The Astros seem serious about upgrading at catcher

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Nam Y Huh/AP/Shutterstock (13136088t) Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras watches his two-run home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers in Chicago Brewers Cubs Baseball, Chicago, United States – 20 Aug 2022

The Astros seem serious about upgrading at catcher

Coming into the winter meetings, Houston Astros fans knew that the Astros would be meeting with Willson Contreras face-to-face. It seemed a little weird but knowing that a contingent of front office representatives flew to Florida to meet with José Abreu appears to imply that these face-to-face meetings are the new normal. Why not do it in person if you are trying to sell yourself as an organization? Dusty Baker revealed that there may have been a little reassurance scheduled in this meeting as well.

Baker held a press conference where he touched on plans for a designated hitter, catcher, and Yordan Alvarez‘s playing time in the outfield. But the primary focus of the news conference centered around the upcoming meeting with free agent catcher Contreras and the reason Baker felt the Astros shouldn’t trade for him at the trade deadline last season. But those same reasons don’t apply at the moment. The Astros and Baker want Contreras now!

The question is, as I discussed on the Locked On Astros podcast, do they want him as a left fielder/ designated hitter who rarely catches, or do they want him as one of the primary catchers? While Baker did not address it openly, some comments make you think they are looking at him as a catcher who serves as an occasional designated hitter.

Baker’s Comments

With what Dusty said about not wanting the Astros to trade for Contreras at the deadline, it almost appeared that he was apologizing to the free agent in his press conference. He hinted that 60 days was not enough time for Contreras to learn the pitching staff before the postseason started. If you remember, this was a rumor at the trade deadline that teams were concerned about Contreras’ catching.

“It’s not that I didn’t want him, at the time, I didn’t think it was the proper fit with two months to go in the season. You have to learn the pitching staff, how we go about doing things. I didn’t feel there was enough time to do that”

Dusty Baker via Chandler Rome

But now, they seem interested in him being a catcher who will be an occasional designated hitter. He could learn about the pitching staff during spring training and through communication with them in the offseason. Contreras is not known as a great defensive catcher, which is what the Astros appear to favor with Martín Maldonado aboard and the trade for Christian Vázquez last season. Contreras is a three-time All-Star (2018, 2019, and 2022).

Baker also said, “If the numbers are right, the years are right, and the situation is right, then it’s right for both of us. If not, we still have some catching depth.” There you have it. If the Astros don’t sign Contreras to catch, they still have some depth behind Maldanado in Korey Lee and Yainer Díaz. Baker went on to say that if they sign a catcher, they may have to let one of their young catchers go not to stunt their growth. Conversely, if they don’t sign one, who will get the first chance to back up Maldonado?

He also mentioned that he talked to former Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode who gave good reviews about Maldanado as a catcher. Plus, when Baker was asked about possible options for a designated hitter, Baker said they are still talking to Yuli Gurriel and Michael Brantley.

Let’s over-analyze those comments

Baker seems concerned about blocking Lee or Díaz as catchers as they could represent the future at the position. What if the Astros, to get Contreras to sign, have to guarantee he will catch “x” number of games? Will they still keep Maldonado around? While he is a great defensive catcher and a valuable piece to the clubhouse, you would be taking playing time for the young guys. The Astros were willing to bring back Vázquez to play a similar role to the one he played last season after being acquired, but he has other plans. Jim Crane mentioned he wanted to add a catcher, but did he mean to replace Maldanado?

If the Astros plan on signing Contreras as a catcher, they would likely be looking to trade Maldonado. Mark Feinsand reported late Monday night that the Astros could be a sleeper to trade for A’s catcher Sean Murphy, who is under team control for three more years. MLBTR is projecting him to get about $3.5 million in arbitration, making him a cheaper option. He is a better defender than Contreras, but not as good a hitter, but not that far behind. Murphy would likely cost the Astros Lee or Diaz as part of a trade package.

Translation, the Astros are looking to sure up all the holes in the lineup. Maybe they are willing to move on from Maldonado, who is a not a great hitter. They have already upgraded at first base and could do the same with a catcher. What we have learned today is the change in the narrative from looking at Contreras as a designated hitter and left fielder to an option to catch.

Baker needs to sell Contreras not only on coming to play with the Astros because who wouldn’t want to join a chance to win it all? But also that they value him as a catcher after rejecting him at the trade deadline. Who plays where will be determined during spring training. The Astros are trying to get the best players available now, figure out the rest later.

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