The Astros have reportedly been in the mix for upgrades at catcher and at first base, prominently connected to both Willson Contreras and Josh Bell. However, while those two represent the arguable top options at those respective positions, the asking price on both has been high, and Houston is exploring alternative options. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic writes this morning that the ’Stros “are focusing more on Vazquez” than Contreras at this point, adding that they’ve also expressed interest in Rays first baseman/designated hitter Ji-Man Choi.
Vazquez, 32 in three weeks, is a more straightforward trade candidate than Choi. The longtime Red Sox backstop is playing out the final season of a contract extension he inked several years ago and will be a free agent at season’s end. Boston is sitting in the AL East cellar at present. Although the Sox are still just 3.5 games back for the final American League Wild Card spot, they’d need to leapfrog four teams to get there. Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom isn’t expected to be an all-out seller, but he’s likely to listen to offers on veteran rentals such as Vazquez and designated hitter J.D. Martinez.
The veteran Vazquez is enjoying a quality seasons on both sides of the ball. He’s hitting .282/.327/.432 (111 wRC+) with eight homers, 20 doubles and a 16% strikeout rate — the second-lowest rate of his career. He’s also notched a +5 Defensive Runs Saved mark and boasts a 30% caught-stealing rate. He’s been narrowly below average in terms of framing, according to both FanGraphs and Statcast, but it’s been a strong all-around year for Vazquez, whose $7MM salary is plenty affordable for most teams — particularly a deep-pocketed club like the Astros. The Sox are reportedly seeking MLB-ready help even in return for their rental pieces, however, which surely complicates matters for the Astros and other interested parties.
Choi, who just turned 31 a couple months ago, is a bit more of an outside-the-box trade candidate. The Rays are currently in possession of that final AL Wild Card spot which the Red Sox are chasing, and the left-handed-hitting Choi has been an important part of their lineup. In 296 plate appearances, Choi is hitting .255/.355/.415 with eight home runs, 16 doubles and a hefty 13.5% walk rate. He has a lengthy track record of thumping right-handed pitching, evidenced by a .252/.359/.464 batting line when holding the platoon advantage.
Lefties have given Choi a harder time. He’s hitting .325 against them this season, granted, but that’s come in a tiny sample of 43 plate appearances. His success against southpaws in this year’s tiny sample is plenty suspect; he’s punched out in 37.2% of his plate appearances against them and is sporting a wholly unsustainable .520 BABIP against same-handed opponents. In all likelihood, he’d fall into a platoon in Houston, yielding at-bats against lefties to Astros stalwart Yuli Gurriel.
Choi is an atypical trade candidate not only due to his status as a productive hitter on a current playoff team but also because he’s controlled beyond the current season. He’s earning an affordable $3.2MM salary this season and would earn one final raise in arbitration this winter before reaching free agency following the 2023 campaign. The Rays, however, have affordable options to step in for Choi at first base, including Yandy Diaz, Harold Ramirez and Isaac Paredes. Top prospect Curtis Mead looks Major League ready after ripping through Double-A and Triple-A this season, too. Furthermore, Tampa Bay has a knack for finding and maximizing the production of undervalued platoon bats of this nature. Choi himself was acquired from the Brewers in a low-profile trade for utilityman Brad Miller in 2018 and has been a fixture in the Rays’ lineup since.
If the Rays were to trade Choi or any other member of their current roster, it surely wouldn’t be a sign that they’re pivoting to a classic “seller” mindset. Tampa Bay walks this line every year, regularly trading quality big leaguers who are inching closer to free agency while simultaneously adding some help in other swaps. They flipped reliever Diego Castillo to the Mariners at last year’s deadline, for instance, and they’re less than 48 hours removed from acquiring veteran outfielder David Peralta from Arizona.