New universe

Astros' move to American League has ripple effect on fantasy baseball

Updated: February 22, 2013, 12:22 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

A reminder: The Houston Astros, members of the National League since their inception in 1962 (though back then, they were the Colt .45s), move to the American League West this season.

We mention this because, frankly, if we didn't, the 2013 Astros might scarcely have drawn your attention, beyond the likelihood that they'll lead the major leagues in losses with a total higher than 100.

Three Astros grace our current top 300 players, with only one of those in the top 250 (the number of draft picks in our standard game), so at first glance, the team's league switch might not appear a big deal. The quick fantasy take might be that Jose Altuve migrates from the NL- to AL-only player pool, further thinning an already weak NL second base pool, and not much else will be different.

However, it's the subtleties of such a major baseball decision as a team switching leagues that might sneak past you. Now, subtleties might amount to $1-$2 changes in auction player price, a handful of picks (maybe a round's difference) in a draft or a very slight tweak to your strategy, but they're subtleties worthy of discussion nevertheless. Remember, every buck counts.

Among them: Expanded interleague play resulting in 20 such games apiece for each of the 30 major league teams, scattered across the calendar instead of confined to specifically scheduled chunks of time; a shift in volume of available players in singular (AL- or NL-only) leagues; and the potential impact within the two divisions directly affected by the Astros' move.

Interleague play

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz could be seeing fewer at-bats during critical times of the season thanks to some late interleague games.

Along with seeing five teams listed in the 2013 AL West standings, interleague play will be the obvious change fantasy owners notice, beginning with the Los Angeles Angels at Cincinnati Reds game at 4:10 p.m. ET on Monday, April 1 -- that's right, the traditional Cincinnati home opener is an interleague game.

It's a matter of math: Two 15-team leagues mandates daily interleague play, and an increase in interleague games per team to 20; previously every American League team played 18, while National League teams played between 12 and 18 apiece. The result is 48 additional interleague contests overall in 2013, or a 19 percent increase upon Major League Baseball's 2012 total.

It's the daily aspect of interleague play going forward that necessitates a shift in fantasy strategy. As longtime fantasy owners know, interleague play adds two wrinkles to lineup planning: One -- which affects your offense -- is the impact of the designated hitter, which is granted to NL squads at AL parks but denied AL teams at NL parks; the other -- which affects your pitching and ties to the first point -- is that AL pitchers get the advantage of facing lighter, DH-free lineups when visiting NL parks, while NL pitchers face greater challenges with a DH rather than the pitcher batting in AL parks.

Previously, these considerations were confined to one weekend in mid-to-late May and a two-and-a-half-week stretch in June. In 2013, there is only one designated interleague period on the schedule -- what MLB calls the "traditional rivalry" portion -- and it's only a four-day span from Monday, May 27 through Thursday, May 30, or just over half of fantasy's Week 9 scoring period.

That's especially important for head-to-head owners to remember, because it means there's a chance that you could lose a valuable hitter -- an AL designated hitter -- to an interleague game at an NL park during a critical weekly matchup. For example, the Detroit Tigers are the unfortunate squad to finish the season with an interleague series, and that one's at Miami's Marlins Park, meaning Victor Martinez could spend the final days of your championship matchup as a real-game pinch hitter.

You can see the entire list of AL teams with interleague games at NL parks in the sidebar to the right, but here are some other things you might want to think about as you plan your draft and subsequent in-season strategy:

" The Boston Red Sox are one of three teams that won't play their first interleague games until that "traditional rivalry" period of May 27-30, and the Red Sox are one of two teams that play as many as eight games in NL parks after the All-Star break. The Red Sox play the entire Week 20 (Aug. 19-25) in NL venues, and they, like the aforementioned Tigers, spend part of the season's final week (Week 25, Sept. 23-29) in an NL park (granted, it's Colorado's Coors Field). Incidentally, the Red Sox are scheduled for just five games in that final week. David Ortiz's owners might lose some at-bats from him during the stretch run.

" The Baltimore Orioles are the other team that plays eight of 10 games -- keep in mind that every team plays two games in NL parks between May 27-30 -- after the All-Star break. The Orioles, in fact, play two consecutive weeks of interleague play in mid-August (Weeks 18-19, Aug. 5-18), including eight consecutive games in NL parks (at San Diego, San Francisco and Arizona, Aug. 6-14), and follows this two-week interleague stretch with a treacherous rest-of-August intraleague schedule including three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, Red Sox and New York Yankees. Wilson Betemit, likely the Orioles' primary designated hitter, might not be as painful an absence as a player like Martinez or Ortiz, but he's an AL-only factor, and there'll be fewer at-bats to go around if the team has other DH candidates emerge in-season as well.

