While not heavily mentioned by MLB.com as particularly active this trade season, it seems exceedingly likely in spite of a rocky start to 2016 that the Astros are once again deadline buyers this season, and not just to address holes at the major league level...but possibly also to address mounting logjams at the upper minor league levels.
Welcome to part two of an eight-segment, position by position rundown of the situation with the club, and then we'll examine possible (and perhaps even likely) outcomes of these situations near the end of the series. Here's the schedule, so you know when to expect each article:
Pitching: Published April 25th, 2016
Catching: April 26th, 2016
First Base: April 27th, 2016
Second Base: April 28th, 2016
Third Base: April 29th, 2016
Shortstop: May 2nd, 2016
Outfield: May 3rd, 2016
Conclusions Drawn: May 4th, 2016
It is true that this is a perceived weakness in the Astros system, and not without reason. Jason Castro is certainly an elite defensive catcher despite struggling to maintain offensive consistency, but is well in his prime now and, barring a contract extension, appears destined for the open market after the 2016 season concludes. Eric Kratz is not and never has been a long term option, nor are many Astros fans likely hoping or expecting him to be.
Evan Gattis is a possibility behind the dish, as has also been discussed at length and which appears to be an experiment we will all get to witness sooner rather than later. Gattis is a better defender back there than he is frequently given credit for, but his injury history behind the dish is a concern, and he certainly does not cover the significant difference in value between his own pitch presentation abilities and those of Jason Castro with his bat. All in all, it's a step down in overall value for the Astros from the catcher position - though perhaps not a huge one.
That leaves the minor leagues, where some talented defenders reside. Max Stassi and Tyler Heineman have drawn praise for their pitch presentation abilities, and Roberto Pena is well regarded for the Howitzer attached to his right shoulder. Jamie Ritchie in Lancaster offers an intriguing combination of solid defense and a sparkling career on-base percentage and was cited in a piece by FanGraphs on April 21st of this year as the top "deep sleeper" catching prospect in baseball, per KATOH. Drew Stubbs won the collegiate gold glove behind the plate, and fellow-2015 draftee Anthony Hermelyn was a leader and played all over the field for the Oklahoma Sooners before the Astros drafted him as a catcher. Not even mentioned yet is a young man who could conceivably be the most talented catcher in the bunch if he manages to assimilate the sum of his tools into one cogent package - Alfredo Gonzalez.
There likely aren't any Buster Posey clones in the system, but the Astros are in far better shape - at least, based on what we know of how the Astros evaluate catching value - than national Top 100 Prospects' lists might have one believe.
Still, it doesn't seem terribly likely for the Astros to trade from their pool of catching talent to make an impact acquisition. It has been posited far and wide by many an Astros fan for months now that Jonathan Lucroy would make an excellent target. In many ways, that could be true.
However, looking at his recent injury history and a down season last year, combined with the fact (insert stock "short sample size" disclaimer here) that his slugging percentage for 2016 entering play on April 25th is .359 (compared to his .428 career mark, and .513 peak in his best overall offensive season) with an ISO of .063 coming into play on the 25th and falling off even from his .078 mark when this article was embarked upon (compared to his .147 career mark, and the .193 peak mark) and a likely-unsustainable .380 BABIP that's well above his career mark of .311, and this writer's interest is cooled a bit. Add to that concerns over how many innings he'll be able to catch with his injury concerns, his age and relative proximity to free agency, and the huge price tag expected (understandably so, given his elite status through 2014) by Milwaukee in return, and the deal is a "no-go", red flag-laden mess, it appears.
It's really just a question of cost efficiency - is the size of the actual upgrade he might (might being a key there, it starts with whether he can remain on the field and behind the plate, which is an unknown but questionable variable at this juncture) provide over Castro worth how much the Astros would have to spend in minor league capital to land him?Bearing in mind that things like pitch framing purportedly make up a much higher percentage of actual catcher value than offense does?
This writer would say no.
Therefore, unless a player like Buster Posey, Salvador Perez, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, or Francisco Cervelli come available for some reason via trade, it seems a safe bet from this writer's point of view that the most intriguing move the Astros might make from a catching standpoint would be to jettison Eric Kratz and make Evan Gattis the full-time second catcher.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part Three, examining the first base situation in Houston and its trade potential!