Pittsburgh Pirates' Offseason Primer: Catcher
The Pirates had a glaring weakness at catcher last season, as Rod Barajas saw a majority of the at-bats at the position despite performing materially below replacement level.
It is not a stretch to say that virtually any change at catcher would be an upgrade for the Bucs and, with Barajas no longer a member of the organization, it is safe to say that the Pirates will, at the very least, see that upgrade.
But even given the normally high demand for catchers, it would be a surprise if the Pirates did not make some move at the position. While there are very few starting-quality catchers available, there are still a few opportunities that the Pirates can pursue.
The free agent market for catchers is unsurprisingly thin, especially given that David Ross is already off the market and big names Russell Martin and A.J. Pierzynski will likely demanding contracts that are out of the Pirates' price range and/or will sign with established contenders.
Mike Napoli is the other big name, but he carries a fair amount of risks for a player who does not catch every day and will command the kind of money his name commands. The Pirates would likely be wise to pass on him.
Kelly Shoppach is perhaps a more intriguing option, as the Bucs should be happy to upgrade to the low-.700 area OPS that he is likely to provide. There is some concern that he regresses to his 2011 numbers however. Gerald Laird is a similar option. Clearly, the pickings are very slim.
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There aren't many teams that have too much depth at the catcher position, so the trade market for catchers is unlikely to be particularly robust. That said, the Pirates do have pieces they can move and there are a few opportunities to pursue constructive deals.
If the Pirates were to make a trade, they would implicitly be acquiring another team's second catcher, as it is unlikely that a team would part with an established starter at the position. But a player like Ryan Hanigan (though a trade with Cincinnati might be difficult in practice) is a more reliable option at the position than any of the Bucs' current internal options.
Toronto catcher J.P. Arencibia, whose job is in danger due to the emergence of top prospect Travis D'Arnaud, is another player the Pirates might look at. The Bucs and Blue Jays have linked up for a few recent trades, and while Arencibia doesn't get on base much he has pretty good power numbers.
It was interesting to see that despite Barajas' struggles, the Pirates did not feel comfortable giving Michael McKenry the primary share of plate appearances at catcher towards the latter half of 2012.
2012 represented a breakout season for McKenry, though he cooled off some down the stretch to finish with an OPS of .762. The Bucs would clearly take this production going forward, but as his numbers are much better than they had been in any other season there is some concern about regression, particularly since McKenry had never hit for power at any advanced level prior to 2012.
Former No. 4 overall pick Tony Sanchez should eventually figure into the mix at the position, but he may not be ready for a full-time stint in Pittsburgh until 2014.
Given the lack of available resources and McKenry's improvement in 2012, it would be silly not to give the former backup an opportunity to at least be a sizable part of the solution to the Pirates' catching problem. However, it seems unlikely that the Bucs will arrive at Opening Day 2013 without adding some form of external help at the position.
What McKenry's presence does mean is that the Pirates should feel more comfortable rolling the dice on some higher-ceiling solutions, as the Fort at least represents a fallback plan that the Bucs could stomach.
Arencibia is one possibility, and it is possible that Neal Huntington will utilize his dumpster diving skills as well. But catcher should not be the position where the Pirates look to make a splash this offseason.
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