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Yainer Diaz is ‘the future’ at catcher. How can the Astros use him more in the present?

HOUSTON — Trading Korey Lee to the Chicago White Sox created some long-term stability for Yainer Diaz. The short-term offers no assurances. Houston’s commitment to veteran catcher Martín Maldonado always meant Diaz would have a difficult time carving a consistent role on a championship-caliber team. 

Yordan Alvarez’s return earlier this week only further complicated matters for the team’s heir apparent at catcher and season-long subject of fan clamor. Diaz has distinguished himself as one of this team’s most dangerous hitters, but somehow can’t find a spot in the Astros’ everyday lineup.

Houston needs to give him more at-bats, but Diaz has been finding his way into the lineup much of the time. He has started 37 of the team’s 51 games since June 1, including Saturday’s 17-4 win against the Tampa Bay Rays. Diaz recorded a double and a two-run home run, raising his slugging percentage to .501 and OPS to .789 after 227 plate appearances. The question now is how his playing time shakes out going forward, following Alvarez’s return.

Diaz did not start Sunday afternoon’s series finale. Catchers rarely start a day game after a night game, so going back to Maldonado at catcher made logical sense, but the overall lineup construction demonstrated the conundrum manager Dusty Baker will navigate across the next two months. 

“He is the future. It’s just that you have to prepare him in the present for the future. You don’t want to overwhelm him, but he’s learning from Maldy and Maldy is still the guy,” Baker said before Sunday’s game.

Diaz started at catcher on Saturday for just the 11th time since June 1, a division of playing time that doesn’t seem likely to change. Baker’s comments underscore a commitment to Maldonado that has stretched back to last season and has little to do with statistics. Yet, on Wednesday, Baker attempted to use them in rationalizing the playing time moving forward.  

“Him and (Maldonado) have about the same amount of at-bats. I think Maldy has eight home runs, Diaz has 11. One has 28 RBIs, I think the other has 18. Other than the batting average, they’ve done pretty close as far as production is concerned. (Diaz) is going to catch,” Baker said that day.

The question to which Baker responded had not even mentioned Maldonado — just what Alvarez’s return meant for Diaz, given he served as the team’s primary designated hitter during Alvarez’s absence.

At the time, none of Baker’s statistics were out of place: Maldonado awoke that day with 234 at-bats and 18 RBI. Diaz had 206 at-bats and 26 RBI, but has driven in five more runs and struck two more home runs since, amplifying calls for more at-bats. 

Comparing the two catchers’ offensive outputs, however, seems like a moot point. The Astros have always believed Maldonado’s value transcends any statistics, slash lines and — this season — some declining defensive metrics. They play him daily for his pregame preparation, game calling and game management and do so with the blessing of the team’s pitchers. That will not change. 

Maldonado played 113 games last season despite slashing .186/.248/.352. At the trade deadline, the Astros parted with two prospects for another team’s starting catcher — Boston’s Christian Vázquez — and, still, Maldonado took most of the playing time.  It should surprise no one that he remains the starter this season, especially with a rookie backup behind him. 

“Everything changes and everybody is going to pass the torch at some point in time to the next generation,” Baker said on Sunday. “In the meantime, you teach them as you’re exiting and as another is coming. Everyone is looking for the new, right now and just pushing the old out of there. That’s the way of the world, but that’s the way that’s wrong, I think.”

Diaz has a .789 OPS this season. (Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

But there are ways the Astros can keep getting Diaz regular at-bats even while committing to Maldonado as the everyday catcher — if they actually want to. Twice this week, Baker mentioned — without prompt — Diaz’s struggles against left-handed pitching. The right-handed hitter does have a .440 OPS against southpaws, and he hit righties better in the minors. At the same time, the 59 plate appearances he’s taken against them in the majors don’t seem like a sample size large enough to draw drastic conclusions.

Presuming he can get past the left-handed pitching plight, Baker could get creative with his lineup construction to give one of his best hitters more at-bats, or perhaps general manager Dana Brown could alter his roster construction and make Baker more comfortable playing Maldonado and Diaz on the same day.

One option is bringing César Salazar back from Triple A and carrying three catchers, much like the team did during the first two months of the season. Salazar joined the team on Friday night as part of its taxi squad — Maldonado felt ill before the game and the Astros wanted some insurance close by in case he could not play — but Salazar has not been activated onto the major-league roster. 

Carrying Salazar would give Baker more flexibility to use Diaz and Maldonado in the same lineup, but he also had that luxury in April and May — and largely ignored it. Diaz received just 75 plate appearances while the Astros carried three catchers, prompting Brown to wonder publicly why he didn’t get more.  

Even if the team carries just two catchers, Baker has shown a willingness to play Diaz and Maldonado together, even if it means losing the designated hitter. Twenty-two of Diaz’s past 35 starts came at designated hitter — an obvious fit while Alvarez nursed his strained oblique — but that has not been a boon for Diaz’s numbers. 

Diaz is slashing .210/.299/.370 in 105 plate appearances this season as a designated hitter. He is just 1-for-8 in pinch-hit opportunities, too. 

In 116 plate appearances at either catcher or first base, Diaz boasts a .330/.345/.661 slash line. His plight is not uncommon — many young hitters are better suited to play both ways and struggle to sustain any momentum while not playing defense. The dramatic dropoff in Diaz’s numbers suggests Houston should at least try to use him as much as it can defensively.

Last season, Diaz started two minor-league games in left field, but there does not appear to be interest in exposing him there at the major-league level. First base is the only other defensive position Diaz can play — and he’s out-performing the everyday starter there, too. 

Diaz has 26 extra-base hits in his first 227 plate appearances this season. José Abreu has 26 across his first 429, another abysmal stat in a season full of them. Abreu entered Sunday’s game worth negative-0.6 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. No qualified first baseman has been worse. 

Playing Diaz at first base in place of Abreu, even if just once or twice a week, would allow Baker to construct an even more potent lineup and keep Maldonado at catcher. It’s difficult to envision Baker abandoning Abreu entirely — and he could slot the 36-year-old Abreu in at designated hitter on days he does not play first base.

For most of this week, though, Diaz’s role has been what Baker described as a pinch hitter, and as someone who he will catch with “designated” pitchers. Diaz caught fellow rookie Hunter Brown on Saturday, guiding him through six innings of two-run ball. After the game, Baker intimated the battery will stay intact for the foreseeable future. Sunday, Maldonado went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts while his OPS fell to .541. Diaz did not appear in the 8-2 loss. 

“I’m just trying to find a way to win as many games as I can and not having to answer questions as to why every day,” Baker said.

(Top photo: Bob Levey / Getty Images)

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