Monday, January 18, 2016

Astros Depth Charts: the Catchers

To whittle away the time between now and the start of Spring Training, Astros County plans to preview each positional group of Astros.  We will look at the Major League roster, all relevant players who have played AA and above, and any available or realistic trade targets or free agents (mostly for the purposes of comparison).  This is the first of the articles, but in future articles, we will provide links here.  The primer to this article is here.

Starter: Jason Castro (28, will turn 29 in June)

Barring something weird, Jason Castro will be the Opening Day starter for the Astros.  Castro was taken tenth overall in the 2008 draft as a fourth-year graduate out of Stanford, and will reach Free Agency after the 2016 season.  In the 2008 draft, six of the nine picks prior to him were fourth-year collegiate players, with Buster Posey being the obvious standout of the entire draft.  At the time, the Castro pick was panned as an overdraft (search "Castro" in the link or scroll down to 12:09PM PT, and you get legendary BP writers and future Astros' Front Office staff expressing initial disbelief and eventual disgust over the Castro pick).

What happened after the draft was a credit to the Astros' front office from the Ed Wade era.  Castro cruised through the minors, twice making BA's Top-100 prospects list.  He was promoted the Bigs for 67 games in 2010, and all he has done since then is accumulate either 7.7 fWAR or 8.6 bWAR, depending on what system you prefer.  Note that Castro also sat out the 2011 season after he ruptured his ACL running to first base in Spring Training.  With a complete 2011 season, Castro would probably have accumulated more WAR by either measure, and could have progressed to double figures WAR at the time of writing.  7-8 WAR in 504 career games in the Major Leagues isn't great, but this makes Castro a solid everyday player at a position where it is hard to excel for significant periods because of general wear-and-tear, and the extra demands of donning the Tools of Ignorance.

Castro is the owner of perhaps the best offensive year by a full-time Astros catcher during his 2013 season - a season where he raked to the tune of .276/.350/.485 with 35 doubles, one triple and 18 home runs.  That season was worth around 4.4 f-WAR, but also remains the only year that Castro posted a wRC+ above league-average.  2013, in retrospect, looks more and more like an outlier for Castro, but if he were to repeat it, he would be in line for a solid payday in 2017.  If he was to have a second hot offensive campaign, he would also probably head into free-agency with a qualifying offer, which may dampen his market a little as the Astros attempt to recoup a draft pick at a relatively rare free-agent position.

Repeating 2013 is no sure thing, however.  Castro has had two very similar looking campaigns since he nearly singlehandedly carried the Astros offence two full seasons ago.  In 2014, he hit .222/.286/.366 for an OPS+ of 84.  In 2015, he hit .211/.283/.365 for an OPS+ of 77.  He has a combined 67 walks against a whopping 266 strikeouts over the last two seasons, with 25 combined home runs.  Those aren't the numbers that Castro wants heading into his free-agent season.

Castro has pretty decent career platoon splits: .249/.328/.424 against righties versus .199/.251/.297 against lefties.  In his career 2013 year, he still demonstrated a decent split, but was notably better against lefties (.864 OPS against RHP versus .738 OPS against LHP).  So Castro is certainly a player who would benefit from sitting against southpaw starters, and may look better just holding up the fat side of a platoon.

Arbitration figures have been exchanged, with the team filing for 5MM and Castro filing for 5.25MM.  MLBTR projected Castro to earn around 5MM in 2016, so he won't be expensive for what he offers.  The Astros look set to head to an arbitration hearing with Castro, which seems stupid because of the 250k difference between the figures exchanged.  It seems odd that the Astros' intentions for the Castro arbitration have made it onto the media, and it is possible that this represents an attempt by the Astros to pressure Castro into a deal which buys out his first free-agent year.  This would give whichever-prospect-listed-below another year of development before needing to step up and into the big-leagues.  In my opinion, I think that a two-year 12MM deal would be a good deal for both sides, but Castro would be more likely to regret signing if he has a solid campaign in 2016.

In terms of the projections, all three of the projection systems used (ZIPS, Fangraphs' Steamer and B-R's Marcel) predict some improvement for Jason Castro in 2016 while he continues to exhibit below-average production at the plate.  ZiPS likes Castro to the tune of .231/.303/.389, while Marcel sees Castro hitting .236/.304/.404, walking 36 times against 121 strikeouts, and hitting 14 home runs over 439 plate-appearances.  Steamer is less bullish, predicting Castro hitting in the vicinity of .224/.296/.374 with 12 home runs in 436 plate appearances.  Steamer sees Castro continuing to provide significant value of defence, however, and it is worthy noting that Castro's 2015 was his most valuable defensively in his career according to Fangraphs.  His overall WAR - according to Steamer - projects as 1.6, or a little more valuable than Castro was last season.

For both Castro and the Astros, 2016 shapes to be a big year.  Castro can create himself a nice market in a position where there is often a dearth of free agents.  The Astros will be hoping for a 3-4 WAR season from Castro, which would give them a nice boost.  Castro certainly has offensive potential, but his progression over the last few years have been troubling, as many AC Commentators have frequently mentioned.  The projection systems are probably still hanging on to Castro's 2013 in predicting a bounce-back.

