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Can Jack Cust Awaken With The Astros?

For those of you in a hurry, the likely answer is to this question is, ahem, no.

But this is such a curiously confounding signing for the Houston Astros that I feel rather compelled to give it a little digital ink.

So — yes, Jack Cust has just signed a one year deal with a club option for 2013, which happens to be the year the Astros will be moving to the American League West. Yes, this is the very Jack Cust who turned in the .213/.344/.329 line with three home runs over 270 plate appearances in Seattle. The same Jack Cust who was picked up by the Phillies and summarily released after six games. The same Jack Cust who historically has been a particularly terrible outfielder, so you have to wonder exactly how he’s going to be used in Houston.

Houston clearly sees some potential in him. Should you and your fantasy squad see the same?

Cust, who just turned 33, represents one of the most precipitous declines in memory from a pretty attractive bat to a black hole within an awfully short time-span. From 2007 to 2011, he exemplified feast to famine:

Granted, very few members of the 2011 Seattle Mariners hit the ball at all as has been well documented. But the wOBA for left handed bats at Safeco Field is a not-so-horrible 96 according to Stat Corner where 100 is league average. Even for home runs, Safeco rates as a 95 for lefties. Looking at the Coliseum where he had his most productive days, in 2011 it rated as a 95 for wOBA and an 89 for home runs for left handed bats. This is likely what Jack Zduriencik and company were at least in part paying attention to when they brought him on to help them out in Seattle and it simply blew up in everyone’s collective faces.

But Houston is obviously willing to bet that the trend line in 2011 represents a blip on the radar for this once productive bat and perhaps he can regain some of that power stroke he demonstrated in Oakland not so long ago.

Using the same gauge of park factors above, Minute Maid Park rated a 102 and 107 for left handed batters relative to wOBA and HR, respectively. So at a minimum, he’s moving to a more friendly environment. He is, however, likely to platoon versus right handed pitchers. It remains to be seen if he’s actually going to play a corner outfield position every time a right handed starter is on the hill, but should you have the roster space in a deep or league-specific format, it’s not entirely insane to think you might make decent use of his career 247/.383/.486 line with a near 18% walk rate, .219 ISO, 130 RC+, and .372 wOBA (vs. RHP).

If you accept that 2011 was just an ugly outlier, Cust could appear on some radars, given the right league format.

What’s likely happening is the Astros are paying him something near league minimum in terms of salary, looking to catch lightning in a bottle in order to have a club controlled DH headed into their big move to the American League at a fraction of the price. For a team with little to play for in 2012, that probably makes some sense.

But for fantasy purposes, Cust is going to have a pretty big burden of proof to overcome in order to impress fantasy owners enough to sign him up for what would amount to daily transaction platoons. Should you be in NL-specific formats that allow daily transactions and if you have a particularly roomy bench, selecting Cust at the end of your draft isn’t a terrible idea. If he regains at all the ability to crush right handed pitchers the way he has in the past, he could be quite handy — and if the cost is next to nothing, then you’re probably right in line with the thinking of Astros GM Jeff Luhnow: If he fails to produce, it didn’t cost much.