REAL TALK

Astros intervention: an honest conversation about the one luxury Houston can no longer afford

Astros intervention: an honest conversation about the one luxury Houston can no longer afford
Someone has to say it. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

Astros catcher Martin Maldonado appears to be a really good guy. His teammates cherish him. He’s a clubhouse leader. He may have been the last Astro that Carlos Correa said goodbye to before signing with Minnesota.

Maldonado even has the best nickname on the team: “Machete,” for the way he cuts down would-be base stealers. Or used to, anyway.

But this is now. Maldonado is batting .086, with only three hits in the 12 games he’s started at catcher. That's starting to be a valid sample. With most of the Astros’ 1-8 hitters mired in a collective slump, Maldonado’s almost non-existent offense is a luxury the team can’t afford.

Jose Altuve is on the injured list with a hurting .167 average. Yordan Alvarez is swatting .245, Kyle Tucker is at .179, defending AL batting champ Yuli Gurriel is struggling at .218, and Aledmys Diaz is down to .167.

But we expect those guys to break out and get their batting averages up where they belong, where we expect, where they’ve been before.

Maldonado, not so sure. Last year he hit only .172 for the AL champ Astros. Now the Astros have a starting catcher with a .210 lifetime average, over the age of 35, in obvious decline, who has become, in Little League parlance, practically an automatic out.

Maybe it’s time, huh?

Maldonado has carved a 12-year big league career out of being a light-hitting defensive catcher with a strong accurate arm and command of calling a game. You dare to run on him and there’s a good chance you’ll be heading back to the dugout in shame. Base-stealing just isn’t a part of the game these days. The number of attempted steals per game is at a 50-year low. Maldonado’s greatest strength has been neutered. He can't gun out runners who aren't running.

As Jimmy Buffett alludes in A Pirate Looks at 40, Maldonado’s occupational hazard is his occupation’s just not around anymore.

With Altuve sidelined and most of the lineup hitting around or below their weight, it’s somewhat a miracle that the Astros are keeping their heads above water at 9-9.

Crunching Maldonado’s numbers doesn’t help. He’s played five years with the Astros and his average in Houston is only .188. His career on-base percentage is .289. Slugging is .346. In 12 years he has only 81 homers. Tuesday night, Maldonado went 1-4 and his batting average skyrocketed 21 points to .086. He’s not merely a weak hitter, no, he’s an historically easy out.

At various times in his career the New York Times called him “arguably the worst hitter in baseball,” and Sports Illustrated said, “he quite possibly could be the worst-hitting everyday player in MLB history.”

Maldonado has gotten worse since those criminal complaints were made.

Yeah, but he’s a defensive wizard, nobody’s better behind the plate, right? Twelve years, one Gold Glove.

Maybe it’s because “Maldy,” as announcer Julia Morales affectionately calls him, is a fan favorite, or because he’s been a cog in the Astros’ recent glory, or the pitching staff vouches for him, but there’s been no collective cry from fans to bench him.

Or perhaps this is the reason: as puny and ineffective as Maldonado has been at the plate, Astros second-string catcher Jason Castro, certainly not in Maldonado’s league defensively, amazingly enough has an even lower batting average, .053.

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The NBA Draft takes place this Wednesday and Thursday. Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images.

This year's NBA draft features potential starters and valuable role players more so than no-doubt future stars. That becomes evident when looking at the headlining prospects among big men.

French teenager Alexandre Sarr from France could go No. 1 overall with his length and defensive potential, key reasons why he has thrice topped the AP's NBA mock draft. Meanwhile, Donovan Clingan from two-time reigning national champion UConn also will likely be a high pick as a rim-protecting force.

It's just unclear how quickly any will be ready for a leading role in the league, particularly offensively.

Here's a look at some of the top players in the position:

Alexandre Sarr, France

STRENGTHS: The athleticism, mobility and length offer significant upside at both ends of the court for the 7-footer, whether as a rim protector and versatile defender or as a rim-runner off pick-and-rolls for lobs on offense. Sarr, 19, spent two seasons with the Overtime Elite developmental program for top prospects in the United States, then last season with Perth in the Australian-based National Basketball League as part of its “Next Stars” program. He ranked tied for second there by averaging 1.5 blocks despite averaging just 17.3 minutes.

