By agreeing to sign Robinson Chirinos, the Astros appear set at catcher for next season. For better or worse.
The Astros used four catchers last season en route to a 103-win season: Max Stassi, Brian McCann, Martin Maldonado, and Tim Federowicz. Of those four, only Stassi remains on the Astros’ active roster today. To say that Houston had a need at catcher was somewhat of an understatement. This offseason, by coincidence, has an abundance of catchers available, led by the Marlins looking to trade All-Star J.T. Realmuto. Alternative options in free agency included established veterans, such as Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos. Instead the Astros chose to sign Chirinos to a one-year, $5.75 million contract.
If you didn’t already know, Chirinos spent the majority of his career with the Rangers. He finished last season with 18 home runs and a 103 wRC+ through 426 plate appearances, which are actually decent offensive numbers for a catcher. Only 17 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances finished with an 100 wRC+ or higher. For the record, an hitter with a 100 wRC+ is considered league average. In other words, Chirinos was three percent better than a league average hitter.
By the offensive numbers alone, one can see why the Astros were interested in the free-agent catcher. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs noted here, Chirinos prefers to pull the ball when it is hit into the air. He is also a right-handed hitter and Minute Maid Park has the Crawford Boxes in left field. The age-34 catcher has hit 25 home runs over the past two seasons, so the Astros may have hopes that Chirinos can take advantage of the Crawford Boxes since he is pull-happy.
However, Chirinos isn’t exactly known for his defensive prowess as he graded as one of the worst pitch framers last season by Baseball Prospectus. To be fair though he did grade as a better pitch framer in 2017. But Chirinos also caught a runner stealing only six times while allowing 53 stolen bases. That’s not good. There isn’t a legitimate way to quantify how a catcher handles a pitching staff, but at least Chirinos appears as a well-respected veteran.
So, why did the Astros sign Chirinos? That’s the $5.75 million question.
For one, Chirinos is a likely offensive upgrade over Max Stassi and the only other catcher on Houston’s 40-man roster, Garrett Stubbs. The Astros only received 19 home runs from their catchers in 2018, so it is reasonable to assume that general manager Jeff Luhnow saw an offensive upgrade at a decent price. Regarding his defense, the Astros may see something in Chirinos that we don’t right now. This is a club that has helped reinvent players in the past.
That said, Stassi was one of the better pitch framers in baseball last season. He was also having a strong first half as a hitter (121 wRC+) before falling off in a major way during the season’s second half (45 wRC+). If Stassi were to keep his hitting consistent all season long, the Astros would have real value right there. Taking away at-bats may prove detrimental.
Personally, I believe the Astros are saving their resources for other positions of need, such as another starting pitcher or outfielder. If they did decide to trade for Realmuto, for example, then I don’t foresee the front office looking to spend a lot of prospect capital in other areas. Houston may also view Stassi and Stubbs as the catchers of the future starting in 2020, hence the one-year deal for Chirinos. But a catcher like Realmuto doesn’t come along often, so I’m curious to see if the Astros choose to address the position again this offseason.
At the end of the day, Chirinos is a good addition to Houston’s catching corps, even as valuable depth. I am still somewhat concerned about the state of the club’s long-term plan at catcher, but the reasoning is understandable. Do I agree with it? Not wholeheartedly, although I do like it to an extent. The main question, and concern, I have now is whether Chirinos or Stassi will end up as the starter in 2019.