One is a veteran. One is an apprentice. One is a unicorn.
And as a group they could be a problem for new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.
The team’s 25-man roster boasts three catchers in Jason Castro, the cagey savant; Mitch Garver, the supposed catcher of the near future; and Willians Astudillo, who has played just 30 major league games but has captured the hearts and minds of fans for being a husky and impatient hitter.
The Twins want to use all three behind the plate. One of Baldelli’s early challenges is to determine who catches and when.
“There are probably too many things to get into an in-depth discussion about,” Baldelli said, “but it’s not as simple as you just look at it and your regular guy’s catching, and then your backup catcher’s catching — we don’t have that type of situation.
“We have three guys that are proficient behind the plate that all swing the bat, and guys that we’re comfortable sending out there on any given day. We’ll have to figure it out.”
Baldelli has not tipped his hand on a preference behind the plate, because he has used a different catcher in each of the first three games against Cleveland. Castro caught Jose Berrios’ 7⅔ scoreless innings in the opener Thursday. Garver caught Saturday as Jake Odorizzi gave up one run and struck out 11 over six innings. On Sunday, Astudillo started Michael Pineda’s return to the mound after a 633-day absence, and the two worked four quick shutout innings together.
If Baldelli indeed uses all factors in determining who plays, then all three have a chance because all three have different skill sets.
Look at the offense each one brings. Castro is a lefthanded hitter. Garver is a righthanded hitter. So is Astudillo, who also is a confirmed hacker who averages only three pitches per plate appearance. Castro’s bat is not his strong suit, but hitting lefthanded puts him in line to start against righthanded pitchers. Baldelli’s decisionmaking there is challenged by Garver and Astudillo being better hitters.
Garver, 28, received his first extended playing time last season when Castro was limited to 19 games before having knee surgery last May. Garver hit .268 with seven home runs and 45 RBI in 102 games, and the Twins believe he can hit even better.
Astudillo, 27, is with his third organization and continues to defy logic with his unwillingness to walk or strike out. He was 2-for-2 with two doubles, two RBI and two runs scored Sunday. Through 101 big-league plate appearances, Astudillo is hitting .368, the highest career batting average for any player with at least 100 plate appearances. Some guy named Ty Cobb is next at .366.
“When you get opportunities, you take advantage of them,” Astudillo said via a translator after Sunday’s 9-3 victory over the Indians.
Behind the dish
Defensively, Castro is unquestionably the most effective of the group behind the plate. Pitch framing, defensive runs saved, controlling the running game — the 31-year-old Castro, who signed a three-year, $24.5 million contract as a free agent before the 2017 season, has a proven track record.
Astudillo actually has better defensive numbers than Garver in his limited time behind the plate. Calling games is one area where he needs more experience. When he first came up last summer, the Twins played him in the outfield, infield and even pitcher — but because he hadn’t caught much at Class AAA Rochester at that point, they didn’t let him play catcher in the majors until Aug. 25.
Garver’s defensive numbers on FanGraphs last season — minus-16 runs saved, minus-10.1 catcher framing and a minus-8.3 defensive rating — all rank low in the majors. That’s why he addressed his defense during the offseason and in camp.
“That’s something that I had to do, is forcing the manager’s hand by doing so,” Garver said. “I proved I could do it in spring training, and [Saturday] was a very good day. I’m just looking forward to the future.”
What helps is that Garver can play first base and Astudillo can play third and left field. He also played second base and center field last season. The Twins haven’t yet faced a lefthanded starter and might not for the majority of April, so Baldelli has been unable to unveil a lineup with both Garver and Astudillo in the field. But his willingness to start both of them over the weekend against righthanded pitchers shows his desire to get them in the lineup.
All factors are on the table. The Twins’ pitcher that day. Who can slow down a running team better?Who has the hot hand? Who needs a break. Who is wasting on the bench? Baldelli will review data, meet with his coaches daily and craft a catching plan.
Maybe, once in a while, he will pull a name out of a hat — provided that the research and development department doesn’t find out.
“We spend a lot of time talking about this,” Baldelli said. “Everything that you can probably imagine and come up with, all of these things factor in.”