The Astros have been connected to various catchers this offseason. They had reported interest in free agents Willson Contreras, Christian Vázquez and Tucker Barnhart and also contacted the A’s to explore a trade of Sean Murphy. However, they missed on all of those targets, as those free agents have since found new teams and Murphy was dealt to the Braves.
Things have been fairly quiet for a while now, as their interest in Barnhart was reported back on December 7 and little mention of their plans behind the plate since. It would stand to reason that they still need to be on the lookout for upgrades, however, as their current catching corps is noticeably weaker than last year.
In 2022, the Astros began the season with Jason Castro as the backup to Martín Maldonado. Castro got into 34 games by the end of June but hit the injured list in early July with knee discomfort. He would later require season-ending surgery and then announced his retirement in December. The Astros acquired Vázquez at the deadline to help them down the stretch, though he reached free agency at season’s end and has since signed with the Twins.
With Castro and Vázquez out of the picture, that leaves Maldonado as the clear top option on the depth chart. He’s now 36 years old, turning 37 in August, and just underwent sports hernia surgery in November. He’s expected to be ready for Spring Training, but there’s obviously risk with a club’s primary catcher being on the older side. Though Maldonado is well regarded as a game-caller and leader of a pitching staff, he doesn’t rank very well in objective statistical measures. He’s been a below-average hitter in each season of his career apart from the shortened 2020 campaign, leading to an overall batting line of .209/.285/.349. That production has been about 28% below league average, with his wRC+ coming in at 72. However, the Astros seem to be perfectly comfortable living with that tepid offense in order to get Maldonado’s other qualities in the dugout and clubhouse.
In July, there was a one-month period where Castro was out and Vázquez had not yet been acquired. In that window, the club promoted prospect Korey Lee. Going into 2022, Lee was considered the club’s top prospect, with shortstop Jeremy Peña coming in second. That high ranking came on the heels of a strong 2021 that saw Lee go from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A in his age-22 season.
Unfortunately, 2022 didn’t go as smooth for Lee. He got into 12 MLB games in the month of July but hit just .160/.192/.240. That’s a tiny sample and he was still quite young, turning 24 years old that month. He spent most of the year in Triple-A, where he did hit 25 home runs, but in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. His .238/.307/.483 batting line was actually 10% below league average in that environment, with his wRC+ finishing at 90. Perhaps most concerning is that he struck out in 28.5% of his plate appearances, a huge jump from his previous stops in the minors. Baseball America dropped him to #6 on their most recent list of Houston prospects. It’s still possible that he’s the club’s catcher of the future, as he won’t turn 25 until July, but he might still need a bit more time in the minors to continue developing.
The only other catcher on the club’s 40-man roster is Yainer Díaz, who’s 2022 was essentially the inverse of Lee’s. Díaz went from being considered by BA to be the club’s #16 prospect at the beginning of the year to #2 by midseason. With a bat-first reputation, Díaz put that on display last year. Beginning 2022 in Double-A, he hit .316/.367/.504 for a wRC+ of 121 in 57 games and got promoted to Triple-A. At that new level, he hit .294/.342/.587 in 48 games for yet another wRC+ of 121. He was able to make his major league debut late in the year but didn’t hit much in just six games. That offensive production is certainly encouraging, but his defense isn’t as highly rated. He spent some significant time at first base and in the outfield corners in order to get his bat into the lineup last year. It’s arguable that he doesn’t need much more time in the minors from an offensive perspective, but he’s also only played 48 Triple-A games. Since he’s still just 24 and his defense is a work in progress, more time in the minors wouldn’t be a ridiculous proposition either.
The Astros showed last year that they’re not afraid to rely on a young and unproven player on Opening Day. Going into 2022, they replaced Carlos Correa with Jeremy Peña, who had no major league experience yet. That was certainly risky, but it worked out for the club, with Peña having a very good season and eventually winning World Series MVP. However, that kind of rookie breakout isn’t something that can simply be relied upon. As it currently stands, the club has a 36-year-old starter who doesn’t hit much and is coming off surgery, followed by two youngsters who each have tiny bits of MLB experience and arguably still need regular playing time in the minors.
The club is surely aware that it needs to do something, based on their interest in other backstops this winter. But most of the best options are off the board now, which leaves the Astros looking at Gary Sánchez, Roberto Pérez and Jorge Alfaro as some the top names still available. Those players each have their merits but are considered a tier below guys like Contreras, Vázquez or Murphy.
None of those players will likely require more than a one-year deal, so it’s possible that 2023 is sort of a wait-and-see year behind the plate in Houston. Maldonado is also a free agent after the upcoming season, so perhaps the club can ride with him and another veteran for the year, with either Lee or Díaz hopefully taking over and securing the job for 2024. The Astros still have a very strong roster, as they are the defending champions and have added José Abreu to replace Yuli Gurriel in their thunderous lineup. Justin Verlander has departed for the Mets but the rotation should still be in good shape without him. Despite the club’s strengths, their division looks much more challenging than it did a year ago, as the Mariners had a breakout year in 2022 while the Angels and Rangers have each been very active in upgrading their rosters this offseason. For the Astros, the catching corps stands out as the one weak spot on their roster and should still be addressed before they begin their title defense.