" The Rays, for two weeks at the end of July and beginning of August, play nothing but interleague games. Both of those weeks -- Weeks 17-18 (July 29-Aug. 11) -- are five-game weeks, the latter spent entirely in NL parks. Sensing a theme here with the AL East having a trickier interleague schedule?

" Showing it is no better for NL West teams -- they play the AL East during interleague play -- the Arizona Diamondbacks have arguably the most difficult interleague schedule of 2013. In addition to facing every AL East team, their "traditional rivalry" matchup is the Texas Rangers, another offensively sound squad. Incidentally, the Diamondbacks play 13 of these 20 games after the All-Star break, including 10 in a 16-day span from July 30-Aug. 14. If the price is right, Diamondbacks starters could be worth shopping around midseason.

" The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants play every member of the AL East plus "traditional rivalry" matchups with the Angels and Athletics, respectively, so neither squad has it much better than the Diamondbacks.

" The Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins are the two teams that are entirely done with interleague play before the All-Star break. The Chicago White Sox, meanwhile, are done with interleague play during the first weekend following the break.

" The Twins, incidentally, play parts of three consecutive weeks in late May and early June in NL parks. From Weeks 8-10 (May 20-June 9), they will play two or three games in NL venues without a DH, spending the rest of the week in AL parks with a DH. And remember, the Twins are one of those teams with a DH rotation, meaning catcher and first base will become somewhat more cluttered between Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit and Justin Morneau in those weeks. On the bright side, the Twins complete the road portion of their interleague schedule in the shortest span of days: 38 days (between May 20 and July 26).

" The Rangers are the quickest AL team to finish the road portion of their interleague schedule: Their final game in an NL park is on June 23. Keep that in mind before someone tries to convince you that, "Oh, Lance Berkman will lose a couple of at-bats due to interleague play in the second half." The loss-of-DH impact on Berkman will be felt only in April (3 games), May (4) and June (3).

" The Kansas City Royals, who are faced with the difficult choice between Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer at first base during their interleague games at NL parks, will be the first team to significantly feel the loss-of-DH pinch: They play the most games in NL parks in April (5), visiting Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park from April 5-7 (Week 1) and Atlanta's Turner Field from April 16-17 (Week 3).

" There are four scoring periods all year without an AL team playing at an NL park: Weeks 4 (April 22-28), 11 (June 10-16), 16 (July 22-28) and 24 (Sept. 14-22).

The AL- and NL-only player pools

Altuve's loss from the National League player pool is the most substantial of any individual player, but in AL- and NL-only pools, there will be a somewhat noticeable impact, even if it's merely a matter of mathematics.

The "no-duh" numbers: There is one fewer team in the NL, meaning one fewer squad to draw from in order to fill an NL-only roster, and one more in the AL, meaning one more team of eligible choices for your AL-only squad.

Break it down deeper: A typical major league team, no matter its quality, is granted nine nightly lineup spots, 162 starts, and a minimum of 1,377 pitching innings (barring rainouts) -- opportunities added to the AL and subtracted from the NL. The 2012 major league team lows were 5,967 plate appearances and 1,413 2/3 innings pitched, and considering the 2012 league totals in either categories, that means a minimum increase of 6.9 percent in PAs and 7.0 percent in innings. There are therefore that many additional opportunities to fill your draft needs in an AL-only league, and approximately 6.0 percent fewer such opportunities in an NL-only league, adjusting that percentage to account for PAs spent by pitchers. (The innings percentage, however, would mirror the AL's increase.)

[+] EnlargeJose Altuve
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJose Altuve is one of the few Astros with considerable value in all fantasy leagues.

The way AL- and NL-only owners might notice this impact is twofold: One is in terms of save opportunities. There are now 15 closer jobs to go around in either league, instead of 14 in the AL and 16 in the NL, so the race for saves will be impacted. Though I am among the biggest proponents of the argument that all-time-worst teams tend not to generate many saves, the fact remains that the major league low in save opportunities by a team in 2012 was 44 (Toronto Blue Jays), while the low in saves was 28 (Cubs). Jose Veras -- or Josh Fields or Jarred Cosart or whomever the Astros' closer is -- might not be a name that excites you, but that his saves will count in the AL rather than NL slightly shifts the saves balance.

