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Twins ink defensive-minded veteran to upgrade catcher position

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Seeking a significant upgrade at a vital defensive position, the Twins have agreed to sign veteran catcher Jason Castro to a three-year contract.

Houston Astros catcher Jason Castro (15) hits a single during the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Minute Maid Park during a game Sept. 23, 2016, in Houston. Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Houston Astros catcher Jason Castro (15) hits a single during the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Minute Maid Park during a game Sept. 23, 2016, in Houston. Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Seeking a significant upgrade at a vital defensive position, the Twins have agreed to sign veteran catcher Jason Castro to a three-year contract.

The deal, confirmed by two people with direct knowledge, will guarantee the 29-year-old $24.5 million through the 2019 season. A former first-round draft pick out of Stanford, Castro broke in with the Houston Astros in 2010 and overcame a torn ACL in his right knee the following season.

While a few last details remained to be finalized, including a physical exam early next week, Castro's deal is expected to include neither deferrals nor any sort of trade protection.

Castro reportedly had at least one other three-year offer in his first trip through free agency. The Atlanta Braves, moving into a new stadium next season, and the Tampa Bay Rays also were known to covet Castro to guide their youthful pitching staffs.

Despite the availability of bigger-name free agents Wilson Ramos and Matt Wieters, the Twins moved swiftly to target and pursue Castro, widely respected for his intelligence, leadership and receiving skills.

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"We take that position very seriously; we view it as an extension of the pitching program," new Twins general manager Thad Levine said at the recent GM meetings in Arizona. "We would ideally like to have guys on the staff who we feel can be like on-field pitching coaches, guys who can reinforce the messages and the game plans and help the pitchers in-game. That's going to be a criterion for us."

Having spent his past four seasons in the American League West, Castro has a career-high 57 starts against the Texas Rangers, where Levine worked the past 11 seasons. Castro homered a career-best nine times in 217 plate appearances against the Rangers, slugging .443 against his in-state rival.

A left-handed hitter with a .232 career average, Castro has a career on-base percentage of .309 and a .390 slugging percentage. Those marks are right in line with the average production by major league catchers last season.

Castro made $5 million last season, when he hit just .210 but ranked third in the majors with 17.0 pitch framing runs above average. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was at least 11 framing runs above average in both 2014 and 2015.

Ten framing runs are considered equal to one win above replacement, meaning Castro offers significant value on the defensive side alone. His success rate against opposing basestealers slipped to 24 percent last season (14 of 59), but it was 36 percent in 2015 and 26 percent for his career.

League average is 28 percent.

"I think catching is a position that's clearly an area of need," Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said in Arizona, "and I think there's an opportunity to impact the pitching staff with a guy back there who can really help lead. We've seen as an industry the value in the defense there and how much that's changed the game for guys back there."

In his previous position with the Cleveland Indians, Falvey had a chance to work closely with catchers Yan Gomes, Roberto Perez and Chris Gimenez, all of whom excelled on the defensive side.

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"I've seen it first hand with the guys that I've left in Cleveland," Falvey said. "I've seen how they operate and how important it is when they lead a pitching staff. That goes unnoticed sometimes, but I think that's essential for us. We'll make sure our catchers know that."

Castro's consistently strong ratings in the area of pitch framing only convinced the Twins to push harder in making him the first major acquisition of their new baseball-operations regime.

"I think the overall defense of a catcher-framing, throwing runners out, calling games-there's a great deal of information out there that allows you to assess the quality of that," Falvey said. "That's important to me. Using evidence is important, and that's one way to use evidence to drive the decision."

Durable and fiery, Castro averaged 921 innings caught the past three seasons, including his first postseason trip in 2015. The Astros averaged 109 losses in 2012-13 with Castro as their primary catcher, but they returned to the postseason for the first time in a decade just two years later.

Castro will replace 33-year-old free agent Kurt Suzuki, who failed to receive enough plate appearances to trigger a 2017 vesting option at $6 million. Suzuki signed a two-year extension shortly after making his first all-star appearance in July 2014, but his offense tailed off and his pitch-framing ratings have been well below average.

The Twins have two in-house options to pair in a loose platoon arrangement with Castro, who has hit just .190 for his career off lefties. Both John Ryan Murphy and Mitch Garver hit from the right side and receive solid marks for their pitch framing as well.

Castro, the nephew of Chicago White Sox pro scout Alan Regier, has homered in 12 different ballparks but Target Field is not among them. In 32 plate appearances at his new home park, Castro has hit .286 with a double and a .375 OBP.

Over the past four seasons Castro has averaged 13.5 homers, with a career-high of 18 in 2013. A Twins catcher has hit exceeded 13 homers just once since 1998: Joe Mauer's MVP season of 2009, when he hit 28 in the final season at the Metrodome.

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