What is the 28th-best team in baseball? The Tigers? The Marlins? No. You may never guess. It is actually the 2019 Astros’ AAA team, the Round Rock Express. At least they could be, depending on how the Astros fill the Express’s roster. The Express are potentially that loaded with players that have been in the MLB, are MLB-ready, or are high-level MLB prospects.
This is the point where you might shake your head and think prove it — so let’s do that. We will build the same depth chart page that appears on FanGraphs (here is the Astros’ page), projecting the Round Rock roster using Steamer600 stats (which project how these players would perform full time in the MLB) and allocating them to an MLB season. For each position, as in the depth chart tables, the playing time is allocated by plate appearances. The plate appearances and innings pitched projected are consistent with how FanGraphs projects all of these depth charts. The WAR numbers shown here are ratioed to the playing time. WAR numbers are then added, and each position is compared to how it would rank in the current MLB. Each of the rankings is based on the cumulative WAR. This will become clearer when you see the results. Let’s go position by position.
One thing to remember as we do this. We are evaluating the AAA talent vs. MLB talent. The threshold for being good here is really anything better than the last team in the MLB. If any roster spot on this team is better than say 28th, it would mean that the Express are completely stacked with MLB level talent according to the projection systems.
Despite my repeated calls for upgrades at the catching position, the Round Rock Express would project as a below-average MLB catching crew now. To say Stubbs and Ritchie could be the 23rd-best catching combination in the major leagues is crazy good for a AAA team. Watch to see if 2019 or 2020 is the year Garrett Stubbs makes the big jump to Houston.
As recently as last year, first base may have been considered the strength of this team. It soon may be again, with prospects like Beer on the horizon, but right now this is a position in transition. As it is, this position is ranked 28th in the MLB. A.J. Reed is in his last option year. He will either produce as the top prospect he once was considered to be, or he will have a change in scenery. Abraham Toro-Hernandez, more naturally a 3B, made a few appearances at 1B this spring, and I would expect to see that experiment continue unless Reed or Jones gets very hot. Yordan Alvarez will split time between LF and 1B, but may be better suited to LF. Toro, Alvarez, and Reed are also likely to DH from time to time. Watch to see how Toro and Alvarez develop in 2019. Together they are already a replacement level player at 1B. Toro has also played catcher and second base on a very limited basis. Maybe Toro will become the next Marwin.
Second Base, Shortstop, and Third Base
The Astros are stacked in the infield with Altuve, Bregman, and Correa. With the exception of Toro, most of the highly regarded IF prospects are lower in the Astros’ system. By next year we may see some of those players pushing for time in Round Rock. Overall, the 2B and SS positions are the weakness of the Express and rank well below the 30th-place position group in these areas. Josh Rojas may also surprise some here too. Not that spring training stats matter that much, but Nick Tanielu has had a remarkable spring, and perhaps at age 26 he is a late bloomer–type player. The key for the players in these positions is versatility. Playing time is allocated with that in mind. Overall, the 3B position is ranked 30th.
The Giants recently returned Drew Ferguson from the Rule 5 draft and that further made the OF position a real strength area for Round Rock. Even with projecting Tony Kemp and Jake Marisnick as full-time backups in Houston, this team still has three players who have already seen time in the majors (Tucker, Straw, and Fisher.) A developing team would love to have the OF that the Express has. Again, for this group, flexibility is being developed and this is built into these projections. Alvarez and Rojas are also strong possibilities in LF. I would not be surprised to see the Astros trade one or two of their Round Rock outfielders not named Tucker nor Alvarez. Overall, the LF ranks 21st, meaning that there are ten MLB teams of LF groups projected to be worse than the Astros’ AAA affiliate LF group. The CF groups ranks a respectable 28th, and the RF quartet comes in at 25th. The Astros are stacked with MLB-ready outfielders.
For the DH spot, one would expect the top prospects to get most of the plate appearances in Round Rock so that they have plenty of opportunity to develop their hitting. Assuming this is true, the DH group would project to be an average MLB group (8th of the 15 AL teams). Alvarez and Tucker project to be that good. Alvarez will be an interesting story to watch develop in 2019.
Putting the entire position group together, one is left understanding how strong the Express really are. The entire offense ranks 29th in the MLB — better than the Orioles (at a fraction of the cost). Tucker, Alvarez, Stubbs, and Toro lead the offense. Overall, the offense in Round Rock, the Astros’ AAA franchise, is a replacement-level MLB offense.
The starting pitching in the Astros’ system is extremely deep. It is likely that not all of the players here listed will even be with the Express. Some are likely to start in Corpus Christi, partly because the Astros will use tandem starting with the Hooks, and this can keep their innings down as they build up stamina for the MLB season. For these projections, I have taken the best and assumed I can use the pitchers to maximize quality. The Express staff as shown here would project to be the 28th-best in the MLB. I suspect that several more teams would rather have this group of starters than their own. There are at least six players here (Armenteros, Valdez, Whitley, Bukauskas, Perez, and Martin) that the Astros will be counting on for a lot of innings in the next few seasons.
The Astros’ bullpen has a few signature players who will soon be counted upon for future team success. Some of these players are also listed as starters and may play the swing starter role for the Astros in 2019 or 2020 (Perez, Deetz, Martin). Overall, this relief core would be the 29th-best in the MLB.
Full Disclosure: I cheated a little by putting Framber Valdez on this team. I suspect he will actually rotate with Armenteros, Rodgers, Perez, and Guduan for time in Houston and time in Round Rock. When the Astros are ready to promote Whitley, it will have an interesting domino effect on the rest of the pitching staff. To make the point of how good Round Rock could be, I left Framber on the Express.
Putting the starting and relief innings together, the Astros staff has a very formidable group for years to come. This group would rank as the 28th-best in 2019, but there is a bright future for this group ahead.
The Express are potentially a truly balanced team with both offense and pitching able to compete at or near MLB levels. The hitting would have a projected WAR of 10.7, and this is 29th-best. The pitching would have a projected WAR of 6.5, and this is 28th-best. Overall, the Round Rock Express would have a projected WAR of 17.2, and this is 28th-best in the MLB — better than the Marlins and the Orioles. Most Astros fans in 2011 to 2013 wish the MLB Astros had been as good as the 2019 Round Rock express will be, talent-wise.
The fact that we can even make the argument that the Round Rock Express are better than the Orioles and the Marlins is crazy. It is further evidence that you do live in Baseball Paradise, Astros fans.
Round Rock, get ready to watch MLB-level talent every night. For fun, call them the Round Rock Astros.