Image credit: (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With a deep group of talented players under contract, the Astros had only three open spots on their 40-man roster after last season.
They made to sure one of those spots went to Garrett Stubbs.
Stubbs, the Astros’ No. 14 prospect, entered spring training as a newly-minted member of the 40-man right as the Astros face a shortage of catchers. Veterans Brian McCann and Martin Maldonado departed in free agency, leaving only Max Stassi, Robinson Chirinos and Stubbs as the Astros backstops.
With Stassi yet to prove he’s more than a part-timer and Chirinos set to turn 35 during the season, the stage is set for Stubbs to make his big league debut in 2019.
“I try not to think of it as any different,” Stubbs said. “Even though I have a little more job security I guess, I still haven’t made it to the big leagues. So I’m just trying to work hard and learn.”
Stubbs, 25, has been long-renowned for his defense and hit .310/.382/.455 at Triple-A Fresno last year.
The questions about Stubbs have never centered on his skills, but his size. He is listed at 5-foot-10 and, after adding weight in the offseason, said he’s up from 175 to 183 pounds.
While Stubbs has been able to turn his smaller stature into an advantage—he’s able to set a uniquely low target and is a strong blocker because he gets to the ground so quickly—there are few examples of catchers his size in the majors.
The Reds’ Tucker Barnhart is the closest everyday catcher at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds. The Rangers’ Isiah Kiner-Falefa is listed at 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, but he played more games at third base (46) than catcher (35) as a rookie last season.
Still, Stubbs’ skillset is such that he’s on the Astros’ radar regardless. He threw out 45 percent of attempted basestealers and ably handled power arms like Josh James at Fresno last year, in addition to finishing third on the team in batting behind only big leaguer J.D. Davis and top prospect Kyle Tucker.
“I like his setup, he’s worked a little bit on his catching . . . his bat is really good (and) it looks like he’s getting a little bit stronger and stronger every offseason,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, a catcher for parts of seven seasons in the majors.
“He’s always getting asked if he can put on weight, put on strength, just because he’s a smaller-build catcher. He has some confidence, some moxie about him that you look for behind the plate, and now we’ll test him against big league competition.”
Stubbs has yet to catch Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole, even in bullpens, but has sought out Stassi for insight on how Houston’s aces like to operate. He’s also struck up a bond with Chirinos, picking the veteran’s brain at every opportunity.
The mental aspect of catching is hugely important to Stubbs and something he doesn’t just pay lip service to. The pitchers he’s caught rave about that aspect of Stubbs’ game as much as any of his physical skills.
“Besides just being a great catcher, he knows me,” said righthander Rogelio Armenteros, Stubbs’ teammate the last three seasons, through a translator. “He knows what I like to throw. He knows what I want to throw in different situations. He’s got a great feel for my stuff and what I’m trying to do.
“He’s very quick behind home plate, and he’s obviously very smart as well.”
All those attributes were apparent last year. With the production he delivered, Stubbs thought his major league debut was going to come as a September callup.
“I kind of thought that the opportunity was going to present itself last year,” he said. “By the end of the year I was a little bummed out that I didn’t get that callup by the end of the year. I thought that I played well and really showed that I could be an option to get called up. But it didn’t happen, I got protected this offseason and now I really just look forward to being able to get that opportunity this year with two great guys like Chirinos and Stassi.”
Stubbs is already off to a good start this spring. He delivered a single in his first at-bat of the spring opener, was robbed of a hit by a diving play in his second at-bat and easily handled the mid-90s velocity of Astros’ No. 10 prospect Bryan Abreu.
If he continues the path he’s on, all signs point to his first big league callup coming at some point this season.
“I’m just trying to get better at receiving, better behind the plate, getting to know these pitchers,” Stubbs said. “Now that I am on the roster it is easier to get called up when the opportunity presents itself. I’m just really trying to work hard and get better.”