For a time the Houston Astros catcher position was the giant elephant in the room….uh….on the 40 man roster. That is what happens when there is four and then five potential catchers on that list. There has been a lot of activity, speculation, moves and false moves relative to the catchers since the end of the 2014 season. Here is a quick list.
- The Astros head into the off-season with Jason Castro, Carlos Corporan and Max Stassi as the catchers on the 40 man roster.
- Castro and Corporan are arbitration eligible and there is speculation that one or both could be on the trading block.
- The speculation intensifies on November 5, when the Astros trade C Carlos Perez and P Nick Tropeano to the Angels for C Hank Conger.
- There are rumors that the Astros are shopping both Corporan and Castro, but are asking for more than anyone wants to offer.
- More confusion, speculation and head scratching ensue when the Astros trade three prospects — Mike Foltynewicz, Rio Ruiz and Andrew Thurman — for Evan Gattis (who played 93 games at catcher for the Braves in 2014) and P James Hoyt.
- In the middle of this, the Astros settle with the arb-eligible Corporan and Conger (~$1 million apiece) and Castro ($4 million).
- Having not been able to trade him up to this point, the Astros DFA Corporan to clear a spot on the 40-man after signing Colby Rasmus.
- The DFA forces everyone’s hand and the Rangers trade 19-year-old pitcher Akeem Bostick for Corporan on Wednesday.
- Rumors that Akeem Bostick will change his name to Hakeem and become a Hall of Famer for the Rockets are denied by all sides.
So where are the Astros at after this much of the smoke settles?
Jason Castro. Castro’s $4 million salary is too little based on his 2013 season (.276 BA / .350 OBP / .835 OPS) and too much based on his 2014 season (.222 BA / .286 OBP / .651 OPS). He has been in double digits in passed balls the last two seasons and has been a little under the league average in throwing out runners in that time.
Obviously the Astros would be happy with any production that was closer to 2013 than 2014 for Castro. It feels like he will not be part of a trade at this point with Corporan gone and with a reasonable agreed to salary for 2015. The real question is how will the work be split between the catchers and whether they are going to use Castro in the DH spot more this season. By money he is the starting catcher, but if he does not show why he is worth four times more than Conger he may not remain so.
Hank Conger. So far in his career, Conger has hit like the normal backup catcher that he is. He has a little bit of pop, but he is probably going to be a .230 BA / .290 OBP / .660 OPS type of hitter.
Defensively, do not expect him to throw out any more runners than Jason Castro does. They both hit in that 23-25% area normally.
Two positive things to expect from Conger:
- He is a good pitch “framer”, which means the way he catches results in more called strikes than the average catcher. Now it is not clear how or if they separate the catcher’s framing ability from the pitcher’s reputation when figuring this out. For instance if you were catching Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, stats would show you as the greatest pitch framer of all time. But Conger is graded high by the experts in this area.
- In 1757 major league innings, Conger has accrued three passed balls. Over the last two seasons in 1798 innings, Castro has accrued 21 passed balls (leading the league in 2014).
It seems reasonable to expect Conger to catch more often than Corporan did, maybe as much as 2 times a week starting and coming in late as a defensive sub.
Evan Gattis. Even if Gattis never dons the catching gear this season, his mere presence would allow Manager A.J. Hinch to substitute late with Conger, because he is more than the normal emergency catcher on the roster. He has played 130+ games at catcher the last couple years and was not horrible there, just not good. He has a big bat and would give the Astros one of the best offensive catchers around, but a guy with back problems and multiple knee surgeries should probably spend the majority of his time resting those parts of his body, not abusing them. Of course if the Astros trade Castro all bets are off.
Max Stassi. Being honest about this young man, it seems obvious that he needs to start 2015 in AAA. He hit very well in half a season at Corpus Christi (AA) in 2013 after being a part of the Jed Lowrie Trade (The Original, not the Sequel) with 17 HR and 60 RBI in only 76 games with a .863 OPS. After the terrifying pitch he took in the face in his short stint with the Astros in 2013, his 2014 season at AAA was disappointing with 9 HR and 45 RBIs in 101 games with a .674 OPS. He will turn 24 soon and maybe some more time at AAA will lead to the kind of numbers he put up in AA. There is no hurry to promote him right now.
Future Attractions. Hopefully something will change in 2015, but the Astros had no decent offensive performance from the catchers in the top half of the minor leagues (Lancaster, Corpus, OKC) in 2014. After Stassi and the long gone Carlos Perez at AAA, Rene Garcia and Tyler Heinemann were pretty bland at AA. Roberto Pena had a .720 OPS at Lancaster, but that is like a .620 OPS anywhere else. Luis Flores, the catcher the Astros drafted in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft is an interesting candidate to make some noise. He had good hitting numbers in AA/AAA last season with the Cubs. The big question with him is why over his fairly lengthy minor league career has he never played more than 67 games in a season.
If any of the minor league backstops step up in 2015 they could climb the ladder pretty easily. There is plenty of room in the system for a hard hitting catcher.
- How do you predict the starts at catcher will be split between Castro, Conger and Gattis?
- Is there a mid-season (or before) trade in Castro’s future?
- Is there any one from the minors that you see as a dark horse to make it to the big club by the end of 2015?