Hallelujah. Rejoice. Finally, Uncle Mike is back. After a year and two months, outfielder Michael Brantley is back on the active roster. To accommodate him, the Houston Astros have sent outfielder Corey Julks to AAA and designated Jake Cousins, creating space on the 40-Man Roster.
The veteran All-Star has been out with shoulder surgery since June 26th of last year and has suffered a few setbacks during his recovery process, causing him to return this late into the season.
Regardless, he's finally back. It cannot be a much better time to have an extra added reliable bat in Brantley to the lineup. The Houston Astros are in desperate need to have Uncle Mike back given the up and down season they've had following their World Series victory last year. With 29 games left in this season, Houston stands at a Mexican standoff in the AL West with the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. Each of these teams are within a game to take first place in the division.
The Diaz Dilemma
With Brantley reinserted, what does this mean with the other bats that don't receive consistent playing time? Adding Brantley back to the lineup inevitably means giving less playing time to the likes of Mauricio Dubon, Jon Singleton, and Jake Meyers. Most importantly, rookie catcher Yainer Diaz.
Diaz has been having a remarkable rookie season. In 87 games, Yainer reflects a .282 AVG, an .836 OPS with a 124 OPS+, according to Baseball Reference. His 19 homers this season as a catcher is already an Astros record. To compare offensive catcher stats, he's arguably better than All-Star catcher Adley Rutschman of the Baltimore Orioles (127 G, .273 AVG, 16 HRs, .786 OPS, 119 OPS+), minus the amount of games played.
Given Diaz' trajectory so far, he is more than capable of pulling All-Star caliber numbers in a full season as an everyday player.
The Overdone Diaz and Maldonado Debate
The main reason why he's only played in a little over half a season so far is because of Dusty Baker's reluctance to start him catching in the majority of games. Veteran Martin Maldonado is the Astros primary catcher. Given Maldy's own stats this year (.183, 11 HRs, .583 OPS), there's definitely a legitimate argument to play Yainer over him. Diaz' Wins Above Replacement (2.6) is far better than Maldy's (-0.2).
Additionally, Maldonado has statistically been one of the worst defensive catchers in the league in 2023. According to Baseball Savant, when it comes to framing, Maldonado is the worst catcher in the league (61st, with Yainer being 47th). Maldy is also 17th in Catcher Throwing while Yainer is in the top ten.
The running gag of starting Diaz over Maldy on a regular basis has been overdone by fans and beat writers on social media. Continuing to complain more about it doesn't appear to change Dusty's mind. According the Associated Press, Astros veteran pitchers on both the rotation and bullpen feel more comfortable with Maldy behind the dish.
Nevertheless, Dusty's made adjustments to try and keep Diaz in the lineup, either catching for J.P. France and Hunter Brown, or play as the DH/1B when Maldonado is behind the plate for the rest of the rotation. Now with Brantley back in the lineup and Jose Abreu hitting over .500 since coming off the IL, it will drastically impact Diaz' everyday playing time even more.
New Projected Lineup
Here is the likely projected lineup with Brantley back on the roster after a few games:
Dubon, Utility Player
This lineup will likely be for pitchers Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, and Cristian Javier, with Diaz replacing Maldy in the lineup catching France and Brown. Even though the return of Brantley enhances the team's offense, the consistent offensive prowess of Diaz is deeply missed. With Diaz's 1.9 oWAR, his presence is particularly critical when competing for the AL West crown.
Besides Maldonado, which is unfortunately established as an unwinnable argument, there's hardly any spots to place Diaz effectively in this lineup for a whole game.
The argument of placing Diaz on 1B is risky because of the lack of playing time he's had in that position.
Will Brantley Be Back To Form?
It's also unsure how much Brantley plays consistently. As mentioned before, he hasn't seen MLB pitching in quite some time. Previously, he was on the everyday lineup as part of the offensive powerhouse with a crisp .306 AVG for the past four seasons. Now, at the ripe age of 36, will he return to form following this long hiatus?
To put this in perspective, the performances of Brantley, Abreu, and Maldonado during the final month of the season will influence Yainers playing time. Looking ahead, Diaz should be in line to be the everyday starting catcher next season.
But that's next season. The Houston Astros are currently competing for a playoff spot. They need all the offense they can get on a consistent basis. Given Dusty's recent lineup decisions, it's easy to foresee the growing frustration of Astros fans if he continues to start Maldonado over Diaz in crucial games throughout the remainder of September.