You will read a lot of articles and posts on social media that range from head in the sand refusal to do anything at catcher to pipe dreams that expect the Astros front office to get an All-Star level catcher for their 100th prospect straight up.
This article will do three things
Make the case that a change at catcher IS needed
Explore the reasonable and best options to upgrade at catcher
Define real and fair trade deals for BOTH sides
The goal of this article is that we stop arguing whether the Astros need to do something at catcher and begin to discuss WHAT they need to do.
At the end of this you are going to analyze 90% of what others say on this subject and realize it is lacking. THIS is why you need LarryTheGM.com and why you should subscribe.
YOu can also follow this up with our analysis of First Base here.
Why the Astros need to improve at Catcher
Age is undefeated in baseball. Bill James stated when I was a kid and has repeatedly shown players reach the baseball performance peak and age 26-28. Their skills diminish gradually at first and then the performance rapidly declines at age 33+. Yes there are the rare exceptions of players that excel into their late thirties, but sooner or later the decline comes. This is why no teams want to sign long term deals to players over age 32.
I will credit Daniel Meyer at the Astros Locker for this addition to this article because it will help you understand the significance of what I am about to say. As Daniel showed, Fangraphs updated the aging curve in October 2021. Chet Gutwein included this graph in the Fangraphs article on aging.
Martin Maldonado is 35.8 years old and Jason Castro is 35.0 years old. In general, batters lose 5-10 wRC+ per season at age 35. Here is their data (batting, overall value, defensive value) over their age 30-36 seasons.
Castro has seemingly lost it in all aspects except throwing out runners. His defensive metrics have been diminishing for several seasons. He was a clutch PH last year and that is about it. I hate to say it but Castro is done as a viable MLB catcher.
People insist Maldonado is this defensive God as a catcher. He isn't ANYMORE. Maybe he WAS in 2017-2018. Now he is simply an atrocious hitting catcher that is good at throwing out runners trying to steal and apparently an excellent game caller and pitching staff manager. He is at -4 DRS this year. his defensive WAR number is only +2 at the one-third mark. I know defensive metrics can swing significantly, but there is no strong case to make that Maldonado is the defensive player most think he is.
His only decent hitting season was 2020 when he drew 16.4% walks. Thats down to 6.3% BB% now and it is just an UGLY 33 wRC+. The 2020 season for Maldonado was an anomaly offensively and his average wRC+ over 2017-2021 excluding 2020 is 71. Given that, one can see how the current full season projection of 62 wRC+ for Maldonado is right in line.
Maldy should be moved to the Marisnick defensive replacement mode IF the catching upgrade they get is not as good as Maldy. Otherwise, Maldy should be used as a spot started at catcher vs. LHSP. Hire him as a pitching coach next year.
How bad are the Astros Catchers offensively this year?
There are 61 catchers who have 50 PA in the MLB this year.
Astros Catchers are
52nd and 56th in xwOBA
54th and 57th in wRC+
So these catchers have been unlucky but even accounting for that, their batting is still horrible. It's worse than horrible. They are likely to be doing better offensively with waiver wire catching retreads or just letting Korey Lee and Yainer Diaz catch. Of course, that is not going to happen.
One more catching truth bomb. The Astros tandem of catchers has a combined -1.0 WAR one third of the way through the season. ONLY the 23-33 Orioles are worse and they have the best catching prospect in a decade who just debuted on 5/21/22. Welcome to the worst catching value in baseball Astros fans.
One of the key questions when looking at the projections for the rest of the season for Maldonado and Castro. Do we believe who they have been through one third of the season or do we believe they are going to get their performance to the far more reasonable that the Fangraphs Depth Chart system projects them to be the rest of the year?
How one answers that probably dictates how important they believe an upgrade at catcher is.
Do you think Maldonado (33 wRC+ in 2022 and 63 wRC+ in 2021) will bat 76 wRC+ the rest of this season? I don't. I think at age 35, Maldy is more likely to hit 45-55 wRC+ than he is 76 wRC+
Do you think Castro (19 wRC+ in 2022 and 123 wRC+ in 2021- an anomaly) will bat 92 wRC+ the rest of this season? I don't. I think at age 35, Castro is more likely to hit 55-75 wRC+ than he is 92 wRC+
If I am right the Astros MUST upgrade at catcher.
Don't tell me about hidden value. Don't tell me all of this is washed over with how these two manage the staff. Give me catching that is at least 70 wRC+ (not 62 and 67) and a POSSIBLE threat offensively.
While we as Astros fans can hope for Korey Lee perhaps next season, he does not appear to be ready THIS year. Lee is currently batting 0.211/ 0.265/ 0.405 in AAA which is a 61 wRC+. Will he get better? YES, he is 23. I completely believe he will be ready at some point in 2023 but not now. With the two 35- year old catchers struggling and no reason to have confidence they will bounce back, the Astros need catching help THIS YEAR if the goal is a championship and it should be.
What Are the Reasonable and Best Options to Upgrade at Catcher
The Astros need a catcher that is a better (but not necessarily great) version of Maldonado. This catcher would be a BRIDGE to Korey Lee and/or Yainer Diaz or another prospect that is drafted. They need to be capable of being a starting catcher. With the rest of the Astros lineup they do not HAVE to be an All-Star.
