Yesterday, the Astros introduced their new signee José Abreu and owner Jim Crane took some questions from the media. “We have to look at the catching, maybe another outfielder, and you can never have enough pitching,” Crane said, per Chandler Rome of The Houston Chronicle. In relation to the catching side of their pursuits, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that the club plans to meet with Willson Contreras at the Winter Meetings, which go from this Sunday, December 4, to Wednesday, December 7.
Their interest is perfectly understandable, given that Contreras is one of the better catchers in the league, particularly at the plate. This year, he hit 22 home runs and slashed .243/.349/.466. His production has always been above average, but this year’s wRC+ of 132 was a career high. His defense isn’t rated as strongly, but that could make him a yin to the yang that is Martín Maldonado, who generally hits at a below average level but is stronger on the other side of the ball.
Contreras almost became an Astro months ago, as the club apparently agreed to acquire him from the Cubs in exchange for pitcher José Urquidy. However, Crane reportedly stepped in and put the kibosh on the deal. Instead, the Astros pivoted to Christian Vázquez, acquiring him from the Red Sox. Vázquez is now a free agent, so Houston once again will need a catcher to pair with Maldonado.
Crane has subsequently dispatched general manager James Click and now seems to be running the baseball operations for the club, with a new general manager unlikely to be hired until the new year. Though Crane didn’t like the deadline deal, Contreras is now a free agent, making it more straightforward to attain him at this point. He did receive and reject a qualifying offer, however, meaning the Astros would forfeit their second highest pick in the upcoming draft and $500K of their international bonus pool if they did end up signing him.
In terms of the money, the Astros still have plenty to work with, even with their recent aggression. Their signings of Abreu and Rafael Montero bring their payroll to $183MM, per Roster Resource, with a competitive balance tax figure of $198MM. In his remarks yesterday, relayed by Rome, Crane said “we certainly have the ability to go at or over” the luxury tax. This year’s lowest CBT threshold will be $233MM, giving the Astros about $35MM of wiggle room remaining between them and the line. MLBTR predicted Contreras to get a contract of $84MM over four years, which would be an annual average value of $21MM.
Fitting Contreras into the remaining funds before the luxury tax line would be easy, but the club is also looking for outfield help as well. However, Rosenthal notes that part of the appeal in Contreras for the Astros is that he can play left field, theoretically lessening their need to bring in another outfielder. Contreras does indeed have some limited outfield action on his résumé, but most of that came in his rookie season in 2016. Over the past three seasons combined, he’s only seen a single inning on the grass.
Having Contreras fill a backup catcher role while also occasionally serving as the designated hitter and playing some outfield would be a creative way to keep his bat in the lineup while Maldonado catches but it would also come with risk. Though Rosenthal notes that the left field area at Minute Maid Park is relatively small, it’s hard to know how Contreras would fare out there given his lack of recent playing time in that position. Also, on days where Maldonado is catching and Contreras is the designated hitter, the club would likely need to keep a third catcher on the roster in order to avoid a situation where Maldonado is injured and Contreras has to move behind the plate, causing the team to lose their DH.
From Contreras’s point of view, if he wants to keep catching, it might not be appealing to suddenly be bumped into this type of utility position compared to simply signing to be another club’s starting backstop. The Cardinals and Tigers have been connected to him in rumors already, while other clubs like the Red Sox and Diamondbacks are known to be looking for help behind the plate. Then again, the Astros are the defending champions and don’t seem to be taking their foot off the gas pedal this winter. Perhaps moving from a rebuilding Cubs team to a surefire contender would be appealing enough that Contreras would embrace this unique plan.