The Bucs seemed set at catcher going into 2011. They had Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit and Jason Jaramillo returning, with Tony Sanchez ticketed for Indy by mid-season. Well, scratch that bit of Bucco wishful thinking.
Snyder herniated his disc with an awkward early June slide into second, Doumit went down in May with an ankle injury following a collision at the plate, and Jaramillo had elbow and back issues at Indy that sent him to the minor-league DL. Snyder never returned, while Dewey came back in mid-August and JJ in September. Sanchez hit .241 and lost his pop at Altoona after missing much of 2010 with a broken jaw.
The parade began. Dusty Brown, Wyatt Toregas, Eric Fryer, Matt Pagnozzi and Mike McKenry all had a shot. McKenry was the default number one guy, starting 54 games behind the dish, and is is the only player among the eight with a shot at returning in April with the big club. But with a .222/.276/.322 line and OPS of 66, he was hardly the player Pittsburgh wanted to don the tools of ignorance on a regular basis.
The old posse was set loose after the season and found new homes - Snyder with the 'Stros, Doumit with the Twins, and Jaramillo with the Cubbies - and that left the Bucs with one big honkin' hole behind the plate. As they did with Clint Barmes, they identified the guy they had rated at the top of the mid tier FA market, went after him early, overpaid just a bit and landed Rod Barajas.
In early November, Pittsburgh signed the 36 year old Mexican native to a $4M deal with a $3.5M team option in 2013 and no buyout fee. He was the first player that they brought into the fold.
The thirteen year vet has played with Arizona, Texas, Philadelphia, Toronto, the Mets and Dodgers, and comes with a good glove rep that includes being a coach on the field for the staffs he's worked with. Barajas has a lifetime 31% throw 'em out rate, and it was 25% for LA last year after a dismal 15% in 2010.
The big guy also arrives with a less than sterling career line of .238/.284/.412 and an OPS of 80 as a hitter, with a .230/.280/.430 line and 16 HRs in 2011. The 6'2", 250 pound Barajas does have a little pop, smacking double-digit HRs for the past eight seasons, except for 2007 when he was Carlo Ruiz's caddy for the Phils and only got into 48 games.
He's third among MLB catchers in homers since 2009 with 50, and was the first Met to hit a walk-off dinger at Citi Field. The righty is equally effective against pitchers toeing either side of the rubber, having virtually no gap in his career splits at the the plate in average or power.
Barajas isn't going to be trotted out everyday, but he's been able to wiggle the fingers for 100-110 games per year, and we suspect the Pirates will be satisfied to get 110 outings from him; any more would be gravy.
He fits in with the 2012 Pirate philosophy to bring in a little defense first, veteran presence in the form of starters rather than bench guys to help support their clubhouse mentoring roles. He's already begun that process, not only working with the pitchers but picking McKenry's brain for staff tendencies. And make no mistake that's a two-way street. McKenry and the pitchers are learning as much from Barajas as he is from them.
We're not too concerned with his age, as catchers tend to bloom later and last longer than other position players. The only red flag we note is his caught stealing rate, which we'd keep an eye on as an indicator of his continued skill set.
He's not blocking anyone short-term, and has a friendly deal in that the FO can jettison him at no cost if Father Time catches up to him after the year, or keep him around another season to tutor Sanchez if the youngster can put it together enough to arrive by 2013. If Sanchez isn't ready, Barajas serves as his insurance policy.
His signing may also be the beginning of a new phase of Pirate team development.
While the Pirate organization as a low revenue club will always be on the lookout for prospects, this is the first year under the Coonelly/Huntington reign that the team raided the FA & trade markets to reel in veteran players, albeit mid-range, to plug holes and upgrade talent in Barajas, Barmes, Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett. Aki Iwamura and Kevin Correia are the only two examples we can recall from the past to fit that mold.
So we're hoping this is the start of the second era in Pirate baseball, one in which the FO is as committed to improving the big league club as much as upgrading the minor league system.