While Brian McCann’s broad shoulders carried the Houston Astros to victory in the 2017 postseason, it makes sense that going into both the last year of his deal and his age-34 season, Houston is in the market for some long-term catching solutions, as Jon Heyman reported on Friday. There are some options out there on the market, some longer-term than others, but not as many as the Astros would probably like.
For a team that’s been built off developing young talent, the Astros unfortunately don’t have a franchise catcher working his way up through the ranks. Max Stassi has gotten several chances to prove himself in the major leagues, but doesn’t appear to be able to provide either the offense or the defense the Astros need at their current level of play — and while he’s still rookie eligible, he’s unlikely to be a major contributing factor for the Astros.
As an injury back-up in Triple-A, he’s solid, but Houston needs more right now. Garrett Stubbs is their closest thing to a top catching prospect, and while he’s an interesting player (a very quiet and competent defensive asset, someone with really solid glove skills, but he’s never hit anywhere outside the California League) he’s also not what Houston needs right now. Not only would they need to compensate for the bat weakness, but with just a season of Double-A under his belt, Stubbs needs more seasoning.
With the internal options off the table, Houston’s left looking at a very limited pool of either free-agent signings or trade deals. The biggest name on the free agent market is Jonathan Lucroy, he formerly of the Texas Rangers and Colorado Rockies, and of an apparent nosedive off a cliff, both offensively and defensively. The offense actually recovered (over a short sample) in hitter-friendly Colorado, and while there are still questions about the defense, Lucroy is still a passable catcher. In fact, at face value, Lucroy would seem to be the right candidate for the Astros to pursue…but there are a few stumbling blocks.
Lucroy is still at the play-almost-every-day stage of his career. At this point in time, with Evan Gattis presumably filling the designated hitter position, the Astros just don’t have a place for Lucroy to play every day if they plan to run a catching tandem to make the most of the bats of McCann and whoever their second catcher is. It’s hard to imagine Lucroy signing with the Astros if they can’t promise him a chance to be in the lineup any day he wants to be.
If the Astros are willing to part with some prospects, there is a catcher out there who wouldn’t need that DH spot and would be an excellent fit into the imaginary tandem with McCann — the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto. With the fire sale still raging in Miami, Realmuto’s made it clear he wants to be moved to a team with an ownership that’s willing to even pretend to contend, and the Astros are real contenders. He’s a right-handed bat to complement McCann’s left-handedness, he’s first-year arbitration eligible — meaning that if Houston likes him, they have a chance to just extend him here and now — and he can hit for both average and power.
All things considered, Realmuto looks like the perfect piece to fit into the 2018 Houston puzzle — with one problem.
Even with the weirdness surrounding Miami, it would likely take at least a mid-level prospect or two for the Astros to get Realmuto, and they’ve traded away all of their mid-tier guys. Of course, they traded those guys away to get Justin Verlander in what can be considered one of the best deadline deals in modern MLB history, but it does put Houston in the uncomfortable position of potentially needing to deal one of their best players in return for a 27-year-old catcher. The Astros don’t like to deal their top prospects, and until now they’ve gotten away without doing so.
Now, though, it’s hard not to imagine Miami asking for someone like Kyle Tucker. Tucker could probably hit in the majors now, especially for a team as weak as the Marlins will be, but would be allowed to develop more by remaining with the Astros. It’s the kind of deal that looks great on paper, but there are understandable reasons why Houston might balk.
It’s unlikely that a catching decision will make or break the Astros’ 2018 hopes, but as they showed last year, every little bit counts. It will be up to that front office to decide which bits count the most, and how to find the delicate balance that is roster manipulation.