Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Catcher
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA TodayProjected Starter: Jason Castro
Likely Backup: Mitch Garver
Depth: Willians Astudillo, Tomas Telis, Brian Navarreto
Prospects: Ryan Jeffers, Ben Rortvedt
Castro's back. He was a solid presence in his first year with the Twins, combining a reasonably productive bat with quality defense and an air of veteran assuredness. That final part is important, and went awry after Castro suffered a season-ending knee injury last May. Garver and Bobby Wilson were left to shoulder the load, and rapport with the staff had to be built on the fly.
The upside of all this is Garver got more time behind the plate than expected, and showed noticeable defensive improvement in the later months. His OPS also ranked 10th among MLB catchers with 300+ plate appearances.
Garver showed signs of being a starter-caliber player, which is handy to have around with Castro returning from knee surgery. And third on the depth chart, the Twins have an enigmatic wild card whose utter uniqueness makes him extremely difficult to analyze.
When Astudillo showed up to camp, he wasted no time putting on a show, immediately blasting a leisurely bomb against the team's best pitcher. He arrives after hitting .316 in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he made headlines with his theatrics.
Last year with the Twins he batted .355 in 29 games. The previous winter he'd hit .319 in the VWL, after batting .342 in Triple-A for the Diamondbacks in 2017. In total, over the last two years between the minors, majors and winter league, Astudillo has a .311 average in 915 at-bats.
Now, of course this sample includes varying degrees of competition – most of it not MLB-caliber – but that's a lengthy run of almost nonstop hitting. Much of this owes to the fact that he almost literally never strikes out. But that's always been the case, throughout the 27-year-old's lengthy run as a minor-league journeyman and also-ran.
What's new is the power. Last year between Rochester and Minnesota, Astudillo launched 15 home runs in 108 games. In his entire eight-year minor-league career leading up to that point, he'd hit 14. Total. And now he's fresh off going deep eight times in 55 games for Caribes in Venezuela.
The intrigue of his bat is undeniable. Were he to accumulate enough starts at catcher, he'd likely rank among the league's best hitters at the position. Along with the emerging Garver and the steady Castro, Astudillo gives the Twins cause for cautious optimism at the catcher position.
We're gonna have to put an emphasis on the cautious in cautious optimism, because there are a lot of cautionary signs at play here.
Castro is 31 and coming back from some fairly significant work on his knee. He also didn't look very good before going down last year, with a .143/.257/.238 line in 74 plate appearances. And his highest WAR in the past five years is 1.6, so you're not looking at a whole lot of upside even if he's back to form.
Garver is in prove-it territory after a good rookie season at age 27. Plenty of late-bloomer types have shown up with a strong first impression and then faded into obscurity (Lew Ford comes to mind). But that's not really my concern. Garver has all but solidified his status as a capable hitter. The bigger concern is his head. If he comes up dazed after another hard foul-tip to the mask, it's gonna be a thing. It needs to be a thing. That specter will loom over him for a while at least.
And Astudillo? Well, like I said, he's hard to analyze. It's not entirely clear how much the Twins trust him at catcher. He does cool wacky things like no-look pickoffs but when it comes to receiving, and framing, and spryness? Hard to judge, and we don't have a ton of data. It does seem fair to say that if Astudillo was considered a strong defender behind the plate, he'd have gotten a look in the majors before age 26, or a few more starts last year before Garver went down and left Paul Molitor with little other option.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Given the alleged extension of a rare multi-year offer to Grandal, it's safe say Minnesota's front office isn't totally sold on the existing situation. Then again, they certainly had the means to make it happen with Grandal, or any number of other upgrades, so clearly they weren't feeling too much urgency.
Entering his final season under contract, Castro is a nice steady force to complement Garver and Astudillo, each of whom is exciting for his own reasons.
After that trio, the depth is pretty rough, and the top prospects haven't played above A-ball. If health issues strike early, the Twins will find themselves in a precarious scenario.
- Dman, nclahammer, caninatl04 and 2 others like this