This is the first in a team-by-team fantasy recap of the 2013 season. We'll start with the worst record first, and move our way on up to the best.
In their final season in the National League, the Houston Astros were a complete, unmitigated disaster. By fielding a team of non-prospects and Quad-A types, the Astros slogged their way to a league-worst 107 losses, the most since the Arizona Diamondbacks lost 111 in 2004. Years of poor decision-making and bad free agent signings (Carlos Lee, anyone?), combined with former General Manager Ed Wade's strange feish for overpaying middle relievers, conspired to derail a franchise that reached the World Series in 2005.
With a completely barren farm system and a major league roster filled to the brim with dead weight and bad contracts, it's no wonder that the overhauled front office, led by GM Jeff Luhnow, decided to go with the full nuclear option and build the franchise back from the ground up. Luhnow succeeded in dumping Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, and Brett Myers for prospects, and he and his staff at least have a plan after the franchise seemed to be running in clueless circles for years.
Despite the somewhat rosier (distant) future, the Astros offered an absolutely miserable on-field product this year. For the 2012 Astros in a nutshell, take a look at this. The little kid who can't stop cracking up in that video is pretty much emblematic of what Astros fans had to endure all year.
Even the worst teams in history usually offer at least one productive fantasy player for fantasy owners. The 2004 Diamonbacks had Randy Johnson, who was his typical dominant self for a rebuilding team. The 2003 Tigers had Dmitri Young and his .909 OPS. Heck, even the 1962 Mets, regarded as the worst team of the modern era, had Frank Thomas (the other one), who bashed 34 home runs.
The 2012 Astros, though? Boy, you have to squint reaaaaalllll hard to find anything worthy of a fantasy roster spot in this bunch.
Best Fantasy Hitter: Jose Altuve
Everybody's favorite 5'5" gnat projected to be the team's best hitter after being given the starting second base job in the spring. He hit .327 collectively in the minors and he carried that on into a solid .290/.340/.399 campaign in his first full big league season. He also stole 33 bases, which ranked him second among major league players with second base eligibility. There's some hope that he can exploit Minute Maid Park's short left field and reach double digits in home runs, which would make him a very solid second base option in pretty much any format.
Best Fantasy Pitcher: Lucas Harrell
I would have expected to pen Bud Norris's name here when the season began, but Norris wasn't good, and Harrell came out of nowhere to become Houston's most consistent pitcher. He wasn't great, by any means, but on this squad, you take what you can get. Harrell threw a career-high 193.2 innings with a 3.76 ERA and struck out a decent 140 batters, making him good back-end fantasy rotation filler and a nice waiver find.
If you're a believer in the Verducci Effect, then Harrell is due for a crippling arm injury due to the number of innings he logged (fifty more than in 2011). His main strength is keeping home runs totals down, so if he can get his walks a little bit more under control, he could be pretty darn good. Just don't expect many wins from him, unless he gets traded at the 2013 deadline.
Top Overachiever: Jed Lowrie
Is there an option to pass? This is a stretch, but I'm going to go with Lowrie for making it through 97 games. Amazingly, that represents a career high. Lowrie was pretty good when he was healthy, mashing sixteen homers from the shortstop position. That projects to roughly 25 over a full season, which would have put him comfortably among the leaders at his position. There's a potential for fantasy stardom here if he stays healthy, but his next DL-free season will be his first.
Biggest Disappointment: J.D. Martinez
You can pretty much take your pick here. Jordan Schafer, Chris Johnson, Bud Norris, J.A. Happ, or Juan Abreu could definitely qualify to head this category. I'm going with Martinez, though, because he projected to be one of the few bright spots on this team in the preseason, and failed miserably. Martinez owned a blistering .334/.397/.532 line over four minor league seasons, and hit reasonably well in his extended 2011 major league stint. No one was predicting star status, but he looked like a perfectly above-average fantasy outfielder.
Not even. Martinez hit a paltry .240/.319/.399 in the first half and even the dead-in-the-water Astros finally had enough, demoting him to AAA in late-August. He also failed to hit a single home run after July 4th. On this team, he'll get every chance to prove he belongs in the majors, so he enters 2013 as a sleeper in case he can get his act together.
Top 2013 Sleeper: Fernando Martinez
Remember this guy? Martinez was a super-prospect with the Mets before injuries completely derailed him. New York finally gave up on him and waived him, but the Astros scooped him up and he proceeded to tear it up in AAA and (shockingly) stayed healthy. In 130 plate appearances with the big club, he hit six home runs and slugged .466, albeit with awful plate discipline and, wouldn't you know it, some missed time due to injury (including being scratched from a start for an inflamed boil...yeesh).
The days of Martinez being star prospect are gone, but he is still just 24, and the nothing-to-lose Astros have...well...nothing to lose by playing him a bunch to find out if there's still something alive in there. With the move to the AL next season, he'll probably get a shot at DH to keep him away from injury.
2013 Saves Report
Brett Myers started the season as the team's closer, but it was obvious from day one that he was going to be flipped at the deadline for something more prospecty. In stepped Wilton Lopez, who did a fine job as the team's closer down the stretch, finishing with ten saves and helping those managers who were shrewd enough to nab him when Myers was dealt. Since upgrading at closer is likely the absolute last thing this franchise needs to be occupied with at this point, Lopez will probably retain the magic "C" title next season. That's a pretty thankless job, though, since the Astros will probably lose just as many games in 2013, if not more with the shift to the AL West.
2013 Fantasy Outlook
With a better front office, The Astros are on the right path, even if contention is in the far, far distance. The team has already succeeded in improving a completely dead farm system with a solid 2012 draft and a couple of shrewd trades (namely, robbing the Pirates of a couple of decent prospects for Wandy Rodriguez). Top prospects like Carlos Correa and Jonathan Singleton should be making their way up the pipeline in the next few years, but for the immediate future, fantasy owners will have to stick with Jose Altuve and prayers that Jed Lowrie won't break his wrist high-fiving a teammate. Their move to the stacked AL West in 2013 makes their road to contention that much more difficult.