday's 8-2 opening night win over their in-state rival, the Texas Rangers, and while it's hardly a harbinger to make World Series plans, it's still fun to see unheralded players such as outfielder Justin Maxwell, who perhaps you've considered owning in a deep fantasy league, perform well. Maxwell certainly played a key role in the victory, delivering a two-run triple to get the scoring started in the fourth inning and then later walking and adding another three-base hit.

I've long been intrigued by Maxwell, now 29, since he clearly showed the tools to contribute in home runs and stolen bases while toiling in the minors for years in the Washington Nationals' organization. In 2007, he hit 27 home runs and stole 35 bases! As recently as 2011 for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the New York Yankees' system, he hit 16 home runs and stole 11 bases in 48 games. The somewhat desperate Astros took a look at him last year and were rewarded with 18 home runs and nine steals in barely half a season of at-bats. He has signature flaws at the plate, but still I find it odd that people seem so pessimistic about Maxwell. After all, he's going to play, which is half the battle.

While most look simply at Maxwell's low batting average and high strikeout total as a reason to expect the worst, I see potential. He's not likely to ever contend for a batting title, but he has an enticing blend of power and speed. It's not a good Astros team, and prospect George Springer, likely the team's future in center field, isn't quite ready, so Maxwell has the center-field job to himself right now, certainly against left-handed pitching, against which he hit those triples Sunday. I don't expect Maxwell, who hit .229 last season in the majors, to hit higher than .250, not with his lack of plate discipline and struggles against right-handers, but as long as he provides power and speed, that's OK.

Maxwell's swing can often be a mess, as evidenced by the fact he whiffed in nearly a third of his 2012 at-bats (114 K's in 315 ABs). That's terrible, and it's why he's a batting-average liability unless he changes his approach, which also isn't likely at this age. But Maxwell is also likely to play quite a bit more than he did in 2012 for the Astros. He's owned in a mere 3.4 percent of ESPN standard leagues and coming off a terrible spring training (.153, 21 strikeouts in 59 at-bats), which we've noted repeatedly means little unless it costs someone a job. It obviously didn't cost Maxwell his job. Don't overrate him from Opening Day, but don't presume he can't repeat his relative success from 2012 in terms of home runs and stolen bases, either. ESPN Fantasy projects 22 home runs and 14 steals, which is certainly reasonable, and worth owning, depending on the rest of your team. I'd take that in a deep league, even if it means I have to pair him up with someone like Joe Mauer to help in batting average.

By the way, second baseman Jose Altuve is the lone Astro being selected in the top 200 in ESPN average live drafts, but I can make a case that Maxwell is knocking on that door. Let's hope Sunday was a harbinger, and the Astros face a lot of left-handed pitching!

Here are other random thoughts on Sunday's game. Starting today, we'll have many more games to pick from!

• Right-hander Bud Norris started for Houston and tossed five scoreless innings before running into trouble in the sixth. As usual, command was an issue; he walked three and threw first-pitch strikes to only half the 24 hitters he faced. Only 59 of his 97 pitches were strikes. Norris has 200-strikeout potential, but he has averaged only 169 innings over the past three seasons, and his lack of command results in shorter outings, costing him potential wins. And on this team, he shouldn't get many wins anyway. In an AL-only format, he's worth owning thanks to his strikeouts, though he's a liability in ERA and WHIP.

Erik Bedard saved the win, the first and likely last save of his career. Bedard did so with 3 1/3 scoreless innings, and even in an 8-2 win, that's an official save. More importantly, Bedard threw strikes and threw hard. That said, it's tough to like him for more than 24 starts, since the last time he accomplished this was 2007. He should make his first start for the Astros next weekend against the Oakland Athletics, but in my mind, Bedard is nothing more than a deep-league spot starter. Norris is the better mixed-league pickup.

• If Maxwell goes into a prolonged slump or gets hurt, Rick Ankiel seems next in line to handle center field. Ankiel blasted a three-run home run Sunday, and he figures to play regularly in right field against right-handed pitching, with Brandon Barnes facing lefties. Unlike Maxwell, Ankiel had a terrific spring, hitting .413 with 10 extra-base hits, and it wouldn't be shocking to see him hit 15 home runs this season. In an AL-only format, he's worth a few dollars.

Matt Dominguez, still only 23 years old, is not expected to hit enough to impact fantasy rosters. His calling card is defense. But Dominguez had some nice at-bats Sunday, drawing a walk, seeing 22 pitches in all, and he knocked in a run on an infield single. Like Maxwell, Dominguez probably won't hit .250, since right-handed pitchers can overpower him, but I could see 15 home runs and 70 RBIs.

• On the Rangers' side, I actually liked what Matt Harrison was doing, though he missed his spots at times. He allowed six runs (five earned), but fanned nine in his 5 2/3 innings. Harrison is owned in 100 percent of leagues, and it would be a shame if that dropped from this outing, since fantasy owners tend to be a bit too reactive early on. I'd buy low, personally.