Mark Wednesday night as a landmark moment for the Astros’ season. After fooling surprising everyone with a strong start that peaked with a 34-20 record last week, the warts of a rising, yet flawed team has come into focus in the form of a six-game losing streak entering the finale of a series at the White Sox. Houston had scored more than two runs just once during the current skid, as their .234 team average (worst in the AL), .301 OBP (12th) can no longer disguise a pitching staff that has been Dallas Keuchel and a rapidly overworked bullpen.
Enter Vincent Velasquez, the latest Next Big Thing from a farm system bursting at the seams of elite prospects, including the biggest of the NBTs, SS Carlos Correa, who has already homered and made at least two top-shelf defensive plays in his first two games in the majors (one-year league owners had advance warning to acquire him right here last month. If Correa goes .280-12-55 and adds 15 steals the rest of the way, don’t say you weren’t given notice).
So why is a 23-year-old pitcher making the jump from Double-A about to get a strong recommendation here? Because 1) It’s been some time since I’ve gone full Gunslinger mode on a player and 2) I think Velasquez will eventually become the needed arm that bolsters an Astros rotation whose ERA would be in the bottom third in the AL if Keuchel wasn’t pitching like a Cy Young candidate and rookie Lance McCullers wasn’t playing above expectations.
What is there to like about Velasquez? He strikes out hitters…..lots of hitters, as in 12.65 K/9 in his five starts at Double-A Corpus Christi (which also happens to be one of the sweetest hangs in the minors) while also keeping his walk rate low (8.9 percent this season). No one is banking on Velasquez whiffing big leaguers at the you couldn’t do this on MLB The Show pace of 19.73 K/9 (with a 54.3 percent K rate) he pulled off in rookie ball last summer. Yet, Velasquez is more polished than one may suspect, more so considering how the Astros have long been wont when it comes to fast-tracking prospects.
The franchise’s fourth-rated prospect, Velasquez is behind only former CC teammate Mark Appel in the club’s pitching pecking order; at last check, Appel, the first overall pick in 2013, has pitched like extended batting practice (3-1, 5.04 ERA, .299 BAA). There are some in the organization who like Velasquez more, a vote that would be more convincing had Velasquez avoided a pulled groin and the pitcher’s Valhalla known as Tommy John surgery. My enthusiasm for him increased further once I projected him through a series of simulations on Out of the Park Baseball, where his career arc yielded AL Cy Young runner-up status as early as 2018.
(Shameless OOTP plug: it works for Fantasy baseball owners. Trust me on this. The sheer dynamic gameplay and inexhaustible possibilities it offers is only the tip of the iceberg, but its hidden gift is the game’s ability to provide sniper-like accuracy in its projections, which is why I’m again in the money in a high-stakes NL-only league. OOTP, without question, is the best sports sim I have ever played, a status it just may retain for the rest of my life).
Velasquez is currently owned in just one percent of polled leagues, as it does remain uncertain whether the Astros will use him beyond Wednesday night. Considering that the likes of Collin McHugh, the Pitcher Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona and Brett Oberholtzer still remain viable options in Houston, I’d strongly go against the grain and bet that Velasquez will have eggs, bacon and a cream cheese bagel along with his cup of coffee. If so, he’s already a must-grab in AL-only formats, while mixed leaguers should check out his K/9 when considering him.
Since the new workout sessions also includes cutting back on cheese, I figured I’d add what I’m missing on (in video form) in preparation for this week’s ride down the bargain bin:
Matt Duffy, 2B/3B/SS, Giants: Major props to none of you who envisioned that Duffy and Brandon Crawford would comprise one of the more productive middle infields in the game. Like Crawford, Duffy has discovered the joys of depositing pitches into the stands, as his five homers already equals his professional best, which he achieved in High-A ball in 2013. Duffy entered Wednesday with multi-hit games in three of his last four starts and has hit .311 with four homers and 19 RBIs since May 1. While he has just one stolen base, it happens to be the hidden gem in Duffy’s game, as he swiped a combined 43 bases in 2013-14. Owned in nine percent of polled leagues, Duffy’s got some upside, especially if he gets the green light to run more often.
Ivan Nova, P, Yankees: Suddenly, the gloom we once felt about the Yanks’ rotation is turning optimistic, as Nova could be one more rehab start from returning to the rotation. He hit 95 mph on the gun in his first start in High-A Tampa, which leads to hope that the two percent of owners who currently own Nova in polled leagues are banking that they’ll see the Nova who won 37 games from 2011-13 instead of the one who had a bloated 8.27 ERA to go along with a 1.84 WHIP and a “Let’s make everyone look like Ty Cobb” .372 BAA last season. They’re scoring runs again in the Bronx, and that potential for run support makes Nova more intriguing.
Joey Butler, OF, Rays: Sheryl Crow once sang about how a change will do you good (don’t believe me? Watch), which fits Butler well these days. The former Rangers and Cardinals vagabond entered Wednesday batting .327 with four homers, 13 RBIs and three steals since being called up on May 2, yet is owned in just 11 percent of polled leagues. His power-speed potential is fun to watch, but it’s his defiance toward the phrase “ball four” which will determine whether he remains a constant in the Rays lineup. He has a 1.8 percent walk rate, which, combined with his 29.4 percent strikeout rate, makes him look like a perfect fit for an Astros roster spot. The batting average will go down, but I do expect his isolated power number (.192) to remain high enough to keep him as a presence in Tampa.
Kennys Vargas, 1B/DH, Twins: Look who’s back? The patron saint of this column finally returned to Minnesota after hitting .327 with three homers and eight ribbies during his 16-game purgatory in Triple-A. I’m still a believer in Vargas’ power potential, yet it’s the .414 OBP that catches our attention here. He is who he is: a slightly better upgrade over Chris Carter, so while no one’s holding their breath that his strikeout rate will dip below 25 percent, improved plate discipline will be a key reason to buy into the Vargas Summer Victory Tour, which currently has just eight percent ownership in polled leagues.
Kevin Jepsen, P, Rays: It’s now Wheel O’ Closers in Tampa, as Jepsen has recorded three of his four saves in the past week. Mixed league owners who missed out on Carson Smith and the potential ninth inning regime change in Seattle can now decide if Jepsen (owned in 17 percent of polled leagues) will get a bigger piece of the pie than Brad Boxberger and Steve Geltz. A longtime setup man, Jepsen is intriguing as a closer, but successful stoppers who average less than eight strikeouts per nine innings (Jepsen averages 7.92 K/9) are prone to eventually lose their status once hitters figure them out. He’s a worthy play and I’d ride him for the time being, but your long term pain tolerance may be the decisive factor.
Randal Grichuk, OF, Cardinals: An already power-challenged lineup (13th in the NL in homers) took a big hit when Matt Holliday went on the 15-day DL on Wednesday, opening the door for Grichuk, who is owned in three percent of polled leagues. The former first round pick (Angels, 2009), Grichuk swatted 65 homers in the minors from 2012-14 while also offering hints of speed as well. He is entrenched in left for the foreseeable future and has a chance to help deeper mixed leagues if he can continue to improve his plate discipline while cutting down his 28.6 percent strikeout rate.
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