Backup: Max Stassi (24, will turn 25 in March)

Stassi has been with the Astros since the 2012-2013 offseason, when he was traded as part of the Jed Lowrie deal, first edition.  At the time of the trade, Stassi had just finished the 2012 season at Hi-A Stockton - he opened 2013 in Corpus, and made his ML debut later in 2013 when the Astros' hand was forced with injuries to the catching corps.  Stassi had the opportunity for some playing time, but he quickly wore and up-and-in fastball from Texas' Tanner Scheppers in his second ever big-league game, and was subsequently done for most of the rest of the season, making his last appearance of 2013 just over a month later.

Stassi seems like he has been knocking on the door of regular time with Houston for a while, but the truth of it is that his 2013 debut was forced by injuries, and therefore rushed.  Last offseason, the Astros traded for Hammerin' Hank the Dancin' Robot, which I thought was curious because Stassi and Castro form a natural platoon, whereas Conger is a switch-hitter in name only.  The recent trade of Conger to the Rays could be seen as a supportive comment on Stassi's development, but is more likely to do with either Conger's noodle arm or a combination of factors.

You see, Stassi didn't have a great year in Fresno - the Grizzlies play in the offensively-friendly league Pacific Coast League.  He struggled to remain above the Mendoza Line with his batting average, and also posted a sub-.300 OBP (.211/.279/.384).  His big-league line has been more encouraging: .357/.386/.476, but that has been posted in a meagre 45 plate appearances spread over 2013, 2014 and 2015. So Stassi may not be the offensive monster that a backup catcher with power could be.

The knock on his development has always been around his average arm and the hit-tool.  The various scouting reports that are available publicly suggest that he is a relatively strong catcher in terms of his receiving and ability to work with pitchers, with some pop in his bat.  However, his ability to hit for average combined with a sub-.300 OBP may ultimately restrict his value.

The other question for Stassi - especially when combining with Castro - is whether he actually offers any platoon advantages.  Given his 45 major-league plate appearances, very little useful information can be extrapolated from his triple-slashes at the highest level.  Minor-league splits are a little harder to come by, but I noted that the 2015 season yielded a minor split in favour of facing lefties (.692 OPS versus .646 against RHP), boosted mainly by a 57-point advantage in slugging against LHP.  His 2014 AAA numbers are more suggestive of a platoon advantage (.785 versus .628), whereas his 2013 AA numbers are suggestive of a reverse platoon split (.706 OPS against LHP versus .907 OPS against righties).

So it's not clear that Stassi offers significant platoon advantages, but he doesn't need to to assist Castro, whose splits have been discussed earlier in this article.  At 24 years of age, Stassi's time is now, so look for him to break camp with the Astros in a backup role to open the year barring injury.

Marcel projects Stassi to hit a robust .279/.337/.437 in 211 plate appearances, including 6 home runs, 1 triple and 10 doubles.  I would turn cartwheels if the Astros got that from Stassi in 2016.  Steamer sees Stassi getting 153 plate appearances, with a triple-slash line of .213/.262/.349, and worth 0.2 WAR.  I would be disappointed if the Astros got that in 2016 from Stassi.  ZiPS agrees predominantly with Steamer: .217/.265/.359, 11HR in 376 PA's.

Also on the 40-Man:  Alfredo González (23, will turn 24 in July)

Not a lot of open-source research material is available regarding Alfredo González, who was a surprise addition to the 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft.  The Venezuelan was signed as an international free agent in 2008 just after his 16th birthday.  He played in the Dominican Summer League as a 16 year old, then sat out the next season with an injury.  He then spent the next three seasons in Rookie ball then played Short Season ball at Tri-Cities as a 21 year old in 2014.  His season at Tri-Cities saw the second consecutive year in which he demonstrated a strong walk rate, resulting in a triple-slash line of .246/.348/.369.

Then 2015 happened.  González posted strong walk-rates over three levels, jumping from Lo-A to AA in the process.  González acquitted himself well at AA (after the Jacob Nottingham trade), posting a 14% walk rate over 121 plate appearances for a combined slash line of .300/.395/.320.  He could be accused of being somewhat punchless - he hit nothing more assertive than a double.  His offensive profile has - at least in the last three years - always been associated with gaudy OBP numbers.  Perhaps his power will develop later, but doesn't have to, because a catcher who can get on base at around a .350 clip is a very valuable asset.

It is probable that González remains in line for a call-up in the event of an injury.  I would be stunned if he broke camp with the big club without an injury or trade, but if he did, it would be quite the meteoric rise through the minor leagues.  Steamer forecasts González to receive 31 plate appearances, posting a .236/.295/.328 triple-slash line, whereas Marcel is silent on the matter, given a lack of ML plate appearances at this juncture.  ZiPS is similarly unimpressed with González's minor-league OBP, projecting a .233/.294/.277 triple-slash, with a 22% K-rate versus a 7.8% walk-rate.  It will be interesting to see whether his strong OBP rates continue as he climbs the minor-league ladder, although he is most likely to open 2016 in AA.

