As constructed, the Astros are fine at the catcher position right now. But this could change as soon as next season.
Technically, the Astros have three catchers on the active roster: Max Stassi, Tim Federowicz, and Evan Gattis. Brian McCann, the de facto starter in 2017 and this season, was recently placed on the disabled list with a sore right knee. On paper, once McCann returns, the Astros’ catching situation is a respectable one.
That said, the 2018 season may have a direct effect on the make up of the position in 2019.
Brian McTaggart of MLB.com in a recent mailbag was asked a question whether Stassi would be the future at the position. Here is the entire exchange below.
"Is Max Stassi looked upon as the future catcher? Personally, I like what I see, but I’m curious about his role in the future with [Brian] McCann unlikely to meet vesting options. Will McCann consider a one-year contract? A smaller role?— Justin T., Port Arthur, TexasI’d be surprised if McCann comes back, but the Astros don’t have much catching depth at the upper levels of the Minor Leagues. Stassi has a future with this club, but I’m not sure he’s going to be the starter going forward. The Astros might have to trade for a catcher or try to sign one in free agency this offseason to pair with Stassi if they’re sure McCann isn’t coming back."
Interesting stuff, right?
In case you are not aware, McCann will likely be a free agent following the conclusion of the 2018 season. This scenario is a possibility as McCann’s contract contains a club option for 2019 for $15 million. The way the club is constructed in terms of salary commitments and McCann’s own performance, it would surprising in this author’s opinion to see the Astros exercise his club option. However, there is a catch. The club option in McCann’s contract could vest into a player option if certain criteria are met. Below is the criteria from FanGraphs.
"Vests if 1,000 PA ’17-’18 AND 90 GS as C in ’18 AND not on DL at end of ’18 season. If vests, McCann has the right to void it and hit the open market."
Based on the criteria, McCann would have to reach 601 plate appearances and start at least 90 games at catcher this season to turn the club option into a player option. Based on the Astros’ usage of McCann in 2017 and when healthy in 2018, it appears rather doubtful that he will be able to reach these thresholds. For example, McCann has never had more than 573 plate appearances in a single season, even in his heyday with the Braves. And the Astros only used McCann in 97 games last season. If the veteran catcher has to miss an extended portion of time, it is rather doubtful that McCann could reach 90 games played this season. The emergence of Stassi as reliable major league catcher will likely limit McCann’s playing time when he does return.
Stassi, in another angle, now has a prime opportunity in front of him.
The Astros are without a top catching prospect who is likely ready to join the club next year. Jake Rogers was considered the team’s top catching prospect until he was traded to the Tigers as part of the package to land Justin Verlander. Garrett Stubbs has gotten off to a fine start — .924 OPS — with the Fresno Grizzlies this season, but only time will tell if he is ready. Federowicz is already 30-years old so he may not be viewed as a long-term solution by the Astros despite decent numbers. Gattis is a free agent himself following the 2018 season and the Astros moved him into a near full-time role as a designated hitter. In short, Stassi likely faces little competition to be the team’s next starter at catcher if McCann is indeed gone following this season.
Like McTaggart mentions in his response, Houston could attempt to trade for a catcher this offseason. J.T. Realmuto of the Marlins will surely be the popular name floated around. Perhaps a free agent? McCann at a rate cheaper than $15 million could be an option. The upcoming MLB Draft may also change the equation.
Looking ahead, the Astros appear to feel confident in Stassi’s ability in the interim. His 144 wRC+ compared to McCann’s 89 wRC+ is an improvement, and his defensive abilities have generally been considered solid. Of course, McCann’s knee is the likely reason his numbers have taken a dip following a solid start to the season. But Stassi has a prime opportunity in front of him. If he manages to perform well all season, the Astros may not feel the immediate pressure to address the position. Only time will tell.
**Statistics and information courtesy of FanGraphs**