Catching prospect Lee finds mentor in Castro

Veteran takes youngster under his wing, calls him 'intelligent and curious'

March 10th, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros’ dearth of catching depth prompted them to select out of the University of California with the 32nd overall pick in the 2019 Draft, marking the first time the club nabbed a catcher in the first round since Stanford’s Jason Castro 11 years earlier.

Castro caught 572 career regular-season games for the Astros, which are the third-most in club history, and is looking to add to that total in 2021 after re-signing with his former team. He’s also taken Lee -- who’s in his first big league camp -- under his wing to help him learn the ropes, and perhaps become Houston’s catcher of the future.

Once Lee and Castro got the Cal-Stanford smack talk about of the way, they’ve gone to work. Castro called Lee an “intelligent and curious catcher,” in that he’s a sponge for information.

“From my experiences with him, it seems like he's well on his way to being a very, very good player,” Castro said. “Just hearing him talk and then the way he thinks about things is impressive for a guy that’s still pretty young and trying to kind of find his way.”

Lee, 22, is ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Astros’ No. 5 prospect and joins Nathan Perry (No. 28) as the only catchers in Houston’s Top 30. Garrett Stubbs, a former high-ranking prospect from USC who’s graduated from prospects list, is considered Houston’s third catcher, behind vets Castro and Martín Maldonado. The Astros drafted Stubbs’ brother, C.J., a catcher from USC, in the 10th round in ’19.

“For the younger guys that are here, this is probably one of the best younger catching cores that I think I've been around with Lee and [Michael Papierski] and obviously [Garrett] Stubbs has big league experience,” Castro said. “There's a number of guys in this group that are pretty impressive, to have on the same organization, at the same time and all being so young.”

At the top of the list is Lee, whose only professional experience heretofore is 64 games at short-season Tri-City of the New York-Penn League in ’19. The cancellation of the Minor League season in ’20 robbed Lee of valuable experience, but he got to learn more about training and his body last year and into the offseason. He shed what he called “baby fat” and got stronger.

“It was my first offseason. I really got to learn about myself, learn how my body treats me when I'm playing, how I need to train, what's really worked for me to go forward in this long career that I hope I get the chance to have,” he said. “I think [that] was the biggest thing that I learned about myself. So getting healthy and staying healthy is my main priority.”

Lee saw time at both infield corners and DH in college and didn't become a full-time catcher until 2019. He has the athleticism and quickness to remain behind the plate, and is making strides with his receiving, which should become at least average with more experience. The Astros have shortened his arm stroke, making him even more effective at deterring the running game. Lee said he’s taken ground balls and would be open to playing the corner-infield spots.

“I'm always going to continue to find what's going to work,” Lee said. “Just trying to pick everybody's brain just because they've been here for a while. Just trying to learn.”

The Astros had known about Lee for quite some time before drafting him. He was the bat boy on the University of California-San Diego team that Korey’s brother, Kellen, played on. Ryan Leake, who was a coach on that UCSD team, is the Astros' scout in San Diego, where Lee is from. Lee also has strong ties to Astros manager Dusty Baker, whose son, Darren, is a senior at Cal and a close friend of Lee.

“At the end of the day, he's Dusty,” Lee said. “He's going to be there for his players, he's going to be there for anyone that he is coming in contact with in his life. He's one of a kind, man. He will always want to benefit you and whatever you're doing, if that's on the field or off the field. He’s just an all-around great human being.”