Invited to Spring Training:  Tyler Heineman (24, turns 25 in June)

Heineman spent most of his 2015 at Fresno, where he caddied for Max Stassi.  Heineman is a switch-hitting catcher who was drafted out of college in the eighth round of the 2012 draft.  That meant that Heineman was Rule 5 eligible in the Winter Meetings just passed, but he remains with the organisation.  He was offered a Spring Training invite for 2016.

Heineman has a solid career minor-league line (for a catcher) of .288/.364/.409.  His work at Fresno in 2015 was only okay: .271/.312/.370 in 209 plate appearances, with three home runs.  He is apparently a strong catcher defensively - at least that was the rep on him at draft time - but he appears to have struggled a little more with the bat as he has slowly climbed the minor-league ladder.

Steamer projects Heineman to hit .244/.295/.340.  That is not palpably better than González's line described above, and Heineman has the disadvantage of needing to be added to the 40-man to be called up.  ZIPS likes Heineman to the tune of .228/.283/.327, seeing some minor advantages in slugging percentage over González.  Marcel has no projection.  This all probably means Heineman is second in line - behind González - in terms of a big-league call up, but a hot half-season in Fresno would do a lot to change that.

Invited to Spring Training:  Roberto Pena (23, turns 24 in June)

Pena, like Heineman, was Rule 5 eligible, having been drafted in the 7th round of the 2010 draft.  He spent the entire season 2015 at Corpus, where he "hit" .237/.284/.288 in 280 PA's.  He has a reputation as an excellent defensive catcher, but he seems to have a light bat (judging by his minor-league dashboard stats), so perhaps a defensive backup seems like the most obvious role for him.

Steamer sees him hitting .216/.255/.306, leading to a wRC+ of 51.  Marcel and ZiPS offer no further insights.  Hard to argue with Steamer's forecast, given his minor-league stats.

If Pena appears in the major-leagues in 2016, either he has discovered the long sought secret to hitting, or something has gone horribly wrong with the Astros and their catchers.

Possible Free Agent:  Carlos Corporan (32, 33 in January 2017)

The class of free-agent catchers is very slim.  Earlier in the offseason, I wondered whether Tyler Flowers may warrant a look from the Astros - he had just been non-tendered by the White Sox, and is a reasonable offensive catcher without much of a platoon split.  However, he signed with the team that originally drafted him (the Braves) for a cool $5.3MM, which is waaaaay too much to sign a backup catcher for, as the Astros would likely have remained committed to Jason Castro.

The only realistic (yet highly unlikely) free agent worth discussing is our old friend, Carlos Corporan, who was with the Astros from 2012 through 2014.  "Corp" was reasonable offensive backup on a bad Astros team for three years (OPS+'s of 103, 79 and 91), but he cratered with the Rangers last year, posting a .178/.244/.299 triple slash in 121 plate appearances, yielding an OPS+ of 46.  Given that the Astros got Akeen Bostick for Corporan and then have the chance to sign him a year later (not that they will take that chance unless it is on a minor-league deal), Corporan proved to be a savvy trade for the Front Office, the timing of which was perfect.

Marcel has a soft-spot for Corp, projecting a .227/.289/.371 line from him, with 8 home runs and 10 doubles.  Steamer sees Corp struggling to the tune of .218/.273/.299 with three home runs.  ZiPS is mostly in agreement with Steamer, but believes more in Corporan's slugging abilities, forecasting a triple-slash of .218/.276/.345.

None of those projections are obviously better than the available in-house options for the Astros, but having Corp as a comparison case to project against seems like a useful exercise.

I cannot identify a potential or realistic Trade Target for the Astros for this offseason, which is likely to be more reflective of the catching market and the fact that the Astros seemed settled on their current roster.  Buster Posey isn't coming to Minute Maid any time soon, sadly.

So the Astros appear to be largely set at catcher, with a veteran on the last year of his contract and a well-seasoned prospect set to split the duties behind the plate.  As it happens, they potentially could form a platoon of sorts if that is how the Astros want to head into the 2016 season.  Both are solid defensive catchers with reported strengths in receiving, which is what the Front Office seems to prioritise.  Both have spectacular arms in comparison to Hank Conger, the outgoing 2015 backup, but probably possess at-best average arms when compared to the population of big-league catchers.  Castro will see the majority of time behind the dish, but exactly how much will probably be determined by injuries and how his bat performs.  For the other catchers in the 40-man, 2016 is an important year in nabbing a place on the depth-chart totem pole, given Castro's likely departure at the end of the season.

With Castro and Stassi behind the plate, ZIPS seems them combining for approximately 3 zWAR, once defence is taken into account.  A hot offensive season by either could add significantly to that projection.  Castro has a great season in his resumé, and Stassi seems to have hit well in a handful of major-league plate appearances, so Catcher could be a position where the Astros could potentially outplay their projected forecasts.