How Houston Astros' creative maneuvers shape outlook for 2024 and beyond

Astros Yordan Alvarez, Chas McCormick, Yainer Diaz
The torch has been passed to Yainer Diaz. Composite Getty Image.

Victor Caratini! Dylan Coleman! Jake Meyers as the primary centerfielder! Not exactly the moves of Astros’ fans dreams at baseball’s Winter Meetings this week in Nashville. Still, better hearing they added a couple of guys on the margins than that they traded Alex Bregman or did something else as absurdly damaging to the Astros’ 2024 chances. And remember, it’s still early in the offseason. The meetings were pretty much a dud for “wow” transactions until Wednesday’s word that the Yankees were about to make the move to acquire superstar Juan Soto from the Padres.

The Astros signing Caratini to a two year 12 million dollar free agent contract seems an overpay, especially with the Astros clearly attempting to stay below the first Competitive Balance Tax threshold of 237 million dollars for the coming season. However six mil per season for an okay backup is indicative of how flush with cash the industry is. If the Astros get 2023 Caratini he’ll be fine as the Astros’ catcher complement to Yainer Diaz. Organizationally the Astros came to the conclusion that it was time to move on from Maldy, his contributions notwithstanding. It probably helped that Dusty Baker is not here to a pitch a little fit over it. Justin Verlander will get over it. Frankly he should enjoy pitching with a vastly enhanced chance of offensive support from his catcher.

2023 Caratini was significantly better in his playing time than Maldonado was in his. A .711 OPS won’t have Caratini confused with Adley Rutschman or Will Smith but that would be a solid number for a backup catcher. In 2021 and 2022 Caratini’s OPS came in at a weaker .632 then .642. Maldonado’s OPS was .606 this year, his best since 2020. As a receiver, Caratini is reasonably well regarded. His pitch framing numbers were above average, Maldonado’s pitch framing was graded as about the worst in the big leagues. Caratini was terrible at throwing out opposing base stealers, so was Maldonado. Maldonado led the Major Leagues in passed balls for the second year in a row, in a hair under half the innings caught Caratini had zero (like Diaz).

Maldonado was a gritty and respected veteran. The preponderance of playing time he got in 2023 hurt the team. The Catching Yoda/Mensa/Mastermind stuff became a bit much. When Framber Valdez threw his no-hitter Maldy wet-nursed him through it? As Framber unraveled most of the second half of the season, how bad would he have been if not for Maldy? Cristian Javier stunk for months, how bad would it have gotten if not for Maldy? As Hunter Brown regressed by the month (starting when Maldy bumped Diaz as his primary catcher), if not for Maldy, what? Come on.

Yainer Diaz’s time is now. 100-plus starts behind the plate are his. The Astros’ offensive history at the catcher position is mostly feeble. Brad Ausmus played more than twice as many games as Maldonado as an Astro, and was at least as bad as Maldy at the plate. Alan Ashby made himself into a solid contributor through most of the 1980s. “Ash” hands down has the best offensive career posted by an Astros’ backstop. Still, it’s not like Diaz is chasing down Mike Piazza or Pudge Rodriguez. No Astro has hit 20 home runs in a season as a catcher. Yainer hit 23 homers as a rookie but only 14 of them while catching in the game. Diaz seems a lock for 20 with 30 certainly not out of the question.

The 27-years-old Coleman is a cheap flyer taken. I mean, if you couldn’t make it on the laughably bad Royals… For the Astros Coleman is a straw grasp for a bullpen which saw its depth badly damaged with the presumed free agent departures of Hector Neris, Ryne Stanek, and Phil Maton. The only certain arms for the Astros’ ’24 pen are Ryan Pressly, Bryan Abreu, Kendall Graveman. And Rafael Montero since finding a taker for the two years 23 million dollars left on his contract is a fool’s errand. So that leaves three or four slots to fill. Coleman actually had a fine 2022 with the Royals posting a 2.78 earned run average in 68 innings. His 2023 was a disaster, with him regularly pretty much having no clue where he was throwing the ball. 19 walks in 18 and 1/3 innings led to an 8.84 ERA and spending most of 2023 in the minors. His control was lousy there too. Coleman was wild through his college career and in the minors. The Astros hope to fall into something somewhat helpful. Oh yes, Coleman works cheap. He’s not salary arbitration eligible until 2026.

Meyers works cheap too. He’ll make a little more than the MLB minimum salary of $740,000. Hence the Astros’ give him another shot after two poor offensive seasons. Despite his pop gun throwing arm, Meyers’s defensive metrics are very strong. Carrying his bat (if better than atrocious) is more viable with Diaz regularly in the lineup, and if Jeremy Pena shows improvement after his mediocre sophomore season. 2024 would have been the expected debut season of Drew Gilbert in the Astros’ outfield, but he’ll debut as a Met via the Justin Verlander trade.

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Here's why Framber Valdez is the key to another Astros World Series

Per The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Framber Valdez plans on both he and the catcher calling pitches this year. He said he “wants to feel more comfortable,” adding “not that I don't feel comfortable with the catchers, but I want to feel comfortable and throw the pitches with more conviction…to feel like I have the game in my hands.”

Is that a good thing? Either way, it seems like a return to form for Framber Valdez is the biggest “what if” for the 2024 Houston Astros.

Be sure to watch the video above as ESPN Houston's Paul Gallant & Joe George discuss.

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