Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pirate Catching - 2013

Well, there was some good news regarding the Bucco catchers in 2012. It only took two of them, Rod Barajas and Mike McKenry, to get through the year, compared to the eight that donned the tools of ignorance in 2011. And they did have a little punch at the plate, finishing fourth in the NL in long balls with 23, placing behind Colorado, Atlanta and Philadelphia, and in the middle of the pack with 70 RBI.

On the other side of the coin, their combined .218 BA was the worst of any Pirate position players. The pair did draw 57 walks, bringing their OBP to .299, for what that's worth. Their wRC+ (weighed OPS) was 86, ninth in the NL, and they finished with a 1.7 WAR, tenth in the NL. Pittsburgh wasn't the only NL team that struggled at finding offense behind the plate, as just a half dozen senior circuit teams were strong (wRC+ 100>) with the bat at the position.

Defensively, you shouldn't be surprised to find that their ball-receiving abilities were actually pretty solid. Their RPP (runs by passed pitch) was 4.9, with 5 being considered excellent, and just by eye, both guys dug out or blocked bounced baseballs above and beyond the call of duty.

But we all know the 800 pound gorilla, and that showed up in the stats, too. The duo had a rSB (runs by stolen base) of -12; no one else in the NL was worse than -3. Barajas threw out just 6% of the base swipers this season (6-99) and McKenry tossed out 18% (13-74). The team caught 11% of the stealers in 2012 while the MLB average was 27%, so ouch. Heck, even Dewey has a lifetime 24% throw-out average.

There's plenty of blame to be shared in that area, from organizational emphasis to the batteries, so we won't dwell on the cause. But when teams turn walks into doubles within a couple of pitches, it's obviously an issue to be addressed.

Barajas, 37, is the man in the hot seat. He has a $3.5M option that certainly won't be picked up after hitting .206. The question is whether he'll return at all, even under a much more friendly deal. The Pirates credit his institutional knowledge and defensive skills with improving the pitching staff, but even Clint Hurdle admitted his status is blowin' in the wind.

When asked of Hot Rod's future, he answered Tom Singer of with "Is he a No. 1 or turning into a No. 2? Is it Michael McKenry's time to be a No. 1? Is there another No. 1 out there? We've had those conversations with Rod, and he understands very honestly where he is at this point of time in his career." So if Barajas does return in 2013, it's very likely as a 60-game, 250 AB back up to McKenry at best.

The Fort, 27, was picked up from the Red Sox last year when Pirate catchers were dropping like flies, and hit .233/12/39 in 275 PA with a .320 OBP during this campaign. He proved a streaky hitter, batting over .300 in June-July but fading badly in September. He has an option remaining, but he's a safe bet to be on the 2013 roster. McKenry also has at least one more season before reaching his arb years, maybe two depending on where the Super Two cutoff falls after next year.

McKenry, barring a trade or FA signing, should start for the Pirates next season. We'll visit those options later in the hot stove season after the 2013 contracts have been settled post-World Series to see who's available; the FA market doesn't look very promising and there should be a lot of demand this season. (Charlie Wilmoth at Bucs Dugout has an early look at some possibilities.)

The athletic Eric Fryer, 27, was called up in September, but every appearance he made in the field was as an outfielder in 2012. If he fits into the Pirate plans moving ahead, we'd guess it would be as a utility or organizational guy, not as a candidate to catch.

Unlike many positions on the team, the cupboard isn't entirely bare in the upper levels. Tony Sanchez, 24, split the season between Altoona and Indy. He struggled at the plate, hitting an OK .277 at Altoona but without a homer in 162 PA, and .233 at Indy, but with eight homers in 236 PA. Defensively, Sanchez seems to be all that and getting better as he moves along and gains experience. Last year, he threw out 29% of attempted base stealers (31-107) after a couple of subpar seasons in 2010-11. He blocks balls in the dirt well and by all reports is becoming a strong pitch caller for the staff.

The Pirate preference would probably be to get Sanchez a full AAA season behind the dish, especially as he missed considerable chunks of time with back-to-back years with a broken jaw. However, depending on how the big league battery holds up, he could be a summer reinforcement. He has a slim shot of showing up sooner, depending on his spring performance, the ultimate fate of Barajas and the FO's marketplace results.

Ramon Cabrera, 22, at AA Altoona has shown himself to be a good on-base, contact-type hitter (.272 BA, .342 OBP) whose skills behind the plate are improving enough to make him a big league prospect, at least as a bench guy. And there are two interesting backstops just starting their pro baseball journey in Wyatt Mathisen, 18, and Jin-De Jhang, 19, but both teenagers were in rookie leagues and have miles to go before proving themselves to be MLB caliber.

For the short term, Pirate catching is perhaps the club's weakest position, and both returning guys have big questions marks, one because of age and the other because of inexperience. We'd expect the FO to kick a few tires to strengthen the spot in the off season. But in the longer view, the Pirates do have a couple of players in the pipeline, and if they continue on, the position should be at least adequately manned by 2014.

Then again, the blueprint was set with Benito Santiago, Ronnie Paulino, Ryan Doumit and everyone else that squatted behind the plate in the post Jason Kendall era. So we'll see...

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