On December 5th, the Astros signed catcher Victor Caratini to a two year, $12 million dollar contract. Most Astros fans will be elated to not have to see Martin Maldonado take important plate appearances in 2024. Managers will always make sub-optimal decisions, but seeing Dusty Baker start Maldy in almost every playoff game last year was probably one of the most mind boggling decisions I’ve ever seen, and that is coming from a guy who has worked for the government. Adding Victor Caratini gives the Astros a lot of depth at backstop and allows the team to give Diaz more rest days than if they re-signed Maldy. However, the Astros have a few holes that they need to fill this winter; so was this the best use of resources?
Maldonado vs Caratini:
To understand if this deal is worthwhile, we must first asses how much Caratini is worth over the alternative, which was probably Maldonado. According to Baseball Savant, in 500 innings Caratini was worth plus 4 defensive runs in 2023. Over 1000 innings, Maldonado was worth a dreadful negative 16 runs. While it is very likely that Maldy would experience some positive regression to the mean in 2024, it is also possible that at age 37 he will decline even more. Offensively, Caratini is a significant upgrade as well. ZIPS projects Caratini to be worth over ten runs more offensively than Maldy this upcoming season. Overall, the service projects Caratini to be worth around two more wins than Maldy, both defensively and offensively.
Maldonado is probably going to make around $4 million dollars next season, so for an extra two million, the Astros have improved their projected win total by two wins. This number could go up significantly if Diaz has to take a trip to the IL.
Where else could the Astros have spent this money?
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that Crane will not substantially go over the luxury tax threshold. So Dana Brown probably has less than $20 million to improve the team. Outside of a backup catcher, the two main holes on the roster were the bullpen and starting pitching depth.
Relief pitchers are the most volatile assets in baseball, check out Cody’s recent article on why the Astros should find bullpen pitchers, not buy them. Although there are rare exceptions, it is usually unwise to pay for bullpen help. Instead, it is better to pick up a reliever for cheap, like the Astros did today with Dylan Coleman, and attempt to improve them. Signing a reliever for $6 million is significantly more risky than signing a position player with a track record of success. Also, for the most part, a reliever cannot fill in for a starter if there is an injury, so there production and utility is limited. However, if Diaz gets injured, then Caratini has the capability of filling in as the starting catcher.
Signing a decent starting pitcher for $6 million would be difficult: however, for an extra six they could have signed Kyle Gibson. Pitching depth is a lot like Keystone Light, you can never have too much of it; but perhaps Dana Brown trusts that Garcia and McCullers will be back in time to take the pressure off younger arms like France and Brown. Unlike backup catcher, more starting pitching is something the Astros may not actually need. Hopefully, Verlander, Valdez, Javier, Urquidy, Brown, and France can stay healthy until July when the rotation will get Garcia and McCullers back. Even if they are not, the Astros have minor league options available.
It is possible that signing a pitcher like Kyle Gibson would add no marginal value to the team. Over 100 innings, it is highly likely that Brown and France will be just as good as him. However, it is very unlikely that Caratini would not be a significant upgrade at backup catcher.
Conclusion: A savvy move by Brown
The Astros do not have much money to spend this offseason, so they have to be efficient with their payroll. By signing Caratini for a mere $6 million, the team is likely to improve by at least two wins, maybe more if there is an injury. Also, it is unlikely that the team could have improved the roster by that much if they signed a bullpen pitcher or a bottom of the rotation starter. By making this move, Dana Brown is showing that he can be a resourceful allocator of capital, not just a good scout. Well played Mr. Brown!