I have chosen my words VERY carefully here. We are going to apply filters to the FanGraphs.com active career catchers list. I am only going to suggest players that
have had >600 PA in their careers- there are only 33 active catchers. Catching is a rare commodity so teams are NOT likely to trade a top catching prospect nor would the Astros be willing to pay that price. Given the team needs, an experience catcher would be better.
are a viable offensive threat- preferably 70+ wRC+ career- this filters out 2
are at least decent defensively (positive career Def WAR)- this filters out 5 more
are on teams that are already projecting to NOT be in pursuit of a postseason appearance (teams with <0.440 winning pct- OAK, BAL, DET, KC, MIA, WSH, CHC, CIN, COL)- this leaves only 6. As the season progresses there may be more teams to add to this list. This will give the Astros more options.
are less than 33 years old- all are
have reasonable trade values
I am going to include rentals (FA in 2023) but the strong preference will be in players who are not FAs until 2024 but if longer they are likely to have too high of a trade value.
This is why you have me. Everyone else is going to push a ton of frankly stupid trade ideas at you that will likely not meet multiple of the filters I suggest. So here are the SIX catching trade possibilities that meet these screening filters before we consider trade value.
So what will the trade cost be for these players? I also got the trade values from baseballtravevalues.com. I do this for an independent vetting of trades. Are they perfect? No, but this keeps a trade proposal from being simply a subjective I think they can trade this for that exercise. This filter cuts two more.
So now we are left with four possible trade options to improve the catching position. So what about these four with the same data we showed for Maldonado and Castro? Given the projected stats for the rest of the season how do these four compare?
What are Real and Fair Trade Deals for BOTH Sides
Despite the fact I do not believe the projections for Maldonado and Castro, I am going to compare how these four are projected to finish 2022 to the projected season stats for Maldy and Castro. none of these trade options can match Maldy in throwing out base stealers. However, in 2022 the art of the SB is down significantly and the value of a cannon behind the plate is down with it.
So what are the trade options and how likely are they?
Elias Diaz- if we believe the projected stats there is no real justification to trade for Elias Diaz. Given that he is not a free agent until after the 2024 season, it is also unlikely that the Rockies will really want to sell him yet.
Trade proposal- cash
Likelihood of trade- 1
Tucker Barnhart- If one again believes the 2022 projection stats, Barnhart is a marginal upgrade at best but the improvement is not even statistically significant. IF Castro does not produce at the projected level or if the Astros have a reason to question his physical status at age 35, a low trade cost deal for Barnhart MIGHT make sense. It might come down to who do you think is more likely to improve in 2022- Castro at 35 or Barnhart at 31. Barnhart is a LHH dominant switch hitter. He would most likely slot as the BACKUP catcher. Barnhart is making $7.5MM this year and is a free agent after this season.
Trade proposal- cash or low level prospect (PTBNL) deal
Likelihood of trade- 3 but rising with Castro's struggles
Jacob Stallings- Even with the inflated projection numbers for the Astros catching duo, Stallings does project as an improvement and would likely be the PRIMARY starting catcher. He is equally as strong as Maldy defensively as he won the 2021 NL Catcher Gold Glove. He is not a free agent until after 2024 season. So why would the Marlins make this deal? The Marlins appear to have a mediocre roster. They are middle of the pack in projected WAR in almost every position. They appear to have had some significant pitching injuries (Luzardo, Poteet). IF the Marlins go into sell mode the Astros should be ready with a deal.
Trade proposal- Solomon and Santos (Trade Value- 4.5) for Stallings (5.0)- per baseballtradevalues.com
Likelihood of trade- 7- for me its a 9. The Astros front office is probably at a 5 right now. They will move up.
Wilson Contreras- If the Astros want to push in all of the chips to go for a title in 2022, the best answer is Contreras. Contreras is one of the best hitting catchers in the MLB. He would be a MASSIVE upgrade offensively and very well might slot in fifth in the Astros batting order between Alvarez and Tucker. He is a free agent after this season and this keeps his trade value more reasonable. Contreras is a fairly average to below average catcher defensively in 2022. He was pretty good defensively in 2020. At age 30 he is still producing near prime production. If the Astros go this route, expect that Maldy might be deployed as a late inning defensively replacement at catcher in the postseason. (Also Lee might be the third catcher in this scenario.) This is the go big or go home option.
Trade proposal- McCormick (Trade Value- 22.4) or Urquidy and Solomon and Santos (Trade Value- 17.5) for Contreras (15.8)- per baseballtradevalues.com
Likelihood of trade- 3- for me its a 5. The Astros front office is probably at a 3 right now. By the time they decide to make a deal, I expect Contreras will be already traded. The Yankees can and probably will spend more.
So there you have it. I would trade for Stallings. Of course, I would have traded for Stallings in July of 2021. At least I am consistent.
As stated earlier, time may push more teams into sell mode but with very few viable trade target options, the team needs to monitor additional opportunities closely. We will revisit and revise this article as the trade deadline approaches.
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