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What are the Astros doing at catcher?

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Philadelphia Phillies Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

As we all know, the Astros missed out on one of their primary targets this offseason: Willson Contreras. Yes, that same Contreras the organization nearly acquired for José Urquidy before this year's trade deadline. Jim Crane reportedly struck down that deal partly due to Dusty Baker's concerns about how Contreras would fit within the clubhouse and, considering Martín Maldonado's presumptive status as the primary catcher, how the now-former Cub would handle the equivalent of a backup role for the remainder of the season leading into his first trip towards free agency. The idea of trading away Urquidy also didn't appeal to Baker, despite the strength of Houston's overall pitching depth.

The decision to pursue Contreras again, this time as a free agent, was a curious pivot. For one, James Click is no longer the general manager, and he was the one who initially pushed for the proposed trade with Chicago before Crane's veto. Wouldn't the same concerns expressed by Baker at the trade deadline, with Maldonado factoring heavily in Houston's plans at catcher — at least for 2023 — still apply?

But, as the dust settled, we learned the Astros were possibly open to utilizing Contreras as the primary designated hitter with the occasional appearance in left field and catcher. This was a plausible solution to bolster the offense, albeit it would limit roster flexibility by necessitating a third catcher on the active roster at nearly all times. But the thought of adding Contreras' bat to the lineup, fresh off 22 home runs and a 132 wRC+ last season, was undoubtedly appealing. In any case, all of my above ramblings are a moot point, as Contreras is now a Cardinal. But the idea of at least platooning at catcher wasn't entirely centered around Contreras, as Sean Murphy was another rumored target this offseason before his trade to the Braves.

A desire to improve the organization's catcher position at the major league level in some fashion is clearly present. If the season were to start today, the odds are high that current internal options Korey Lee and Yainer Díaz would assume the backup role. But is that ideal for the club? The Astros are somewhat content with leaning heavily on Maldonado for at least one more season, growing increasingly evident by not retaining Christian Vázquez, who recently signed with the Twins. But if the rumors are any indication, Houston's front office, regardless of the general manager, is open to improving where they can. There aren't many holes on this roster, but only the Rockies (1.6) are projected to have a lesser fWAR from their catchers than the Astros (1.9).

Contreras and Murphy would’ve brought meaningful improvement to the catcher position, at least in a quantifiable manner. However, there's a catch (pun intended) in this discourse. Evaluating catcher performance extends far beyond those of other positions. I still highly recommend Hatter's post from 2019 titled "Deconstructing the Catcher: Valuating the Five Tools of the Backstop," which does an excellent job breaking down the various aspects of a catcher's value: Hitting, baserunning, pitch framing, throwing out runners, and blocking pitches. If the past few seasons are any guide, it is clear that the Astros value Maldonado's game management skills highly despite lackluster results in other areas. Game management is also not quantifiable. But this aspect of catcher performance is arguably among the most important, considering the influence involved. While established pitchers like Justin Verlander didn't likely require much input besides the occasional advice from Maldonado, the younger pitchers on the staff do.

Maldonado's ability to guide the younger pitchers in recent seasons — including, but not limited to, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, Bryan Abreu, and Urquidy — may not be quantifiable, but an undeniable value is present. The game management aspect assures me Maldonado will remain the primary catcher for at least next season. Fresh off a World Series victory with a vaunted pitching staff — even without Verlander — I can understand why the decision-makers would resist a change for only the sake of a change. If anything else, the loss of Vázquez stings more than many would initially suspect, as he profiled well in sharing the catcher role with Maldonado.

So, where do the Astros go from here?

Depending on how they look in Spring Training, Lee or Díaz could earn the backup role. Again, based on how the Astros value game management skills, the organization isn’t afraid to sacrifice production in other aspects as long as the catchers on the roster continue to handle the pitching staff well. This plan would probably be for the best, considering how there aren’t many external options that offer more upside than Lee or Díaz. Based on projected fWAR, Roberto Perez and Gary Sanchez are the top catchers remaining in free agency. Not exactly high upside options, right? A trade with the Blue Jays for one of their catchers remains possible, albeit increasingly unlikely, as top catching prospect Gabriel Moreno was a part of the Dalton Varsho trade earlier this month.

At this juncture, the Astros are, more or less, stuck with who they have on the roster. While I wouldn’t completely rule out adding another catcher from outside of the organization, the direction of the offseason is trending towards an internal candidate earning the backup role to assume the starting role in 2024 possibly, as Maldonado’s current contract expires following the 2023 season.