The Pittsburgh Pirates backstops saw no lengthy injuries during the 2012 season, and they needed just two catchers for the entire season for the first time since 2000 (Jason Kendall and Keith Osik). The Pirates in 2011 used eight. Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry connected for 23 long balls. Only three National League teams had more home runs from their catchers this season: Colorado (34), Atlanta (29) and Philadelphia (27).
While they showed pop at the plate, Barajas and McKenry struggled to keep the runners at bay. Barajas threw out just 5% this season (4-of-80). McKenry saw a better mark, several more down the stretch of the season, nailing 19% (10-of-52).
Barajas hit for his lowest average in his 11 seasons in the Majors during the 2012 season with Pittsburgh. He finished with a .206 clip and belted out 11 home runs over 104 games. His 98 starts behind the plate were the most since 2009 with Toronto when he caught 110. Barajas’ .176 average over his final 62 games dropped his average from a season-high .246 to where he finished. Barajas hit .302 in the month of May, but struggled offensively for the majority of the season.
“He wanted more from the offensive side,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “We were hoping for more. Lessons learned along the way there. His ability to coach up in-game adjustments, to coach up pitchers throughout the season, to help young men grow up, a lot of those leadership skills were very beneficial for individuals and collectively as a group. The intangibles of the clubhouse. He’s a student of the game. He’s always talking the game. He loves playing the game. He loves playing the game as much as any guy I’ve ever had. He loves to play. And that’s what was a big benefit for us. He’s always engaged, and has no ego. He really shares information well.”
Barajas has a $3.5 million option for the Pirates in 2013, and it’s not out of the question that the veteran could return. But if he does, look for Barajas to be the back up for Pittsburgh. Hurdle said he had that conversation with him during his exit interview.
“Is he a [No. 1 catcher]?,” Hurdle said. “Or turn it into a two? Is there another one? Is it time for McKerny to be a one? Is there another one out there? As you look at the crystal ball, and those conversations are candid. We had it with Rod as part of the exit interview. You got to make sure you have that conversation. Is the guy willing to go in with the mindset that, okay, I’m not the 100-120 game guy anymore. I might be the 60-80 game guy…I thought it was time to explore that with Rod. He wants to play, and I think he understands very well where he is at this point in time in his career.”
McKenry had his best professional season in 2012 since the Pirates acquired him from the Boston Red Sox organization last June. McKenry belted out 12 long balls over his 88 games with Pittsburgh. That mark ranked fifth highest on the team. He finished with a .233 average and saw back-to-back months of June (.306) and July (.325) hitting over a .300 clip.
McKenry could see a bigger role with the Pirates next season. If the team brings back Barajas, McKenry could become the club’s No.1. A lot of McKenry’s role in 2013 will depend on if the Pirates sign a catcher in the offseason. Hurdle has already confirmed that McKenry will return next year.
“[Rod's] not only done a good job with me,” starter A.J. Burnett said. “But with McKenry. I think Mac’s grown up a lot being around Rod.”
by Tim Williams
The top catching prospect in the system is still Tony Sanchez. For the second year in a row, Sanchez struggled offensively. His power didn’t show up in Altoona for the second year in a row, but did come around in his time in Indianapolis. Sanchez hit for a home run pace that would have amounted to 19 homers in a full season. However, he didn’t hit for average at either level, which hurt his overall offensive value.
Defensively, Sanchez has what it takes to catch in the majors. Last year his defense was questioned, mostly due to his low caught stealing numbers. That was mostly due to the organization’s philosophy with holding runners, which Pirates fans got to see in the majors this year. Sanchez excels at blocking pitches, has a strong arm, and has improved in each of the last two years working with the pitching staff. He does struggle at times with his throwing accuracy down to second base, throwing more to the shortstop side of the bag.
There are offensive concerns with Sanchez, and that could limit his upside. Right now I would put his upside between a strong defensive backup and an average starter. I wouldn’t go higher than that until he showed some major improvements offensively, and more than just the power increase he saw in Triple-A. His defense is good enough that he could play in the majors next year. He could be a good fit splitting time with McKenry, if the Pirates opt to go with McKenry as the primary starter. That would give Sanchez a good chance to get adjusted to the majors, while trying to improve his offense and work his way to being a number one catcher.
Ramon Cabrera improved his game calling this year, and showed his good hitting skills in the second half with Altoona. He has the chance to be a two-way catcher and a starter, but his upside is probably closer to a backup catcher with the chance to hit for a high average.
The Pirates have a few intriguing catching options in the lower levels. The top two played in the GCL this year. Wyatt Mathisen and Jin-De Jhang both have the potential to be two-way starting catchers. Mathisen is very athletic with a good approach at the plate, and his athleticism works well behind the plate. He has a plus arm, and spent time with Tom Prince in the GCL this year working on his defense behind the plate. Jhang was signed for $250,000 out of Taiwan last year. He’s got a good line drive swing, and the chance to hit for good power from the catching position. He also showed good defensive skills, with a plus arm and good movement behind the plate for his size. Both catchers are a long way from the majors, which means there’s no guarantee they both stick at the position.