It's a bit early to pay extra close attention to the ESPN Player Rater and decipher meaningful results, but certainly there are some surprises. Entering the weekend, the top pitcher is St. Louis Cardinals fill-in Lance Lynn, edging out Chicago White Sox reclamation project Jake Peavy. The top Boston Red Sox option, and among the top 10 overall, is shortstop Mike Aviles. Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Corey Hart, who was supposed to start the season on the DL after knee surgery, is in the top 10. And of course, there's no sign of consensus top-three option Albert Pujols.
Then there are the Houston Astros. OK, so there's not a whole lot of discussion these days about the sad-sack Astros, coming off a 106-loss season and planning a move to the American League in 2013 with likely another 100 losses pending. No Astros player was chosen in the first 14 rounds on average of ESPN live drafts, and only two in the top 200 (Carlos Lee at pick 140, Wandy Rodriguez 186). That's it. However, three weeks into the season, the Astros enter Friday's game sixth in baseball in runs scored, and the top of the lineup has sparked things and piqued the interest of fantasy owners.
Diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve is 23rd on the Player Rater, second to Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp in the National League with a .377 batting average and fifth in OPS. In just the past week, Altuve is hitting .435 with a home run, four stolen bases and six runs scored, and he's the second-most added middle infielder in ESPN leagues (to Aviles). Of course, the question now is whether Altuve is for real.
Altuve came to the majors last season as a 21-year-old with a reputation for good contact skills, speed and little else. He started 2011 in the California League repeating Class A ball, hit .408 there and .361 at Double-A Corpus Christi, and suddenly he was in the majors. Altuve delivered 200 hits (combining majors and minors) along with 31 stolen bases. It's a quick rise, for sure, and fantasy owners bought into Altuve initially but were left unimpressed. With the Astros, he hit .276 with no power, seven steals and only five walks in 234 plate appearances. Whether due to size (he's 5-foot-5) or youth (he's only 21) there wasn't much reason to expect big things in 2012.
However, what caught my eye in spring training was seeing Altuve walk 11 times in 21 games. OK, so it's spring training and the statistics mean little, but a change in offensive approach can be detected. In Altuve's case, he needs to be on base more. The Astros preached patience and selectivity with Altuve and he has delivered; he's already walked seven times in 18 games. Last year, he walked five times in 57 games. He's seeing 3.92 pitches per plate appearance, whereas last season with Houston that figure was an aggressive 3.11, and he's greatly dropped the percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone. Altuve can't hit .377 for long, certainly not with a .431 BABIP, but if he can hit .300 consistently and steal 25 bases, that's not only worth adding in April, but keeping around.
Astros outfielder J.D. Martinez, himself off to a surprising start, noted of Altuve to MLB.com: "He always got brushed aside just because of his size. And we were talking about it [Saturday] -- just his whole life he's had to prove people wrong, and he's been doing it. He's been given the chance and the opportunity, and he's been doing a great job with it."
Altuve remains a very young player -- second youngest in the league -- and one month isn't enough of a sample size to proclaim him a safe top-20 middle infielder, but consider this: Do you think Los Angeles Dodgers speedster Dee Gordon can hit .300? I don't. Do you think rejuvenated Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal can stay healthy? Um, nope. And how many bases will really be stolen by the likes of Aaron Hill, Kelly Johnson and perhaps Asdrubal Cabrera? They probably won't steal 25 as a group.
Houston's big surprise isn't a top-10 second baseman yet, or top-20 middle infielder, but I would add him in 10-team standard mixed leagues because he should be batting average-safe and contribute more than 20 steals. He's a No. 2 hitter for a big league lineup that isn't nearly as bad as people expected, with outfielder and leadoff man Jordan Schafer getting on base and running, outfielder J.D. Martinez walking and knocking in runs, Carlos Lee still somewhat formidable (well, worth owning), and shortstop Jed Lowrie hitting and avoiding injury, for now. When Altuve hits .290 with 70 runs scored and 25 steals he could be outperforming your middle infield option.
Have a great weekend, everyone!