MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins badly need to improve their pitching staff, with a team ERA that ranked among the three worst in the majors in five of the last six seasons.
Help can come from all corners of the organization, including behind the plate. That's why the Twins signed former Houston Astros catcher Jason Castro to a three-year contract worth $24.5 million, a deal agreed to last week and finalized Wednesday.
"We feel this is a great step in the right direction to building the team that we set out to build," chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said.
Castro will make $8.5 million in 2017, $8 million in 2018 and $8 million in 2019. He became a free agent after six seasons with the Astros, hitting .232 with 114 doubles, 62 home runs, 212 RBIs and 215 walks in 617 career games after being drafted in the first round out of Stanford in 2008.
"I definitely know that this organization is capable of doing some great things," Castro said. "They have a lot of young really good talent and some veterans thrown in the mix that can make for a special group."
The Twins finished 59-103, their worst record in Minnesota and the worst in the major leagues in 2016. Castro experienced some similar growing pains with a young Astros team that lost 106, 107 and 111 games from 2011-13 before making the playoffs in 2015.
"Looking at their roster and the pitchers that they have here, I think that this group is a little bit ahead of where the Astros were," Castro said on a conference call with Minnesota reporters.
Kurt Suzuki became a free agent after serving as Minnesota's primary catcher over the last three seasons, including an All-Star selection in 2014 when he batted a career-high .288. Suzuki's career average is 24 points higher than Castro's, and the left-handed hitting Castro batted only .210 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs last year. He was an All-Star in 2013, when he hit a career-best .276 with 18 home runs and 56 RBIs.
The newest Twins backstop is considered an upgrade on defence, though, in terms of both fielding his position and handling a pitching staff. Castro threw out 24 per cent of base-stealers last year, and Suzuki had a 19 per cent success rate. Plus, there are the areas of game planning and game calling, each difficult to quantify.
"We feel Jason is one of the best at that," Falvey said, adding: "I've certainly observed and witnessed that the impact of catchers who commit to that side of the game ... has an exponentially positive effect on the pitching staff."
Framing pitches, a sneaky skill that has drawn more attention in recent years through the rise in analytical evaluation and available data in the sport, is another one of Castro's strengths.
"The goal at the end of the day is to try to help your pitcher keep as many strikes as possible," Castro said, "just to be almost as unrecognized as possible behind the plate to allow the pitcher's work to speak for itself."