Watching Astros pitchers, NL East first base prospects

Dallas Keuchel has had a rough go of it since returning from the disabled list. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Fantasy owners really enjoy the vaunted, league-leading Houston Astros offense, but the team's pitchers are starting to annoy. This weekend the AL’s top team is scheduled to throw right-handers Charlie Morton and Mike Fiers at the division rival Rangers, and then on Sunday, the biggest enigma of all, lefty Dallas Keuchel -- with a Cy Young Award to his credit, a baffling follow-up in 2016 and then a Jekyll and Hyde performance this year -- takes the mound.

Keuchel is the lone Astros starting pitcher owned in more than 80 percent of ESPN standard leagues, which speaks to the relative confusion surrounding this rotation, but he’s pitching the worst. Keuchel has made three starts since coming off the disabled list for a nerve issue in his neck, and he’s permitted 14 runs in 12 innings, with 23 hits and eight walks allowed. Not surprisingly, Keuchel hasn’t won any of those outings. If he’s still hurting, then put him on the DL. The organization has depth.

By this point of the fantasy season we can start placing owners into classes, as the ones contending are generally paying attention and the ones in eighth place might be feverishly researching handcuff running backs for upcoming drafts, or perhaps how the onset of rookie point guards will affect the NBA. Hey, hoops are big! I’m into hoops! Anyway, Keuchel could get statistically obliterated by Adrian Beltre, Joey Gallo and the gang and not see a major drop in ownership, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people aren’t giving up on him.

My advice is to leave Keuchel on your bench this weekend. Don’t activate him, but don’t send him into the free agent netherworld where the guy or gal next to you in the standings can add him and wait for improved performance, which is problematic at this point. Morton and Fiers have been more valuable lately and that could continue, and each strikeout option is available in many leagues. If they thrive this weekend, will it be enough to force fantasy owners into adding them? Right-hander Brad Peacock pitched Thursday against the White Sox and again looked great, and his owners would like him to remain in the rotation. After all, his performance warrants it.

Anyway, it’s August and all the weekends are important, so here are 10 other players, themes, matchups on my mind.

Young NL East first base prospects: The Philadelphia Phillies gave first baseman Rhys Hoskins a mere three games in left field at Triple-A Lehigh Valley before promoting him to the majors, and he batted seventh Thursday, drawing a walk in three plate appearances. Hoskins brings a nice combination of power and plate discipline, but it’s premature to call him a must-add. Nine more games in the outfield and he’ll add that eligibility. If you’ve got room on your bench to add and see if Hoskins can be a star, go for it. The New York Mets also decided to promote their first base prospect Dominic Smith, who has proved himself at each minor league level but lacks intriguing power. The Mets will likely platoon him with Wilmer Flores, since Smith does not hit lefties well, but regardless, there is upside here but Hoskins should be added first.

Young AL third base prospects: Oakland’s Matt Chapman and Nicky Delmonico of the White Sox are seeing opportunity and could become fantasy-relevant at some point soon. I’ve heard Todd Frazier comps for Chapman, who has power and can defend but struggled to hit for average even in the minors. Delmonico boasts modest power and plate discipline and has been playing left field, and even with Avisail Garcia back he could keep playing since third base is open.

NL Central catchers: Recent Cubs acquisition Alex Avila is the obvious one, since starter Willson Contreras is out for several weeks and the Cubs will face a pair of right-handers in Arizona this weekend. But the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina and Reds’ Tucker Barnhart are top-10 on the Player Rater for the past week, and one of them is readily available. And Milwaukee’s Manny Pina hasn’t produced much of late, but for those seeking a safe batting average, he seems to qualify.

Middle infielders new to the D.C. Beltway: Baltimore Orioles second baseman/shortstop Tim Beckham is one of fantasy’s most added players, as he’s hit in each game for his new team and has been scoring and knocking in runs as well. On Thursday night in Oakland he even led off! Meanwhile, Washington’s Howie Kendrick boasts a .349 batting average, though we’d like to see him also moved up in the lineup. He and Adam Lind seem to be handling left field quite nicely.

Cardinals power: With everyone hitting for power, it’s interesting that the Cardinals have nobody with more than 16 home runs, and that guy was in the minor leagues two months ago. Paul DeJong continues to bat third, even with his nine walks versus 76 strikeouts, but it’s working. The 6-foot-7 Jose Martinez plays left field as if he should be a first baseman or designated hitter, but the team is desperate for productive outfield so he plays, and he could become relevant as well. Those guys plus veteran Dexter Fowler (grand slam on Thursday), Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong are out there, so perhaps a productive weekend against Braves pitching will sway things.

Danny Duffy vs. Reynaldo Lopez (Friday): Duffy has been a bit inconsistent, having permitted three home runs in two of his past six outings, but really should have little problem with the White Sox offense. We shall see. Lopez makes his White Sox debut after striking out 131 hitters over 121 innings at Triple-A Charlotte. Strike out many Royals and that should be noticed.

Jon Gray vs. Jose Urena (Friday): Gray has disappointed this season and mostly on the road, where his ERA is 6.67 in six starts, albeit with an excellent strikeout rate and unlucky BABIP. Urena is one of the few pitchers with double-digit wins still available in two of every three ESPN leagues (JC Ramirez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela), which could quickly change if he wins this one.

Jose Berrios vs. Jordan Zimmermann (Saturday): The young Twins right-hander hasn’t pitched well in two of his past three outings, so perhaps fatigue or something else is the problem. Zimmermann boasts three consecutive quality starts, and while that isn’t nearly enough to convince me he’s back to his old Nationals ways, since he has done major ERA damage in the American League, it likewise doesn’t mean he’ll get hammered by the Twins.

Jeremy Hellickson vs. Kendall Graveman (Sunday): Battle of the low-strikeout options! Hellickson’s two Orioles outings have been pretty good, and he even fanned nine Angels in the recent one. Graveman has fared terribly since coming off the DL. Hellickson has to be the pick, but Graveman has to be better than this, too.

Closing time! All closer situations seem relatively clear for the first time in a long time, but keep an eye on Rockies, Angels and Giants. It’s certainly possible that if Greg Holland has another rough outing it’s exposing a physical issue. Bud Norris didn’t get either of the past two Angels saves and has a home run problem, and his past seven outings have ceded 13 earned runs. Cam Bedrosian is probably taking over. And Mark Melancon could return from the DL before you even read this, so be prepared.

Thursday hitting notes

If you want more proof that the home run rate has never looked this ridiculous, Cincinnati Reds infielder Scooter Gennett bashed home run No. 19 on Thursday, a grand slam off Padres All-Star lefty Brad Hand. Gennett remains cautiously owned but it all looks legit, and he’s also outfield-eligible.

Baltimore rookie Trey Mancini smacked a pair of home runs to reach 20, each off a right-hander, which probably continues to shock his manager, who initially wanted to employ him solely against left-handers. Mancini has 16 of the home runs against right-handers. Next year: 30 home runs, with both first base and outfield eligibility.

Thursday pitching notes

Seattle lefty James Paxton not only didn’t beat the Angels but left with a pectoral strain, and we might not see him for a while. Paxton has been tremendous this season, an actual top-10 starter on the Player Rater, but he’s still never topped 20 starts in a season, and with this injury, we might have to keep waiting.

Cleveland right-hander Danny Salazar was a bit wild against the Rays, walking four but also striking out eight, but he allowed only one run. If you need strikeouts, invest in this guy. Alas, he’s not the most durable fellow either, but when he can pitch, he’s generally worth it.