Could the Astros Have 2 Rookie Catchers Next Year?


The Houston Astros are in a complicated spot with their young backstops, and it could lead to them carrying 2 rookie catchers on the roster in 2023.

The Houston Astros are a contending team, so naturally, their few areas of need on the field have been getting plenty of attention from fans and the media all season. One of those needs was behind the plate, but between the acquisition of Christian Vazquez and the sudden dominance of Martin Maldonado, they no longer need any new catchers for the rest of the year.

Next year, however, is when things get complicated. Vazquez was most likely acquired to be a rental since he’s about to turn 32 and his contract expires after this year. What to do with Maldonado is an issue in itself because he has been on a tear of late and he upped his second-half OPS to .859 yesterday, but he was also horrendous to start 2022 and he’ll be 36 next year. Maldonado has played 84 games to this point in the season and if he plays 6 more, he’ll trigger a vesting option that, if exercised, would bring him back to the Astros for $5M next year. Otherwise, he’ll walk in free agency as well.

The organization obviously thinks highly of Maldonado because prior to the trade deadline, his on-field performance alone warranted a serious upgrade at catcher. Yet, Vazquez was as far as they went, and if this season is any indication, the front office is likely considering that vesting option for next year. But, if they alternatively decide to usher in a youth movement behind the plate, it’s quite possible that the Astros will start next season with two rookie catchers on their roster.

Korey Lee has always gotten a considerable amount of attention ever since he was drafted by the Astros in 2019. Since they didn’t have any first-round picks in 2020 or 2021, he was their most prolific prospect for a long time and is seen as their catcher of the future. Lee is just 24 years old and after a short “cup of coffee” for his first stint in the big leagues that saw him play 12 games in July, he was sent back down to AAA. He’d still be on the MLB roster if it weren’t for the acquisition of Vazquez.

What isn’t talked about nearly enough, though, is that the Astros might have two catchers of the future, and the other one could end up having just as impactful of a career as Lee might, if not more. Yainer Diaz is two months younger than Lee, and he is also catching for AAA Sugar Land at the moment. He was originally an international signing by the Guardians, but was acquired by Houston in the deal that sent Myles Straw to Cleveland just over a year ago. The Astros also got reliever Phil Maton in that deal, but if Diaz’s career keeps progressing at the trajectory it is now, he might end up being the biggest asset of the trade.

Diaz was in A-ball at age 22 last year, and started this season at AA. After posting a slash line of .316/.367/.504 in 57 games there, he was called up to AAA and is not slowing down. He already has 3 more home runs in AAA than he did in AA in 22 fewer games, and his current OPS of .892 is not only much higher than Lee’s this season, but it ranks 4th out of all catchers 25 and under in the AAA West circuit. At this rate, Diaz is easily on pace to be a big leaguer by 2024 at the latest.

In terms of raw tools, Lee has always gotten credit defensively given his athleticism and arm strength, but the Astros now have a backstop of the same age that has been a better hitter at AAA this year than Lee has. If their young catchers continue to blossom quickly, they might force both Vazquez and Maldonado out as early as next year.

While this may seem like a tough decision waiting to happen in the sense that both Lee and Diaz would deserve to be clear-cut number one catchers if they reach their full potential (and that could happen), it’s ultimately a good problem for the Astros to have. Just a few weeks ago, their top catcher was in his mid-30s and a non-factor at the plate, his probable replacement wasn’t ready to be on a big-league roster yet, and it seemed certain that they weren’t going to trade for the best catchers on the market. In a few months’ time, however, they might have two rookie catchers at the forefront of their depth chart, not missing a beat between the present and the future.

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