With All Star Weekend fast approaching, we need to keep our eyes on another important date on the calendar...
It’s no big secret to say that the biggest need the Houston Astros have at the major league level is behind the plate. The duo of Jason Castro and Mártin Maldonado, while defensively sound, are both already 35-years-old. That’s not even to mention their combined .133/.216/.236 slash line. Clearly, both have seen better offensive seasons, but even at a defense-first position such as catcher, the two rank dead last in terms of productivity out of the 30 major league teams.
Some might point to the Astros’ affiliate system and name-check current number-two prospect Korey Lee. The 23-year-old righty has likely the strongest arm in the system from behind the plate, clocking in with a scouting grade of 70. He threw out 43 percent of basestealers last season in the minors, and he can hit for power. Unfortunately, he’s currently hitting just .216 at Triple-A with the Sugar Land Skeeters.
Houston’s organizational depth chart also boasts 23-year-old Yanier Diaz (ranked 14th) and 24-year old Luke Berryhill (25th). With all the talent in the wings, could Houston’s answer behind the plate actually come from elsewhere?
As I said, the All Star break is approaching, which means the draft. Just on the heels of that annual event, on (or approaching) July 31, Houston has a real chance to make a splash in their run for a second World Series Championship, at the trade deadline.
The trade deadline separates teams into two categories: teams who are competing for a title this season, and teams who are ready to build for future seasons. It’s clear that the Astros are still in their contender’s window. It should come as no surprise to anyone when they send away part of their armory to bulk up their current gun rack.
Which catchers will be available come the trade deadline? A few names come to mind. In no particular order, here are a few with expiring contracts that are most likely to get some attention from the Astros.
Gary Sánchez has never hit for average, but a career .793 OPS is a clear upgrade from the status quo. Long tagged as a defensive liability, Sánchez is actually a net-positive behind the plate, clocking in at 1.4 dWAR over his career per baseball-reference. After seven seasons with the Bombers, he’s currently backstopping the Minnesota Twins. As the Twins are also a “contender,” they may be more likely to hold on to a good thing than trade him away. Still, at just 29-years-old and on an expiring contract, the Twins are using Sanchez as their designated hitter more often than not, relying instead on Ryan Jeffers to backstop most games.
Austin Barnes is a backup catcher on another contender, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now in his eighth season with the Dodgers, he has a career .225/.335/.357 slash line. He’s been a defensive asset throughout his career, posting positive dWAR in every major league season. He’s also a bargain, three years younger than Houston’s current stable, and has 40 games of postseason experience. Although it may seem a wash, his admittedly meager slash line is a clear upgrade, and he could be exactly what the Astros need to be .01 percent better when every sliver counts.
Before you start sensing some sort of trend, Tucker Barnhart is playing for the Detroit Tigers, a team that is assuredly not going to be in any sort of postseason contention. The 31-year-old lefty-batting catcher is a two-time former Gold Glove winner, most recently in 2020. Although he seems to be in offensive decline, he’s still defensively viable, throwing out baserunners at a better than league average clip.
The real prize if the Astros take this route, of course, is Willson Contreras, playing for the already-out-of-contention Chicago Cubs. Just barely north of 30, Contreras was a two-time All Star, a capable if not flashy defensive catcher, and a continuing offensive threat. With a .264/.379/.495 line which works out to a 144 OPS+, 109 total bases (just one off the team lead), and a major league-leading 14 HBP, Contreras will work any and every angle to get on base.
Although some of these players are questionable upgrades at best, Contreras could be a difference maker in most facets of the game. Let’s face it, the Astros FO needs to build a team that can defeat the New York Yankees in a best-of-seven series, as the title will go through the Big Apple this season (maybe twice). Wouldn’t it be cool to see Houston defeat the Yankees and Mets in back-to-back series?
Whatever the case, thanks for reading, and let me know what you think in the comments.