Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Astros trade for a backup-backup catcher

We interrupt the regular schedule of Hot Links and "whatever the heck happened to Jon Singleton?" articles at Astros County to announce a trade for a backup catcher.  To be fair to the Astros, they didn't just trade for a backup catcher, they traded for a backup-backup catcher.  Erik Kratz was projected to be the fourth or fifth catcher on the Padres' depth-chart exiting Spring Training (behind Derek Norris, Christian Betancourt, Austin Hedges and perhaps Rocky Gale), so it isn't like the Astros were forced to give up a kings' ransom in making this acquisition.

What the Astros did lose, however, is possibly-useful out-of-options pitcher Dan Straily.  Straily came to the Astros with Luis Valbuena in the Dexter Fowler trade prior to last season.  He spent most of his time in AAA Fresno, where he started 22 games, yielding a 4.77 ERA and allowing a WHIP of 1.402.  If those results look to you like they were unlikely to precede Major League success last year, then you would be correct - Straily made 4 appearances (3 starts) for Houston, pitching 16.2 innings and allowing 10 earned runs for an ERA of 5.40.

This Spring Training for Straily was always shaping up to be an important one.  He was out of options, so he needed to either make the major-league club, or would be (at best) exposed to waivers or (to worst) granted an outright release.  His spring started horribly - he gave up two runs in one inning against the St Louis Cyberhackers, then three runs in two innings against the Braves.  The Tigers touched him up for two more runs in three frames in mid-March, then the Nationals logged the fourth consecutive scored-upon appearance for him this Spring by pounding out a solitary run on four hits in two frames.  All of these appearances happened in relief.

Straily left a strong impression in his last Astros appearance, starting against the Braves in a split squad game.  He threw four strong innings, striking out four, and allowing one walk and one hit.  He needed only 44 pitches to fly through four frames.  It wasn't a great Braves lineup - missing Freddie Freeman, and featuring the just-released Nick Swisher, ex-White Sox Tyler Flowers and Gordon Beckham, and perennial waiver-bait, Jeff Francoeur.  The game was forgettable aside from some amazing pictures of clouds (I love this link to the Daily Mail and their crazy headlines) - it was called during the seventh inning stretch because of rain / scary clouds, and a 1-1 tie ensued.

So, look, I doubt many people are going to beat up on the Astros for trading Dan Straily for whatever-they-can-get.  The chances are that, as a low velocity pitcher who has the tendency to either strike guys out or get hit hard, he won't return to his 2013 Oakland form (when he posted a 3.96 ERA in 152-plus innings).  As a fly-ball guy, a trade to the Padres seems like the best possible option, at least until you look at their outfield (albeit improved) defensive projections for the upcoming season. So lets have a quick look at Erik Kratz.

Kratz is a 35-year old backup catcher with a total of 560 major-league plate appearances in his career.  He didn't make his major-league debut until he was 30, which was when he was with the Pirates.  He initially started in the Blue Jays system at age 22,  and since then has bounced around to the Pirates, the Phillies, back to the Blue Jays, and off to the Royals.  If that wasn't enough, he changed hands five times last season: the Phillies, the Royals, the Mariners, then the Royals again, then the Phillies again.  The last two stops of 2015 resulted in 28 plate appearances over 16 games.

Kratz hasn't really hit in the majors - his career line is .218/.270/.397.  He has managed to hit at AAA, with a career line of .266/.343/.473 in 1829 plate appearances, which suggests a reasonable eye at the plate combined with a little bit of power.  He has been described as a good defensive catcher, but I am poorly placed to comment further on that.  He also has a reputation as a guy who can work with pitchers, which is logical, else he would be tending bar somewhere, instead of getting jobs with major-league baseball organisations.  He is also on twitter (@ErikKratz31).

I wondered whether Kratz' splits would perhaps be beneficial to the Astros.  Remember that Jason Castro bats lefty, and perhaps Kratz' overall numbers would be held down by his performances against fellow-northsiders, which may allow the Astros to run him and Castro in a straight platoon for a month or so.  Nope - if anything, Kratz has reverse splits going on (although that is hard to gauge because of a lack of minor-league data, and because he seems to have had a rip at switch-hitting at times during his career): versus LHP (batting as a right-handed hitter) he has a career triple-slash of .188/.247/.369, and versus RHP (batting as a right-handed hitter), his career triple-slash soars all the way to .232/.280/.410.

This article has gotten waaaaay too long for a trade of this magnitude.  It can be summed up fairly simply in a couple of sentences, which I probably should have done 2000 words ago.  The Astros traded away an out-of-options starting pitcher with a patchy track record of effectiveness, accepting the low chance that he turns his solid strikeout abilities into effective major-league production (and thereby getting hosed in the trade).  There was a good chance that Straily would have been exposed to waivers in the next few days regardless, so that may have factored into this decision.  In return, they got a 40-man roster slot (which they filled with Kratz) and a replaceable backup catcher who was struggling to make a dent in the Padres' depth charts.  The Astros perhaps also avoided making a huge trade for a Jonathan Lucroy or a similar starting-grade catcher, which would have involved much more than Dan Straily, and would have involved a lot more risk.  

Is this the right move??  Feel free to add your opinion in the comments, and thanks - as always - for reading.