He finished strong by averaging 10.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.3 assists in his last six games with Perth. He also ranked among the best at the combine with a wingspan of better than 7-4.

CONCERNS: He'll need time to add bulk to a lean 224-pound frame and handle the rigors of an NBA season. Developing more consistent 3-point range (he shot 29% in the NBL last season) will be key to fully realizing his defense-stretching potential.

Donovan Clingan, UConn

STRENGTHS: He is big, strong and surprisingly nimble for his imposing 7-2, 282-pound frame, which made him an interior shot-blocking force in the Huskies' run to college basketball's first repeat men's title in 17 years. He ranked eighth in Division I by averaging 2.5 blocks per game despite playing just 22.6 minutes, then had some massive games in the NCAA Tournament. That included eight blocks and 14 rebounds in the second-round win against Northwestern, followed by 22 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a regional final against Illinois (the Illini were 0 for 19 on Clingan-challenged shots ) and four more swats against Alabama in the Final Four.

The 20-year-old sophomore runs the floor well despite his bulk and is a strong finisher. He also was tied for first at the combine in standing reach (9-7) and was second in wingspan (nearly 7-7).

CONCERNS: It's unclear how well he might handle switches to defend outside the paint in space. While he shot nearly 64% to rank among the national leaders, he has rarely had to produce much outside of the paint. He also shot just 55.8% from the line in two seasons.

Kel'el Ware, Indiana

STRENGTHS: The 20-year-old sophomore has flashed intriguing two-way potential to make himself a first-round prospect, first in a season at Oregon and then last year at Indiana. He averaged 15.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season as a starter for the Hoosiers. He made 17 of 40 3-pointers (.425), indicating the potential for growth in terms of pulling defenders outside.

The 7-footer has a nearly 7-5 wingspan and tested well at the NBA combine by ranking second among bigs in the lane agility test (second at 10.97 seconds) and shuttle run (second, 2.91).

CONCERNS: He'll need to add strength to his 230-pound frame and improve at the line, where he shot just 63.4% last year.

Kyle Filipowski, Duke

STRENGTHS: The 6-11, 230-pound sophomore could play either forward or center as a first-round prospect. He was a steady producer by averaging 15.8 points and 8.6 rebounds with the Blue Devils. He also more than doubled his shot-blocking totals last year (54, up from 26 as a freshman) when having to work as Duke's interior anchor after Dereck Lively II's departure for the NBA. He has shown improved mobility and footwork after surgery on his hips before last season, and he has improved as an outside shooter (34.8% from 3 last year, up from 28.2% in 2022-23).

CONCERNS: Filipowski isn't an elite athlete, so he could be vulnerable defensively in space as well as struggle against physical play. He slipped at the foul line last year, shooting just 67.1% after checking in at 76.5% as a freshman.

Others of Note

—ZACH EDEY: The 7-4, 299-pound Purdue center is a two-time Associated Press men’s college basketball player of the year who led the Boilermakers to last year’s NCAA title game as the national scoring leader (25.2) and Division I’s No. 2 rebounder (12.2). He closed his career with 37 points in the title-game loss to UConn. He has a ridiculous wingspan of nearly 7-11 to go with the ability to shoot over any defender. There is uncertainty whether the first-round prospect is athletic enough to handle defensive switches or guarding in space.

—DARON HOLMES II: The 6-9, 236-pound junior from Dayton spent the past two seasons putting up big numbers, averaging 19.3 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 56.7%. He also hit 38.6% of his 3s last year and averaged 2.1 blocks for his college career. The Atlantic 10 co-player of the year and league defensive player of the year could go in the back half of the first round, though he is a bit undersized among bigs.

—YVES MISSI: The 6-11, 229-pound center from Baylor came on as the season went on as a one-and-done prospect with bouncy athleticism, helping him finish at the rim (61.4% shooting) and block shots (1.5). That could make him a pick-and-roll or lob threat in the pros, though the 20-year-old from Cameroon will have to expand his offense beyond those crowd-charging dunks and improve at the line (61.6%).

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