Astros’ general manager Dana Brown spoke with KPRC 2 recently about the club’s priorities. He naturally listed bullpen as a target area with Phil Maton, Hector Neris and Ryne Stanek set to become free agents. He also said that the club will need a backup catcher for Yainer Diaz, who is going to be “the main guy next year.”
The Astros have been employing Martín Maldonado as their primary backstop in recent years, which certainly hasn’t been because of his bat. Though he had a nice showing at the plate in the shortened 2020 season, he has hit .183/.260/.333 in 1,212 plate appearances over the past three years. That amounts to a wRC+ of 66, indicating he was 34% worse than the league average hitter over that stretch.
Despite that tepid offense, he has been a valuable member of the Astros in that time thanks to his glovework and his handling of the pitching staff. But his defensive numbers slid a bit in 2023, hardly surprising since he is now 37 years old. With his contract now expiring, it seems the club is planning to move on.
That decision has been made easier by the emergence of Diaz, who had a breakout year in 2023. His 2.9% walk rate is quite low, but he also limited his strikeouts to a 19.6% rate. He launched 23 home runs and produced a line of .282/.308/.538 for a wRC+ of 127. Among catchers with at least 350 plate appearances for the year, only Sean Murphy had a higher wRC+ mark, with his 129 just two points ahead.
But with Maldonado behind the plate most days, a lot of that production took place while Diaz wasn’t catching. He did get 42 starts as the catcher but also 36 as the designated hitter and seven at first base. It’s hard to get meaningful data from that small sample of work behind the plate but, for what it’s worth, Statcast liked his blocking and work with the running game. However, each of Statcast, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus considered his framing to be subpar. Regardless of the details, the overall body of work was strong and it’s logical the club wants to give him the gig next year.
Diaz is only 25 so it’s entirely possible there’s still room to grow. He has just over a year of service time, meaning he won’t qualify for arbitration before the end of 2025 and isn’t slated for free agency until after 2028. Perhaps the club will face some challenges in moving from a respected veteran to a far younger catcher, but those concerns could be ameliorated somewhat by bringing in a veteran to support…