The other is that fantasy owners digging deeper in an AL-only league might find 1-2 additional late-round plug-ins, especially for those No. 2 catcher, corner and middle infield and fifth outfielder spots, while those in NL-only formats will find the pool drier on those lower tiers. Names like Justin Maxwell, Jason Castro, Carlos Pena, Brett Wallace, Chris Carter, Tyler Greene, Fernando Martinez and a handful of others might not grab you. But as you approach those latter draft/auction stages in AL-only, you're much more apt to say, "Hey, they might be similarly skilled, but Fernando Martinez has a much better shot at 400 PAs than Michael Taylor, so I'll draft him." Conversely, NL-only owners, who in the late rounds might have seen Martinez's name, might be saying, "Boy, outfield dried up really quickly this year!"

There's a good chance, too, that your already existing AL- or NL-only league might need to make team and/or roster adjustments accordingly. For example, expert leagues like the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) and Tout Wars, which have sported 13-team NL-only leagues for years, are paring their rosters to 12 teams in both their AL- and NL-only formats in 2013 to better balance the draft resources available in either league.

If you play in a keeper league, how are you handling Astros players? (Let's hope that the answer is, "We addressed it before the 2012 season." Considering how late the announcement last year, however, we'd understand if you did not.) Do owners get a one-year grace period on, say, Jose Altuve if they owned him in an NL-only league, allowed to keep him (even as an AL player) with the knowledge he'll be forfeited at year's end? Do you play in an AL-/NL-only league partnership where you might offer a trade arrangement like the ones you'd allow in-season? For example, perhaps NL-only owners of Astros players can trade those players to their AL-only counterparts, if those AL-only squads might have a player who signed with an NL team during the winter.

The key as you adjust: Set your rules and outline them clearly.

Balance of power in the AL West and NL Central

This is perhaps the most meaningful impact of the Astros' league change, but it's also the one most likely to sneak up on people.

The fact is, the 2013 Astros represent one of the strongest bets to lose at least 100 games of any team since the turn of the century, and there is a reasonable chance they could challenge the 2003 Tigers' total of 119 games lost. Let's say, for example, that the Astros lose 110 this season. Everyone realizes what moving, say, 90 wins from one division to another means, but it's every bit as relevant what moving 110 losses from the NL Central to the AL West does:

It increases the statistical upside of the more competitive AL West squads, period.

Major League Baseball goes to a more competitively balanced schedule in 2013, or at least a set of criteria identical for all 30 teams. Every team plays:

" 19 games apiece versus 4 division rivals: 76 total games.
" 6-7 games apiece versus 10 same-league-but-other-division teams: 66 games.
" 20 interleague games.
" Grand total: 162 games.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesWhat could Mike Trout do in 2013 with some extra games against the Astros' pitching staff?

Those 19 intradivision games match the number that AL West teams played against one another in 2012, which is what might be glossed over by fantasy owners. Consider, however, that AL West teams previously played only three division rivals -- it was a four-team division -- but now they play four, just like any other team. What that means is that AL West teams will play 76 games within the division, up from 57 a year ago, and it means 19 additional games against the Houston Astros that previously might have been scheduled against the Red Sox, Royals, Cleveland Indians and Twins. Those four teams are picked for a reason: They were the four worst teams from the AL East and Central in 2012, but there might not be anyone out there who thinks any will be worse than the Astros in 2013. The schedule, simply put, gets easier as a result.

Last season, the Houston Astros averaged a major league-low 3.60 runs scored per game with a .673 team OPS that ranked second-worst. On the mound, they sported a 4.56 ERA, which was sixth worst, and their starters' ERA was 4.62.

Give the Angels, Athletics, Seattle Mariners and Rangers 19 games apiece against that team, and a case can be made every one of those division rivals could be 3-4 wins better this season solely because of the new division alignment. Many are already saying that the chances of both wild cards coming out of the AL West are excellent; those claims have validity.

From a pure fantasy aspect, you can count on all of those new Astros rivals having as many as 19 additional favorable matchups, if you play in a league with daily transactions. It can be argued that AL West players -- especially those Angels, Athletics and Rangers -- might be $1-$2 more valuable apiece in auction formats simply because they play so more games against the Astros.

That's not to say that you should alter your draft strategy to load up on Angels, Athletics and Rangers. But if you're at the draft table and value a player from one of those teams almost identically to one on any of the other 27, there's good reason to use the division alignment as a virtual tiebreaker.

Again, all of these things might be judged of minimal impact once 2013 statistics are in the book. But there's that word -- minimal -- that is every bit as apt a description of the edge a fantasy owner seeks to get ahead.

The smallest nugget can make the largest difference. Do not, therefore, cast division realignment aside as irrelevant, even if you're tempted to do so with the 2013 Astros as a team.