Astros explores catch market and has discussed Willson Contreras with Cubs – MLB trade rumors | Region & Cash

The Astros have been linked Josh Bell a few times in the past few days, but the Nationals first baseman isn’t the only rental bat on Houston’s radar. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that the Astros have been in touch with the Cubs regarding the catcher Willson Contreras.

More broadly, Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote this morning that Houston is looking at ways to expand the catch corps ahead of next Tuesday’s trading close. The Astros were without veteran support Jason Castro for nearly a month, and manager Dusty Baker hinted over the weekend that Castro is not progressing as hoped (via team field reporter Julia Morales). The club relies on the rookie Korey Lee to back up Martin Maldonado. Lee is one of the brighter prospects in Houston’s farm system, but he struggled in his first extended crack at Triple-A this year.

Of course, there are countless ways the Houston front office could approach the catch group. If they are committed to holding Maldonado as their primary backstop, then a veteran depth option in the Tucker Barnhart Mold might suffice. The Tigers would certainly be willing to nudge the upcoming free agent for a minimal chance of a return.

Contreras, on the other hand, would require significant talent to be sent back to Chicago. He’s a virtual ban to change uniforms within the next week. Since MLB and the Players Association have not agreed on an international draft, the free agent qualification system is to remain in place. The Cubs could theoretically hold Contreras and reclaim a draft pick once he signs elsewhere next winter, but they’re far more likely to land a more valuable return through trading.

Maldonado, who has started 70 of Houston’s 97 games behind the plate, is popular at the clubhouse for his leadership of the pitching staff. However, he has never been a good hitter, and his .237 on-base percentage is the fifth-lowest mark among 260 hitters with more than 200 plate appearances in the season. Maldonado was also ranked as an underperforming pitch framer and overall defender in the eyes of the public that season. The Astros clearly believe he brings immense intangible value, but there’s room for an upgrade on paper.

Of course, if the Astros want to keep Maldonado behind the plate, they could make room for Contreras’ racquet in other positions. The Cubs backstop has long been considered a bat catcher. He’s made strides in terms of pitch framing perspective over the past few seasons, improving from one of the lowest-rated framers in the league to roughly average in that regard. However, Passan notes that some competitors have raised concerns about Contreras’ ability to quickly manage a new pitching staff — not an uncommon refrain for catchers dealt midseason. Contreras is talented enough as a hitter that an acquiring team could use him as a first base and/or designated hitter more often than a catcher in the latter months of the season, while also improving his offense.

Houston has Jordan Alvarez at DH, although he’s also seen sporadic time in left field. The clearer path for an offensive upgrade is at first base, where Julia Gurriel has a disappointing season line of .234/.287/.384. Bell would be a more obvious direct replacement for Gurriel, but it’s not out of the question that teams might consider Contreras — owners of a career-best .258/.373/.470 slash — as an option to switch between DH, first base and catcher instead of as a full-time backstop.

The Astros aren’t the only team in touch with the Cubs over Contreras, of course. The Mets have been tied to him for a few weeks, and both Passan and Sports Illustrated’s Pat Ragazzo suggest he remains a viable target for New York today. Ragazzo reports that New York and the Cubs have further discussed trade frames with Contreras and Cubs David Robertson in a package deal that would send several prospects back to Chicago. Ragazzo complements that Francisco Alvarez and Brett Baty — the two best prospects in the system in Baseball America’s recent Top 100 — would be off the table. The only other Mets farmhand to make BA’s top 100 is an outfielder Alex Ramirezbut players like Matt Alan, Ronnie Maurizio and Markus Vientos were in the recent top 100 mix for various potential outlets.

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