It’s the time of year when everyone plays general manager, but some potential trades are not as logical as they might appear. Consider the Astros, whose OPS at catcher is the second-lowest in the majors, and the Cubs’ Willson Contreras, whose OPS at the position is tied for the highest. An obvious fit, right? Not so fast. And probably not at all.
Astros players and coaches revere the defensive work of Martín Maldonado, who was the alternate catcher to Robinson Chirinos on their 2019 World Series club and the regular during their 2021 Series run. The front office is aware of the sentiment in the clubhouse and in agreement with it, making it unlikely the team would displace Maldonado, according to sources familiar with the team’s thinking.
Maldonado, 35, is hitting .153 with a .503 OPS. He has thrown out five of 18 potential base stealers, one of the league’s best rates, but his framing ranks only 49th out of 60 catchers, according to Statcast, and only the White Sox’s Yasmani Grandal has allowed more passed balls. How is it, then, that Maldonado is so popular among the Astros? It’s because of his other attributes. His leadership. His game-planning. His game-calling.
Go back to last year’s American League Championship Series, which the Astros won in six games. When asked how the Red Sox were outscored, 22-1, in the final 26 innings, Sox manager Alex Cora told Fox Sports’ Tom Verducci, “Brent Strom and Martín Maldonado. Two of the smartest people in baseball. They completely changed their strategy against us midway through Game 4.”
Strom, the Astros’ former pitching coach, temporarily retired after the season, only to resurface with the Diamondbacks. Maldonado, whom the Astros twice acquired at previous deadlines — from the Angels for Patrick Sandoval in 2018 and from the Cubs for Tony Kemp in 2019 — has started 43 of the team’s 60 games at catcher. The Astros lead the AL West by 8 1/2 games and rank second in the majors in ERA.
The issue with the Astros is their offense, which led the majors in runs last season and ranked third in the sport’s previous full season, 2019. The current group ranks 22nd in runs per game, and is batting .228 with runners on base, 27th in the majors. The Nationals, the team with the game’s fourth-worst record, are scoring at a higher rate.
Maldonado, though, is hardly the only under-performing hitter. While the offensive dropoff from Carlos Correa to Jeremy Peña at shortstop has not been as great as initially feared, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and third baseman Alex Bregman are not producing to their usual levels. Center field, shared by Chas McCormick and Jose Siri, is a particular problem area.
The beauty of Contreras is that he also could help a team as a designated hitter, a role in which he’s batting .333 with a 1.080 OPS in 60 plate appearances this season. But the Astros already have the game’s top DH, Yordan Álvarez, and use the spot to rest other players on days Álvarez is in left field.
The Yankees, who also are getting modest offensive production at catcher, are in somewhat of a similar position. Their catchers, Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino, are guiding a pitching staff that leads the majors in ERA. Why would the Yankees want to introduce a new catcher at midseason and disrupt such a successful unit?