The Astros have been linked to Josh Bell a few times in recent days, but the Nationals first baseman isn’t the only rental bat on Houston’s radar. Jeff Passan of ESPN reports that the Astros have been in contact with the Cubs about catcher Willson Contreras.
More broadly, Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic wrote this morning that Houston is looking into ways to add to the catching corps before next Tuesday’s trade deadline. The Astros have been without veteran backup Jason Castro for nearly a month, and manager Dusty Baker indicated over the weekend that Castro wasn’t progressing as hoped (via team field reporter Julia Morales). That has left the club relying on rookie Korey Lee to back up Martín Maldonado. Lee is one of the better prospects in the Houston farm system, but he’s struggled this year in his first extended crack at Triple-A.
Of course, there are myriad ways in which the Houston front office could address the catching group. If they’re committed to keeping Maldonado as the primary backstop, then a veteran depth option in the Tucker Barnhart mold could suffice. The Tigers would certainly be open to moving the impending free agent for a minimal prospect return.
Contreras, on the other hand, would require sending significant talent back to Chicago. He’s a virtual lock to change uniforms within the next week. Because MLB and the Players Association didn’t agree to an international draft, the qualifying offer system for free agents is set to remain in place. The Cubs could theoretically hold Contreras and recoup a draft pick once he signs elsewhere next winter, but they’re far likelier to land a more valuable return via trade.
Maldonado, who has started 70 of Houston’s 97 games behind the plate, is beloved in the clubhouse for his management of the pitching staff. He’s never been a good hitter, though, and his .237 on-base percentage is the fifth-lowest mark among 260 hitters with 200+ plate appearances on the season. Maldonado has also rated as a below-average pitch framer and overall defender in the eyes of public metrics this season. The Astros clearly believe he brings immense intangible value, but there’s room on paper for an upgrade.
Of course, if the Astros want to keep Maldonado behind the plate, they could make room for Contreras’ bat at other positions. The Cubs backstop has long been regarded as a bat-first catcher. He’s made strides from a pitch framing perspective in recent seasons, improving from one of the league’s worst-rated framers to roughly average in that regard. Passan notes, however, that some contenders have expressed concern about Contreras’ ability to manage a new pitching staff quickly — not an uncommon refrain for catchers who are dealt midseason. Contreras is talented enough a hitter than an acquiring team could plug him in more frequently at first base and/or designated hitter than at catcher for the season’s final few months while still upgrading their offense.
Houston has Yordan Álvarez at DH, although he’s seen sporadic time in left field as well. The clearer path for an offensive upgrade is at first base, where Yuli Gurriel has a disappointing .234/.287/.384 season line. Bell would be a more obvious direct replacement for Gurriel, but it’s not out of the question teams could eye Contreras — owner of a career-best .258/.373/.470 slash — as an option to rotate between DH, first base and catcher rather than as a full-time backstop.
The Astros aren’t the only team in contact with the Cubs about Contreras, of course. The Mets have been tied to him for a few weeks, and both Passan and Pat Ragazzo of Sports Illustrated suggest today he remains a viable target for New York. Ragazzo reports that New York and the Cubs have discussed trade frameworks involving Contreras and Cubs closer David Robertson in a package deal that would send multiple prospects back to Chicago. Ragazzo adds that Francisco Álvarez and Brett Baty — the top two prospects in the system in Baseball America’s most recent Top 100 — would be off the table. The only other Mets farmhand to make BA’s top 100 is outfielder Alex Ramirez, but players like Matt Allan, Ronny Mauricio and Mark Vientos have been in the recent Top 100 mix for various prospect outlets.