Pittsburgh Pirates Season Preview: Catcher
The Pirates have struggled to find their catcher of the present, as veteran acquisitions like Rod Barajas have failed to perform, and no homegrown players have grabbed a firm hold of the job. With no prospects ready to make the leap, the Bucs have once again turned to a free agent this year in Russell Martin.
But the Bucs' long-term future at the position has improved, as there are a few exciting prospects in the system's lower levels. Catcher may not be a black hole in Pittsburgh for much longer.
Russell Martin, who has a firm hold on the starting catcher position, actually represents the Pirates' largest-ever, free-agent contract.
Handing out your largest-ever, free-agent contract to a player who compiled a .311 on-base percentage in 2012 doesn't seem like a fantastic idea, but that contract is only for $17 million over two years. Martin should add enough value to this Pittsburgh team to earn his money.
His on-base abilities are nothing to write home about, but Martin can take a walk (as evidenced by the fact that is 2012 batting average was 100 points lower, at .211 and has a little pop left in his bat.
Combine Martin's limited, yet useful offensive capabilities with his well-respected defense, and the Bucs have a catcher who should help this team on the margin.
One of the more frustrating components of Rod Barajas' 2012 campaign was that Michael McKenry was so clearly outplaying him, yet Barajas saw the majority of starts throughout much of the season.
McKenry will be back in Pittsburgh to back up Martin this year, and if his 2012 power surge was legitimate, the Pirates have a very good second-string catcher on their roster.
The Fort's 12 home runs and .442 slugging percentage in 2012 far exceeded his 2011 performance, but his minor league numbers suggest that he is capable of hitting for at least some power at the major league level.
McKenry should see some regression this year, and he strikes out way too much (more than one out of every four at-bats last season), but the Bucs will not simply be giving outs away when Martin is resting.
Down on the Farm
The Pirates are much improved at the catcher position throughout the farm system, with several players capable of becoming above-average regulars. But Bucs' management still has to be wondering why it hasn't found a long-term solution to the team's catcher problems yet.
Nobody believed Tony Sanchez was the fourth-best player in the 2009 draft, but when the Pirates selected him with that pick, he was a legitimate first-round talent. Sanchez, whose defense has always been considered his strength, hit very well in 2009 and 2010, but injuries began to set him back and he has not fully recovered his offensive game.
Sanchez' defense remains strong, and a .370 on-base percentage in 162 Double-A plate appearances was a good sign, but few people still consider Sanchez the long-term answer. He could be helpful this year in a pinch, or over the next couple years as the Bucs look to bridge the gap to some of their younger players.
Wyatt Mathisen, the Bucs' second-round pick in the 2012 entry draft, is the team's most promising prospect at the catcher position. Mathisen, an athletic catcher with good hitting skills, is considered the No. 7 prospect in the organization according to Baseball Prospectus, but the 19-year-old will require several years of seasoning on his way to Pittsburgh.
Jin-De Jhang is another 19-year-old to watch. He does not have Mathisen's pedigree, but the Taiwan native has solid all-around ability and is coming off a strong 2012 debut. His timetable is similar to Mathisen's, but the Pirates will certainly be happy to have multiple options at the position.
(Opening Day is less than a month away, so it's time to start breaking down the Pittsburgh Pirates' 2013 outlook in more detail. This is the first of several position previews that will identify key players at both the major and minor league levels.)
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