Although many pundits believe the Houston Astros should be rebuilding after suffering through only their second losing season since 1992, it sure doesn't look like the team's decision-makers agree. Given the chance to replace Craig Biggio with much-needed youth and signal a new direction, the Astros decided to send five young players to Baltimore for Miguel Tejada this offseason. Rebuilding? Fuhgetaboutit.
Fantasy owners shouldn't care too much; the Astros will send a good offense onto the field every night, with each hitting slot likely featuring a draftable player. That might be where the fantasy interest ends, though. Houston's No. 2 and 3 starters appear to be Wandy Rodriguez and Woody Williams. That just can't be good.
Let's focus on the positive. The Astros improved their middle infield over the winter. Tejada will get his first chance to hit in the National League and in a ballpark that favors his tendencies as a right-handed pull hitters. If Biggio can whack homers in Houston, Tejada certainly can. The top of the order was stabilized, in theory, with exciting speedster Michael Bourn taking over in center field and Kazuo Matsui signing on to play second base. The Astros should run, and the middle of the order, led by Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, will hurt bad pitching.
Of course, the Astros might give all those runs back, but that's not your problem as a fantasy owner.
Ballpark: Many folks incorrectly refer to Minute Maid Park as Coors Field South, but that's not the case. In fact, the "juice box," as it was once nicknamed, was one of the better pitchers' parks in the league in 2007. According to park factor , Minute Maid was the sixth stingiest park in the majors when it came to runs scored in 2007. Home runs are hit there, but that number should decrease once Woody Williams retires. In fact, the last time Minute Maid was a top 10 hitters' park was 2003. The fact that few people have noticed that is a good thing, though. Biggio, who was in steep decline in his later years, kept hitting home runs; he hit 57 bombs during his last three seasons, and 41 of those came at home. This bodes well for Tejada, as well as third baseman Ty Wigginton, and it should hide Lee's eventual decline, too.
Top sleeper: A season ago, Wigginton was a Tampa Bay Devil Ray, and he went largely unnoticed in fantasy drafts. Has anything changed? Well, the Astros' offense is an interesting mix of stars and newcomers, but Wigginton doesn't fall into either camp. He came over from Tampa in a late July trade for Dan Wheeler, and Wigginton seemed to enjoy his new home ballpark, hitting six homers at Minute Maid Park in only 89 at-bats. Don't forget his second-base eligibility; that alone makes Wigginton one of the more underrated middle infielders in fantasy; he has hit 46 home runs the past two seasons.
Intriguing spring battle: The most fiercely contested battles will be for rotation slots. The winners, however, probably won't help fantasy owners much. So we'll look behind the plate, where it's that ancient fable of youth versus the really smart and really old. Prospect J.R. Towles exploded on the fantasy scene in mid-September with his eight-RBI game at St. Louis, and he batted .375 in the final two weeks of the season. He showed some power in the minors, and the Astros think he can handle the everyday catching duties. Brad Ausmus was brought back for another year to mentor the kid, but the fact that the Dartmouth grad has averaged more than 130 games the past three seasons could make this a timeshare. It worth taking a chance talent wining out, though, and that Towles becomes a top-15 catcher.
Trainer's room: Four of the hitters in Houston's projected starting lineup spent time on the disabled list in 2007, but will any of these injuries remain problems going forward? Matsui raises the biggest red flags. He signed on with the Mets before the 2004 season, and in four seasons in the majors, he has never topped 114 games. Whether it's because of his knee, hamstring or chronic back problems, Matsui is unlikely to play in 154-plus games this season. He was very productive in the 104 games he did play in 2007, though, with 84 runs and 32 stolen bases. Pence and Tejada had wrist injuries in 2007, neither of which is expected to remain a problem. Bourn's issue was a sprained ankle, but he did return in September without a hitch in his giddyup.
Schedule preview: The Astros think they're contenders, and if that really is the case, fantasy owners should be pleased to see all the big guns out there in September. Even if the team flops, Lee, Berkman and Tejada don't generally miss many games. Houston opens the season in San Diego, which shouldn't be fun for the offense, but that might be the wisest time to choose an Astros hurler not named Roy Oswalt. We'd advise you to scram from non-Oswalt pitchers after that, though; the 'Stros have four road trips comprised of three or more series in the season's first half. Wandy Rodriguez, who is notorious for his extreme home/road split differentials, would be of more use in the second half.
Future closer: There's certainly nobody at the major league level to peg as a safe closer should something befall Jose Valverde. Doug Brocail, now 40 and a veteran of two angioplasties, is the likely setup man, and it is encouraging that he posted similar numbers on the road and at home despite pitching for the Padres last season. Rubber-armed hurler Geoff Geary comes from Philly, but he's oh-so hittable and was even sent to the minors a few times in 2007. Oscar Villarreal can't get lefties out. Other than that, he's OK. Based on the way the Astros are spending money, one would think Valverde's replacement, should it be necessary, would come in the form of a trade or free-agent signing. Ultimately, Valverde needs to be healthy, and successful. Strikeout-heavy right-hander Bud Norris, a sixth-round pick in 2006, will be 23 by Opening Day and could fit the role of closer down the line.
Backups to watch: In addition to bringing in a few marquee starting position players, the Astros also were quite active in getting veteran depth. And when we say veteran, we mean veteran. Bourn should start in center field, but if he can't hack everyday play, fellow left-handed hitter Darin Erstad will get another shot. Erstad hasn't done much since his improbable 240-hit campaign in 2000, but with decent playing time, he could steal double-digit bases. Mark Loretta and Geoff Blum back up the infielders, and neither will run or hit for power. Loretta is a bit interesting, though; he hits in the .280s every season and currently has full-time eligibility at each infield spot.
Fantasy studs: Berkman and Lee will be top-30 players, at worst, in most every league, but what about Oswalt? Was 2007 the beginning of a decline, with all those innings catching up to him? The first half of his season wasn't what we've come to expect from Oswalt, but the second-half ERA of 2.57, with a better K rate, made us smile. Don't expect 20 wins, but Oswalt should be a fantasy ace.
Prospects to watch for 2008: Towles seems up for good at catcher, but watch for hard thrower Felipe Paulino, who likely will get some starts this season considering how Houston's rotation looks right now. Paulino didn't fare well during his brief trial in 2007, allowing 15 runs in 19 innings, but anyone who throws 100 mph warrants a look.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.