Perhaps the most glaring omission the Detroit Tigers made last offseason was failing to add a veteran backstop after releasing James McCann. Early indications this year suggest that the club is determined not to neglect the catcher position again. Jason Castro will certainly have plenty of suitors, but if the Tigers are interested in setting the stage for their top prospects, he makes a lot of sense as a free agent target to pursue.
The rationale here is pretty simple; it doesn’t take much to improve on the 2019 Tigers at most positions, but nowhere more so than at catcher. Per FanGraphs, only the Texas Rangers were worse in the major leagues last year at the catcher position as the Tigers posted negative 3.3 wins above replacement (fWAR). Any competent veteran catcher would be a major improvement.
Castro is a 32-year-old left-handed hitter who came up in the Houston Astros organization. He debuted back in 2010 and peaked in 2012, earning a reputation as a fine defender and field general who could provide decent offensive performance to boot. The intervening years have seen him degrade a bit into a strict platoon candidate who struggles badly with left-handed pitchers, but one who continues to provide plenty of value behind the plate.
Castro is coming off a strong 2019 season
The Minnesota Twins signed Castro to a three-year deal worth $24.5 million prior to the 2017 season. His best season overall was the first of the deal. However, after a season ending and extensive meniscus tear in 2018, Castro rebounded with a good year offensively compared to his previous production, posting a 103 wRC+ in 2019 while continuing to provide good defensive value.
Castro — who played a role in J.D. Martinez’s decision to radically retool his swing six years ago — and the Twins made some adjustments to his swing in 2019 that paid off and give hope for some sustained success. His average exit velocity, hard hit rate, and average launch angle all spiked to five-year highs, while he maintained his usual well above average walk and strikeout rates.
Jason Castro 2016-19
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More specifically, Castro posted a 129 wRC+ against right-handed pitching last year, compared to a negative mark (!) against southpaws. The Twins obviously limited his exposure to lefties, and the Tigers would do the same. However that fits perfectly with the other criteria the Tigers will be considering.
Jake Rogers and Grayson Greiner did not perform well at all for the Tigers last season. Both were overwhelmed in the batter’s box, and didn’t do much to help their case behind the plate either. Still, it was only their introduction to the majors, and the Tigers will look for better results from Rogers especially this year. Since both are right-handed, Castro fits right in as a platoon partner who can provide good value and some veteran leadership to the young pitchers and catchers he’d be working with.
In fact, the best argument for Castro specifically, over the other veteran free agent catchers available, is his potential value to the pitching staff.
Many of those pitchers are quite valuable to the Tigers’ hopes for the future. Whether we are talking about the need to show experienced pitchers like Matt Boyd, Joe Jimenez and Daniel Norris in their best light as potential trade chips, or the even more crucial guidance someone like Castro could provide to prospects like Casey Mize, Matt Manning and others as they reach the major leagues, there is every reason to prioritize adding a good veteran catcher on something like a two-year deal this offseason.
Castro has long held a reputation as an excellent receiver, and those skills haven’t diminished too much over time. He was 16th among catchers per Baseball Prospectus’ with 6.1 framing runs accumulated in 2019. Castro’s blocking and caught stealing numbers have slipped a little, but he still posts roughly average numbers in those respects. As such, he’s well suited to support the Tigers young pitchers while adding some punch offensively at a position that was a complete wasteland for the organization last year.
Can the Tigers get him?
Catchers entering their mid-30s with a serious knee injury in their recent history aren’t exactly the hottest of commodities. Many presumed contenders are already set with a starting option at catcher. However, Castro’s ability behind the plate coupled with a modest breakout in 2019 at the plate means there should be plenty of teams interested in adding him to their roster as part of a platoon. With Yasmani Grandal and Stephen Vogt already off the board, the Tigers need to act quickly and decisively if they are going to sign Castro.
FanGraphs’ crowdsourced free agent estimates project a two-year deal worth $12 million for Castro. That is perfectly reasonable for a player of his abilities and experience. Unfortunately, the Tigers aren’t in a position to sign notable free agents for a reasonable price relative to the market. They would likely have to be willing to beat better teams’ offers by a decent margin to secure Castro’s services.
One of the fatal flaws of the Tigers rebuild thus far is the fact that they have turned themselves into a team few players have any interest in joining. For them to start turning that around, they are going to have to overpay on a guy like Castro, lest he simply choose to return to the Twins or another contender with more to offer than simply a contract. At such a crucial position, it’s time for them to show the willingness to do so, even if such a move, combined with their self-imposed payroll restraints, leaves them picking at the scraps late in the offseason for other needs.