Martín Maldonado Goes Back to Houston

For the second time this month, catcher Martín Maldonado has been traded, and for the second time in just over a year, he’ll join the Astros. The well-traveled backstop, who began this season filling in for the injured Salvador Perez as the Royals’ starter, played just four games with the Cubs after being acquired on July 15.

Astros get:

C Martín Maldonado

Cubs get:

IF/OF Tony Kemp

It’s fair to say that Maldonado, who turns 33 on August 16 and has also spent time with the Brewers (2011-16) and Angels (2017-18), is a consistent hitter — consistently subpar. He’s batting .217/.285/.349 in 276 plate appearances this year, with six homers and a 72 wRC+; that line bears an uncanny resemblance to his career one (.219/.288/.350, 72 WRC+). He actually went hitless (0-for-11 with two walks) in his brief Chicago stint, which began when the Cubs obtained him from the Royals on July 15, complementing their placement of Willson Contreras on the injured list due to a right arch strain. Contreras has since returned, and with young Victor Caratini serving as a useful backup, there wasn’t room for Maldonado.

Maldonado’s forte, of course, is his defense, and it’s not just Nichols’ Law at work. He’s thrown out 37% of would-be base thieves in his career (32% this year), well ahead of the major league average of 27% during his tenure. He’s generally been above-average in blocking runs; per Baseball Prospectus’ metrics, his 3.0 runs this year in that category ranks fourth in the majors.

He’s also a very good pitch framer. By our metrics, his 71.2 runs above average in that department ranks 12th since 1988. His 23.8 framing runs led the AL in 2017, when he was an Angel; last year, he was fifth in the league at 7.9, but this year, he’s been just 2.0 runs above average. BP’s numbers tell a similar story, and last summer, Patrick Dubuque outlined the general trend of catcher framing declining with age. It’s fair to say that he’s still above average to plus in this area, though no longer plus-plus.

Maldonado, who last year was obtained by the Astros when Brian McCann needed in-season knee surgery and went on to start six of the team’s eight postseason games, will apparently back up Robinson Chirinos, who has started 76 of Houston’s 108 games this year. That may mean a change of address for incumbent backup Max Stassi, who led the AL in framing last year (14.1 runs) while hitting for a 100 wRC+ but who has fallen off drastically at the plate (.167.235/.211, 25 wRC+). He’s 28 and out of options, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s dealt.

[Update: Stassi was indeed dealt, to the Angels for a pair of 18-year-old outfield prospects, Rainier Rivas and Raider Uceta.]

As for the Cubs, who sent struggling reliever Mike Montgomery back to Kansas City when they acquired Maldonado, the 27-year-old Kemp is the kind of player manager Joe Maddon can put to good use. He has experience at all three outfield positions as well as second base, and the small-sample defensive metrics say he won’t inflict much damage at any of those spots. While he broke out to hit .263/.351/.392 (110 wRC+) in 295 PA last year, he’s receded to .227/.308/.417 (94 wRC+) this year. He doesn’t hit the ball very hard (average exit velo 84.5 mph), and his pull rate is a honking 52.6%; he’s been shifted against enough to drop his BABIP from last year’s .296 to this year’s .233. While he’s got the speed to steal a base, he’s just 4-for-7 this year and 16-for-23 overall, and he’s a combined 3.8 runs below average in baserunning for his career. He’s out of options, and his stay in Chicago could be short if the team manages to land, say, Whit Merrifield before 4 pm ET.

In short, this is a minor move. The two players involved might not generate 1.0 WAR between them the rest of the way, but they have the potential to help two teams that will, in all likelihood, be playing into October.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Sonny Price
3 years ago

funny thing about this Kemp addition: he was born and raised in the same area (Franklin TN) where Zobrist is going through his divorce with his aspiring country singing ex-wife.