Quartet to compete to fill catching void

Quartet to compete to fill catching void

HOUSTON -- While Brad Ausmus received criticism for his offensive struggles during his 10-year run as the Astros' front-line catcher, his departure for the West Coast leaves an unquestionable void behind the plate as the club searches for an everyday starter.

In all likelihood, whoever receives the majority of the playing time this year will be considered a stopgap until last year's No. 1 Draft pick, Jason Castro, is ready to step into a starting role. The 21-year-old Castro will participate in Major League Spring Training this year and is expected to contend for a spot on the 2010 roster, but until then, the Astros are going to have to find a suitable alternative.

Pudge Rodriguez's name has surfaced in rumors, but at this point, there is no match. Rodriguez's asking price may be dropping, but it's not low enough to be a consideration for general manager Ed Wade, who has been contacted by Rodriguez's representatives at different times through the offseason.

"At this point, nothing is going to fit for us," Wade said. "I got a sense they've plotted a certain floor with regard with what they want contractually. We're not going to be able to meet those demands."

The Astros will have seven catchers in Spring Training camp this year, but the pool of realistic contenders includes just four -- Humberto Quintero, J.R. Towles, Rule 5 Draft pick Lou Palmisano and veteran Toby Hall.

Quintero is the presumed favorite, but the assumptions come with no guarantees. The club will take a long look at Palmisano, and it will also give Hall, who has the most big league experience with a resume that includes 686 games over nine seasons, serious consideration.

Towles, who did not fulfill expectations last year after he was handed the starting job and ended up spending much of the season in Triple-A, is probably headed for Round Rock again when camp breaks in early April.

The Astros are most familiar with Quintero, who has spent parts of the past four seasons at the Major League level. But that doesn't necessarily mean the Astros are entirely comfortable with him behind the plate. Last year, he didn't make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, finishing third in the pecking order behind Towles and Ausmus. Although the Astros liked Quintero's effort and production in 2008, there have been no indications they are completely sold on him. His .226 batting average over the last two seasons didn't do much to help his case, either.

Hot Stove
Hall, 33, logged more than 400 games while with the Rays from 2003-05. His playing time diminished greatly in 2007 and 2008 as a backup to A.J. Pierzynski while with the White Sox.

Wade is intrigued by Hall but isn't ready to give him the edge over the other three contenders.

"A lot of what we're trying to do is make sure we're taking the whole catching piece into consideration," Wade said. "A big part is handling the pitching staff. An opportunity to add a veteran guy like Hall made sense for us. He has to compete. He's a non-roster deal and we're not going to be overly swayed by his veteran status."

Palmisano, 26, was hampered by a tear in his left knee that required surgery last year. He hit over .400 in the Arizona Fall League, showing at least some promise that he could be the best offensive option of the four.

"I've never seen him, but our scouts have seen him and [assistant GM] Bobby Heck had first-hand knowledge and contact with him," Wade said. "The knee issue he dealt with last year that kept him out longer than anticipated has completely healed. He has a chance to be an offensive catcher for us. With Rule 5 guys, you stick them out there and try to get as good of a look as possible to get a true evaluation."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.