Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jason Castro: An Option at 1B?

Note: Our buddy and occasional contributor Kevin Bass Stache forwarded this on for our consideration. And now it's yours.

It’s no surprise that the Astros were a horrible offensive team last year with first base being one of the biggest voids on the team.  Let’s be honest:  It was a rotating door, with Brett Wallace and Chris Carter getting the majority of at-bats.  Both players did provide some amount of offense, but neither were solid defenders, meaning they negated some (or all) of the positive offensive value they created.  The Astros front office recognized the issue, and targeted multiple free agent first basemen during the offseason, but due to bad luck—or just a lack of desire to play for the worst team in baseball—they missed out on every player targeted. 

Throw spaghetti at the wall and hope some of it sticks.  Houston traded for Jesus Guzman and invited a host of other players to spring camp (including Japhet Amador, Jon Singleton, Marc Krauss, and Brett Wallace) with the hopes that one of them would grab at the opportunity.  But nobody has really emerged as a clear front runner and, just this week, ESPN columnist Jayson Stark announced that Houston was looking outside the organization to potentially fill the position. 

There have been a number of names floated as potential trade candidates—Ike Davis, John Mayberry, Tyler Moore, and even Mike Carp (who I made a pitch for back in December). But none of these are great options, just warm bodies until Jon Singleton is ready at some point this year.  So why even bother?  Instead, what if we take a different approach and not acquire anyone at all?  Houston is in an interesting position in that they’ve got two big league catchers already in Jason Castro and Carlos Corporan, plus an intriguing prospect who’s near MLB ready in Max Stassi. 

Could the Astros move their best offensive player last year, Jason Castro, to first base for some—or part—of the 2014 season?  In 2013, with a slash line of .276/.350/.485 and 18 home runs, Castro proved that he could be a supreme offensive catcher.  How would he do if moved to first?  Surprisingly, Castro’s wRC+ of 130, and total fWAR of 4.3 in 2013, would’ve put placed him 7th best (between Brandon Belt and Mike Napoli) among all MLB first basemen in 2013.  (We don’t know how Castro would be defensively at first, since the data doesn’t exist, so I’m assuming he would be an average defender.)  

Of course, this creates some new issues.  The biggest:  Who takes over as the new starting catcher? 

Carlos Corporan, who hit a career best in home runs with seven, seems no more than back-up at this point.  Oliver projections, which tend to be optimistic, think Corporan would be no better than a .4 fWAR player (essentially, around the replacement level mark) over 600 at-bats in 2014. 

Max Stassi, on the other hand, appears to have much more potential.  Both ZiPS and Oliver think that Stassi could be a decent offensive player in 2014, somewhat in the mold of John Buck, with 11-23 home runs, a 280-ish OBP, and an fWAR of 1.8-2.1.  Solid production, yes, but questions also emerge. 
Namely, can Stassi, who had his 2013 season ended by a concussion and has been bitten by injuries over his young career, be healthy enough to be an everyday player?  Also, what’s the adjustment period going to be like for him to be a successful Major Leaguer?  We’d like to imagine he’d be able to shoot out of a cannon and start being productive, but he has a grand total of three MLB games under his belt (plus 76 games at Double-A).  He has zero experience at the Triple-A level.

Another issue:  Can Corporan or Stassi be good enough, defensively and with the pitching staff, to be a decent replacement option for Castro?

This is a bit harder to determine, since the things like game calling are a bit harder to quantify.  We do know that Castro is a slightly above-average defensive catcher and Corporan is about average.  Stassi, though, is an unknown.  We think, based on some of the projection data, that he’ll be as good defensively as Castro but we simply don’t have enough hard data to really know one way or the other. 

If you’re saying this is a bit risky, you’re right.  But if there’s any perfect time for the Astros to find out what they have in Stassi, this might be it.  Houston’s 2014 squad is projected to be an improvement over the 2013 version, but this is still a potential 100 loss team.  With such low expectations, now is the time to take that chance and see what the options are.  (One side benefit is that it might help the organization determine whether Castro should be a long-term investment or someone worth trading before he gets too expensive.)  Even 300 at-bats at the Major League level could be quite valuable.  And who knows?  Maybe Singleton is ready by then and Castro goes back to his natural position.  There are other first base options available (both internally and externally), but this could prove to be a worthwhile experiment in another year where experience and growth trumps the win-loss column.  Why not give it a try?