Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Sixty-five and 50. For the Houston Astros, the first number doesn't matter at all and the second means everything.
No, those numbers do not represent Houston's win totals in the last two seasons, though that would be a good guess. The first is actually second baseman Jose Altuve's height, in inches. The second? The number of games shortstop Jed Lowrie has started this season, already a career high. Together, the middle infield combination has created fantasy intrigue around a team in which there was expected to be none.
Altuve, a 5-foot-5 22-year-old from Maracay, Venezuela, is batting .326 with four home runs, 22 RBIs and 10 stolen bases after he went 2-for-5 with a homer, a steal and two runs scored Sunday against the Chicago White Sox. The two runs give Altuve 39 on the year, while the two hits give him 78, third-best in the National League behind San Francisco's Melky Cabrera and Atlanta's Michael Bourn.
Lowrie went 0-for-5 Sunday, but it will likely be a temporary downswing for a player who homered in each of the three games prior to Sunday and four times in the past seven. This season, Lowrie, a former Boston Red Sox player who was acquired for reliever Mark Melancon in the offseason, is batting .289 with 12 home runs. The latter figure is first among major league shortstops.
Altuve has clearly proven his diminutive stature means absolutely nothing when it comes to swinging the bat. The 22-year-old has been hitting .300 in his sleep the moment he was signed by Houston as an undrafted free agent back in 2006.
Altuve hit .343 in the 2007 Venezuelan Summer League, .324 for his 2009 rookie ball team, .308 with Low-A Lexington in 2010, .408 in 52 games with High-A Lancaster in 2011 and .361 in 35 games later that season with Double-A Corpus Christi. The second baseman was elevated right to the big league club in July 2011 and he hasn't returned to the minors since, though he did play in the Venezuelan Winter League, batting .339 in 273 plate appearances.
Altogether, Altuve collected an incredible 282 hits between Single- and Double- A, Houston and the Venezuelan Winter League in the 2011 calendar year, so it's safe to say the hitting didn't suddenly start this April. Still, the current shortest player in baseball didn't draw much fantasy interest because he hit just .276 with a .654 OPS in 57 games at the big league level last year, and that was all the information fantasy owners had to go on. That and also that he played for Houston, a team that boasted a 35-year-old Carlos Lee as its best fantasy position player in 2011.
On average, Altuve was picked 242nd in Yahoo! leagues, 38th among second baseman. That Kansas City's Yuniesky Betancourt, Tampa Bay's Sean Rodriguez and even part-timer Eduardo Nunez of the New York Yankees were picked before Altuve at the position should tell you something about what fantasy owners expected from Houston's second baseman this season.
Lowrie, meanwhile, fell to similar draft depths as his double-play partner. The shortstop didn't go until the 232nd pick on average in Yahoo! leagues, as journeyman Jamey Carroll of Minnesota and rookie Tyler Pastornicky of Minnesota both went above him. But Houston's shortstop job was his the moment he joined the team, even though he had to miss the first week with a sprained right thumb. Sometimes opportunity is all that matters.
Lowrie clearly answered the door when opportunity knocked, and he now ranks fifth among shortstops and 80th overall this season in Y! leagues.
The 28-year-old never received this type of extended opportunity with Boston due to injuries and competition from free agent signee Marco Scutaro, who ironically also was traded this offseason, leaving the Red Sox with Mike Aviles and rookie gloveman Jose Iglesias to compete for Boston's shortstop gig.
Aviles won that, and though he's been a solid fantasy contributor -- .263, eight homers, 37 RBIs, seven steals and a 70th overall ranking -- we wouldn't blame Boston if they would prefer to have Lowrie right now.
Fantasy owners likely do, especially given Lowrie's performance as of late. Meanwhile, Aviles has been frequently moved down from the leadoff spot due to his inability to get on base with any consistency. His OPS is getting uncomfortably close to .700, while Lowrie's is north of .900.
Besides Jordan Schafer, no other Houston position player is worth owning in mixed leagues, and Schafer only draws interest because of his 14 stolen bases.
Altuve and Lowrie clearly saved the Astros from being a complete fantasy wasteland, and I would be comfortable penciling them both in to my fantasy lineup over the rest of the season. Both should post top-10 numbers at their respective spots going forward, with Altuve having top-5 positional upside due to his stolen base potential.