It’s common for fans to lament their club’s lack of catching depth. When looking up and down a lineup, trying to find the best areas for improvement, the backstop’s batting line is likely to stand out. I’d argue that this is often misguided— how many offensive threats are there at the position leaguewide at any given time? Not many— but it is definitely important for teams to maintain a steady supply of catchers who are capable with the mitt if nothing else.
In the latter 2010s, the Astros found themselves a bit thin behind the plate at the minor league level, opting to employ a string of veterans on short year deals at the big league level rather than attempting to establish a long term, home grown option. That strategy has continued into present day at the big league level, with Martin Maldonado taking up the mantle from Robinson Chirinos, Brian McCann et al, but the club has simultaneously done a lot of work to overhaul their depth at the lower levels, to the point that it now looks to be one of the stronger position groups in the organization, and perhaps one of the stronger catcher groups around minor league baseball.
The shift started with the selection of Korey Lee in the first round of the 2019 draft, a pick that was viewed as a bit funky on draft day but has continued to look better and better in the days since. Now ranked by many as the club’s top overall prospect (myself included), Lee has sharpened what was an already well-rounded skillset gradually throughout his trip up the minor league ladder. He had little difficulty transitioning to the upper minors as an offensive threat, and his strong, laser-precise arm behind the dish has drawn a lot of praise wherever he’s gone. While there are still some areas of improvement to focus on for Lee (most notably elevating the ball more consistently at the plate and game-calling at a major league level), he has the look of the team’s catcher of the future, and more or less all by himself was able to alter the complexion of the position group in the organization as a whole.
While Lee is the poster boy for the Astros’ improved depth behind the plate, he’s not the only component. Through a combination of development and acquisition, the team has been able to improve the lower level depth as well, and they now sport a diverse group that looks well equipped to fill out a big league catching room someday. Likely the most exciting name after Lee is a new one to the system— 2021 trade deadline acquisition Yainer Diaz. It’s unique for a World Series contender to acquire prospects at the deadline, but in this scenario it actually made a lot of sense. For starters, reliever Phil Maton was the centerpiece of the deal from the Astros’ standpoint, and their trade partner, Cleveland, is currently sorting through one of the more intense roster crunches in the sport- so packaging a prospect to fill out the deal made a lot of sense for them.
While the Guardians likely wouldn’t have ended up with enough room to protect Diaz anyway, his stretch run performance in the Houston organization probably stung their supporters at least a little bit. The youngster was already performing at a high level with the stick in the Cleveland org, sporting a .314/.357/.464 slash line at the time of the deal, but their depth prevented him from moving past Low-A on the minor league ladder. In the Houston system, he was given a quick promotion to High-A, and responded by swinging an even hotter bat, finishing the season on a .396/.438/.781 (!!) tear in 25 contests, with an absurd 11 home runs. Open side video of Diaz’ late season heroics is limited, so it’s hard for me say whether the explosion was the result of mechanical tweaks or not, but it was nonetheless very refreshing to see such a display of power from a player whose raw power had always outstripped his pop in games.
Diaz is 23 years old already, but catchers are afforded longer timelines than most players, and part of his slow climb up the ladder can be attributed to Cleveland’s depth, as mentioned above. There are still concerns around his high swing rate, but that also improved a bit with Houston and his strong contact rate and power potential help to offset the issue. There’s a lot of developmental road ahead of Diaz yet, but I think it’s more than fair to say that he carries the ceiling of a top-2 backstop on a big league club, perhaps even the main man.
Lee and Diaz headline the group without a doubt, but it’s rounded out nicely by some older players with potential in their own right. My personal favorite in that mix would be Scott Manea, who is already 25 years old but also might be the best pure receiver in the organization save for Martin Maldonado. Manea’s athleticism doesn’t stand out, but he has a very durable build and does the little things very well, including working counts at the plate. He projects as a backup catcher type at the highest level, but could be a very good one. After Manea, there’s another new face in Luke Berryhill, who was acquired in a trade with the Reds to little fanfare, but had an outstanding offensive year even if the contact was a bit light. He also stands out for his personality. Digging deeper still, there are a couple of guys who have shown flashes of potential with the bat in the midst of some struggles with injury in the form of Nathan Perry and CJ Stubbs, who face longer odds to reach the highest level but nonetheless possess the talent to do so.
With little exception, all of these players have joined the organization over the last ~3 seasons, completely transforming the look of the position organizationally. While we haven’t seen it bear out at the highest level just yet, it’s looking likely that the first homegrown Astros catcher to take regular duties since Jason Castro will be debuting soon, perhaps as soon as mid-2022. The Astros have faced some difficulties on the minor league side in recent history for obvious reasons, and their ability to restock behind the plate through a variety of means has been an impressive feat.