There are fewer questions for the Astros now than there were at the beginning of last week, a week that transpired in dramatic fashion for the organization. In a surprising move, the Astros re-signed left fielder Michael Brantley to a two-year, $32 million contract, and then opted to reunite with catcher Jason Castro, whom they signed to a two-year, $7 million contract.
Given that George Springer had just made his Astros departure official by agreeing to a deal with the Blue Jays late last Tuesday night, the Astros agreeing to terms with Brantley the day after made for impeccable timing, especially in the wake of earlier reports that morning claiming Brantley was to join Springer in Toronto.
Aside from the outfield and the bullpen, the one other position that needed addressing this offseason was catcher. The Astros had been linked to Castro since Christmas and did well to sign him to affordable terms, as he could end up being a bargain for the club financially.
A most important signing
Heading into this winter, it was known that this would be the Astros’ most consequential offseason in recent memory. With next offseason likely to be even more crucial, it cannot be understated how vital it is for the Astros to come away from this one with Brantley in tow.
Without Brantley, the Astros’ lineup still projected to be a formidable unit in 2021, but with him back in the fold, the offense should be one of baseball’s most potent.
Brantley, who turns 34 in May, seemed to outperform his peripherals in 2020, but considering the brevity and abnormality of the 2020 season, as well as Brantley’s onslaught in the postseason against high-quality pitching, it would be reasonable to expect him to replicate the numbers he’s produced the past few years. Projection systems such as ZiPS and Steamer appear to mostly agree with that notion.
There is something to be said about how Brantley will fit in with the 2021 team. Yordan Álvarez, the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year, will be returning from a pair of knee surgeries. It could be reasonably expected that Álvarez will not play in the field this year out of caution, as all of his value is tied up in his prodigious bat.
This means Brantley will likely need to play in the field far more often than he did last year, when he was the DH in more than half of the games he appeared in. It’s not to say that Brantley is incapable of playing in the field regularly — he did so in 129 games in 2019 and in 134 games in 2018.
The reality is that if Brantley’s nursing injuries during the 2021 season as he did in 2020, he won’t be afforded the luxury of sliding into the DH slot for a stretch of time. Not while Álvarez is healthy.
If nothing else, Brantley’s leadership and intuitiveness will count for something, and it could be needed with one of the Astros’ most beloved and respected leaders now playing for Toronto.
An under-the-radar addition
It’s been a tumultuous last few years for Castro. In 2018, his season ended early due to a knee injury, and in 2020, he appeared in only 27 games because of the shortened season. But in between those two years, he produced some awfully interesting data, as detailed by Cody Poage last month.
Were it not for the other catcher on the Twins’ roster, Mitch Garver — who exploded in 2019 — Castro’s strong numbers wouldn’t have been overshadowed that year.
Because they played the same position, it was difficult for both to be in the lineup consistently, and since Garver was one of the hottest hitters in baseball, he took priority. Castro would finish the season with roughly half a season’s worth of plate appearances.
If Garver hadn’t required the lion’s share of playing time in Minnesota, it would be realistic to think that Castro would have finished the 2019 season as one of the 10 best catchers in baseball that year, and could have seriously altered his career trajectory.
Despite spotty playing time in 2019, Castro ranked fairly well among all catchers in terms of WAR that year. According to FanGraphs (fWAR), Castro was 15th, and Baseball Prospectus (WARP) had him 17th. James McCann, who recently received a four-year, $40.6 million contract from the Mets — in large part because of his 2019 output — was ranked 37th by BP, as his WARP was 1.0. Castro, who accrued 201 fewer plate appearances than McCann, had a WARP of 1.9.
With a purportedly full season scheduled to begin in just a little more than two months, Castro could make a serious impact for the Astros. Though Martín Maldonado is reportedly expected to play more often, Castro could nonetheless provide a substantial boost offensively at the bottom of the order, particularly against right-handed pitching.
Defensively, Castro lacks Maldonado’s arm strength, but he’s long been a quality framer. Once the season is underway, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Castro progressively get more playing time and perhaps overtake Maldonado as the Astros’ primary backstop.
A needless conundrum
The Astros retaining Brantley and adding Castro cost them a combined $19.5 million in tax space in regard to the Competitive Balance Tax threshold, which may as well be a salary cap now, as even the Yankees went so far as to trade Adam Ottavino for nothing so they’d be below the $210 million threshold.
Once shortstop Carlos Correa’s arbitration case is resolved, the Astros will either be $12.9 million or $15.2 million below the tax, according to Cot’s. This is relevant information because the Astros arguably still have a sizable hole in their outfield.
Signing free-agent center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. has been heavily speculated about and is the popular choice. General manager James Click said last week that the Astros might be less aggressive going forward in regard to free agency, which seems to hint that the club is unlikely to sign or even seriously pursue Bradley, who is in the spotlight now that Springer and Brantley have signed.
At this point, Myles Straw is the Astros’ projected Opening Day center fielder. For a team that has championship aspirations, opting to start an outfielder who’s projected by ZiPS and Steamer to be no better than replacement level is befuddling, especially considering the fact that the Astros still have a good chunk of change left to spend.
Of course, it’s not as simple as it being Bradley-or-bust, as the free-agent and trade markets offer financially cheaper alternatives — ones who project more favorably than Straw. Time will tell if Click and the front office view Straw as their man.
Regardless of what happens in center field, and the loss of Springer notwithstanding, the Astros have regained much of their former strength this offseason, one that looked bleak just a week ago.