We’ve known for roughly a month that the Astros had a serious interest in a reunion with free-agent catcher Jason Castro, who was the club’s first-round pick way back in 2008. I wrote about that initial rumor here on Christmas and all of what I detailed then still applies today. In short, there was a lack of depth at catcher beyond the primary option of Martin Maldonado that became increasingly glaring as the 2020 season progressed. General manager James Click, based on rumors and various reports, appeared intent on addressing the position this winter. We now know the intent was truly there with the news that Castro is rejoining his original club for at least a two-year stint.
Free-agent catcher Jason Castro in agreement with Astros on one-year contract, pending physical, sources tell me and @jakemkaplan.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 21, 2021
Correction from source: Castro deal with Astros is for two years, not one.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 21, 2021
By bringing Castro back into the fold, the Astros have fortified a position that was primarily handled by Maldonado last season. In fact, 74.6 percent of all plate appearances from a Houston catcher came from Maldonado, who also appeared in 47 games. Only eight catchers had more plate appearances than his 165. Former backup Dustin Garneau and current backup Garrett Stubbs only had a combined 56 plate appearances in 2020. While that distribution of workload might be possible in a shorter 60-game sample, it is a much tougher ask in a full 162-game season. As noted by The Athletic’s Jake Kaplan, it is possible we’ll see a 60-40 or 65-35 playing time split between Maldonado and Castro in 2021.
As I mentioned in December, Castro surprisingly possesses some offensive upside heading into his eleventh major league season. Statcast data indicates a noticeable improvement in contact quality — in this case, barrels — which jumped from 6.8 percent in 2017 up to 17.2 percent in 2019. Even in the shortened 2020 season, the age-33 catcher posted a 14.9 percent barrel rate. Those figures indicate that the change in Castro’s approach as a hitter might stick more so than originally thought a year ago. As pointed out by Darren Willman of Statcast earlier on Twitter, only 18 players had a higher hard-hit rate from 2019-20 than Castro at 49 percent. That’s a rather interesting development for a player not previously known for his offensive prowess, although we should keep our expectations in check.
In terms of the contract terms, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports it is a $7 million commitment for those two years. That breaks down to $3.5 million per season, which is reasonable for someone with Castro’s abilities. Kaplan also notes that it is the same contract length and guaranteed salary as Maldonado’s deal from the last offseason. In addition to the Castro signing, Michael Brantley’s new contract at $16 million per season leaves the Astros around $12.5 million to spare under the tax threshold of $210 million for the 2021 season. That amount is probably enough for Click to add another outfielder or pitcher to help shore up the roster. Jackie Bradley Jr. is a possible fit in center field to help alleviate the departure of George Springer to the Blue Jays. On the other hand, free-agent lefty Brad Hand (pun intended) would improve a bullpen that had the second-highest walk rate last season.