MILLION-DOLLAR QUESTION

With the free agent market dwindling, Astros must answer next burning question(s)

Can the Astros fade Martin Maldonado's bat once again? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

As coveted free agent and trade-bait catchers, including Willson Contreras and Sean Murphy, found new homes outside the Greater Houston area, I kept expecting the Astros to announce they’ve signed 2022 backup receiver Christian Vasquez … a.k.a the best available option moving forward.

Then on Monday, news broke that Vasquez had agreed to a 3-year, $30 million deal with greener (greener as in the color of money) pastures in Minnesota. Last year, the Twins signed Astros free agent Carlos Correa, now Vasquez.

Why would Vasquez choose the sub-par Twins and sub-freezing Minnesota over a sure-thing playoff team like the air-conditioned Astros? It’s simple: Vasquez wants to be a starter, as well he should. And it appears that the Astros see him as a backup backstop.

Vasquez batted .274 with a .714 OPS last year, splitting time between the Red Sox and Astros. He’s a 32-year-old veteran in the prime of his career with a lifetime .261 batting average. It was Vasquez behind the plate when four Astros pitchers combined to no-hit the Phillies in Game 4 of the 2022 World Series. He also drove in three runs in limited action during the Series. He is a decent fielding catcher and above average hitter.

As things stand now (and it’s a fluid situation, the Astros are under budget), the Astros will go another season with Martin Maldonado behind the plate.

Burning questions

The question entering 2023 is, how much longer can the Astros afford one of the all-time worst hitters (you can look it up) as their everyday catcher? At some point, will Maldonado’s weak offense rise and bite the Astros in the butt?

Maldonado is 36 years old, one of the oldest starting catchers in MLB. He’s slow. You know that promotion where the Astros invite a small child to run down the right field line, “steal a base” and return before the stopwatch hits zero? That kid can beat Maldonado in a footrace. Heinz ketchup runs faster than Maldonado. He’s slower than my Uncle Ed reaching for a dinner check. (OK, I’m done.)

Maldonado batted .186 in 2022. That would have put him dead last in the American League if he had enough at bats to qualify for the batting title.

It’s not like 2022 was a down year for Maldonado. Actually he improved his batting average from .172 in 2021. In the past four years with the Astros, Maldonado has hit .186, .172, .215 and .202. He is a lifetime .209 hitter over his 12-year career. His career postseason average is .174.

The Astros No. 9 hitter … can’t hit. In 379 plate appearances last year, he struck out 116 times.

Of course Maldonado is all about defense. He was the top-rated defensive catcher in the Major Leagues last year. He has a strong arm and quick-trigger Pop Time. That’s the time it takes between the ball landing in the catcher’s mitt and reaching the fielder on an attempted steal. Maldonado has the eighth-fasted Pop Time, 1.92 seconds. You know who’s in seventh place? Former Astros sub Garrett Stubbs. The catcher with the fastest Pop Time of all is Phillies backstop J.T. Realmuto at 1.82 seconds.

The most valuable aspect to Maldonado’s game can’t be quantified in a statistic. Astros pitchers believe in him. Verlander insisted on him. The Astros staff had a 2.90 earned run average in 2022, best in the American League. That ERA dropped to 2.29 in the postseason. Maldonado is a big reason why.

Most important, the Astros won the World Series with Maldonado behind the plate, weak offense and all. The Astros had enough firepower 1-8 to cover for Maldonado.

But … there’s always a but, right? Can the Astros continue to wreck the American League with a good-defense, no-offense catcher? Don’t bet against the Astros working a deal for another catcher for 2023.

Remember what author Michael Lewis said in Moneyball:

“The variance between the best and worst fielders on the outcome of the game is a lot smaller than the variance between the best and worst hitters.”

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