Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pittsburgh - Catching 2014

The MLB pieces for next year's catching duties are in place, with Russell Martin, 30, and his apprentice Tony Sanchez, 25. Martin was a shot in the arm, using his background of catching for the Dodger and Yankee staffs and transferring that knowledge to Pittsburgh's hurlers.

Russ came as advertised; low BA, decent OBP and some pop (.226/.327, 15 HR, 55 RBI) with a strong presence behind the plate. He also came reputed to have a good glove and command of the staff. He led all catchers defensively per Fangraphs, and his WAR of 4.1 was fourth among receivers.

He's also not exactly cut out of the usual catching mold physically; he and Sanchez are both athletic. And that's pretty clutch if you're wiggling fingers at the Pirate pitchers; their sinkers, sliders, hooks and change ups bounce to the plate as often as they cross it.

Sanchez is going to be a storyline in the coming year. He was called up when Mike McKenry went down in late July and wasn't given a whole lot of opportunity. He hit .223 in 60 AB with a couple of homers, and looked pretty comfortable at catching an in-the-dirt staff. But he worked just 112 IP and really didn't get to wet his feet very much. So with the catching job wide open after the 2014 season, we'd expect to see the Pirates trot Tony out behind the plate a little more often. 

The third guy in the mix is Mike McKenry, 28, everybody's favorite little engine that could. He's had a couple of clutch hits as a Bucco and is tough as nails, catching several innings in his last outing on a knee that would require surgery.

But The Fort, for his heroics and Pirate folk lore, has a lifetime OPS of .666, and that's jacked up by his 2012 outlier year. His OPS was .598 in 2011 and .610 last year.

His defense is OK, but he has troubles with baserunners. In two years, his toss-out rate is 16.5%. Russ Martin's rate was 40% (although it is misleading to have a top gun as your comparable; the league average was 27.5%). In a very small sample of 112 IP behind the plate, Sanchez threw out just 16.7% of the wanna-be stealers 1-of-6), but his 2012-13 Indy percentage of 26.5%. is probably a better indicator of his arm.

At any rate, The Fort should be back by the process of elimination; the minors are fairly barren above the Class A level. McKenry has an option left, and will almost surely start at Indy, partly to rehab fully from knee surgery and partly because he'd only be a block on Sanchez in Pittsburgh, especially with Martin's contract in the walk year. McKenry isn't due for arbitration until 2015, although with 2.136 years of service, he's almost a lock to qualify as a Super Two player. Either way, he won't be cost-prohibitive, and it would be smart to keep him around until the catching situation for 2015 becomes a little clearer.

John Buck, 33, who Pittsburgh picked up with Marlon Byrd for reasons unknown, is a MLB free agent and shouldn't be of much interest to the Pirates because of high cost and average defense.

The upper levels of the Buc organization are pretty thin with the loss of Sanchez. Indy's Lucas May is a minor league FA and will likely move on. Carlos Paulino, a good glove guy, will take his place. Defensively, he's big league, but his bat has never come around. Jacob Stalling is cut from the same mold and following in his D-first footsteps. Charlie Cutler will join Stalling in Altoona; he's the better bat but not highly regarded with the leather.

The toddler end of the farm has some projected potential, although predicting the future of young catchers is more art than science. (Remember Neil Walker?).

Wyatt Mathiesen, 19, was a second round pick in 2012. After a promising start his first year, last season was kinda lost. He was moved aggressively to Low A West Virginia as a teen in 2013, and didn't have a very strong year with the bat (.185). Likewise, he wasn't impressive receiving the ball, though he did have a 26% toss-out rate).

Generally considered the top prep catching prospect in the draft, Wyatt spent some of his HS playing time at SS and P, and didn't get a lot of reps at catching. He also had shoulder surgery last season, so it's hard to tell if he was moved a little faster than wise or was trying to work through a bum wing. This will be a year for him to reestablish himself. Mathiesen is the most athletic of the trio, and could, ala Walker, be shifted to another position.

Jin-De Jhang, 20, is Taiwanese and was an international signing in 2011. He's a good hitter, batting .288 in two minor league campaigns, although he's beginning to show some split gaps (he bats from the left side). Defensively, he's the furthest behind of the prospects, and the Pirates have been careful to move him along a step at a time to build his mechanical base.

McGuire, 18, was a first round pick (14th overall) this year, and acted like one in his GCL and Jamestown performances. He is the most likely of the trio to move smoothly through the Pirate system, as he's already got a background in some of the more intrinsic catching arts, like pitch calling, handling a staff, etc. as he began behind the dish in little league. His bat is the question, and we'll see how that plays as he advances.

 Mathiesen, Jhang and McGuire are on track for Low A West Virginia this year, and it will be interesting - and maybe telling - to see how the Bucs break up the log jam. Our guess is that McGuire will be the top guy for the Power, backed by Mathiesen, with Jhing getting some work in Florida and then rejoining short-season Jamestown.

The Pirates are three-deep in MLB catchers for next year, and have some promise in the lower levels of the system. They're covered fairly well now unless Russ Martin goes down, but from 2015 and for the next couple of seasons will depend on Tony Sanchez to man the dish for them until the youngsters in Low Class A make their move through the system.

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