In 2008, Ryan Doumit had a breakout season as the Pittsburgh Pirates catcher. Doumit posted a .318/.357/.501 line with 15 homers in 431 at-bats, making him one of the most productive catchers in the league on offense. Following the 2008 season, the Pirates signed Doumit to an extension, locking him up through his arbitration years (2009-2011), and giving the Pirates options on what would be his first two free agent years (2012-2013).
In 2009 Doumit dealt with injuries, which have always been a problem. He ended up hitting for a .250/.299/.414 line, although he did have 10 homers in 280 at-bats, and finished the season with a .329/.406/.459 line in 85 at-bats over the final month of the season. Doumit also saw an improvement in his rate of throwing out base runners, with his caught stealing percentage jumping from 27% in 2008 to 31% in 2009.
Coming in to the 2010 season, the Pirates were hoping Doumit could build on those late season numbers, and bounce back to his 2008 offensive production. What they got was the worst possible scenario: Doumit continued to struggle at the plate, and regressed big time on defense. Doumit hit for a .251/.331/.406 line with 13 homers in 406 at-bats, which was slightly better than his 2009 totals, but far from his 2008 numbers. Things were worse on defense, as he had a 12% caught stealing rate, allowing 79 of 90 runners to successfully steal. Doumit also had nine passed balls in his 790.1 innings of work, which on average is one every ten games.
The performance was bad enough that the Pirates traded D.J. Carrasco, Ryan Church, and Bobby Crosby to the Arizona Diamondbacks at the trade deadline to get Chris Snyder, who is under contract for the 2011 season. Snyder immediately took over as the starting catcher, and brought the defense back to respectable levels, catching 30% of base stealers, and allowing one passed ball in his 322 innings behind the plate for the Pirates.
Snyder did struggle on offense, with a .169/.268/.298 line. Snyder has never hit for average, with a career .233 average in 1626 at-bats with Arizona, but he does well getting on base, with a .335 OBP with the Diamondbacks, and also hits for decent power, with a .169 for his isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average).
Snyder and Doumit in 2011
Doumit is owed $5.1 M in 2011. Snyder is owed $5.75 M in 2011, although the Pirates received $3 M from Arizona in the trade, so in reality his salary for the Pirates is $2.75 M. It would be hard for the Pirates to deal Doumit with his salary in 2011, plus the $500 K buyout on his option years (which have to both be decided on during the 2011 off-season). Even if the Pirates picked up most, or all, of Doumit’s salary, he has very little value, as he’s struggled the last two years.
Looking at Doumit’s last two years, he has combined for a .251/.318/.410 line. Snyder, on the other hand, had a .233/.335/.402 line in his time with Arizona. Looking at those numbers, you could argue that the two catchers are even offensively, assuming Doumit doesn’t bounce back, and Snyder sticks to his career totals. The edge would go to Snyder, since he’s stronger defensively than Doumit.
With each catcher, there’s reason to believe they can be more productive than those numbers indicate. In Snyder’s case, he had a .773 OPS or better in four of his last five years with Arizona, including the 2010 season. That’s well up from his career .737 OPS, which is brought down by poor years in 2005 and 2009. In Doumit’s case, we saw what he did in 2008, and saw flashes of that at the end of the 2009 season. Doumit can be the better offensive catcher by far between the two, but the odds of that happening seem to diminish with every disappointing season he has.
The Pirates need one of these two catchers to step up their game to the above levels. They either need Snyder’s defense combined with a .775+ OPS, or they need Doumit to bounce back to his 2008 numbers, with respectable defense. Snyder has an option for the 2012 season, while Doumit has an option for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, which need to be exercised at the same time. Based on their 2010 seasons, Snyder should get the nod over Doumit, since Doumit was such a train wreck on defense. The Pirates should give Doumit enough playing time for him to try and earn the job back. The ideal situation would be that both catchers push each other, trying to win the starter role for the 2012 season.
The future of the position belongs to Tony Sanchez, who had his 2010 season cut short after being hit in the face with a fastball in late June. Sanchez spent his healthy time during the 2010 season in high-A, and put up some impressive numbers at the plate, which he has done every step of the way. Sanchez has the tools to be a great defender behind the plate, possibly even being a Gold Glove contender. He has a strong arm, a quick pop time to second, and quick feet which allow him to excel in blocking balls in the dirt.
Prior to the season it looked like Sanchez could be on track to make it to the majors as early as June 2011. His injuries might have pushed that timeline back a year. Sanchez is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, where he is getting a taste of AA/AAA quality pitching. He is expected to start the 2011 season in Altoona, and could be in Indianapolis by the end of the season, although it’s unlikely that he’d reach Pittsburgh next season.
With every prospect you have the “what if” factor that really doesn’t need to be repeated ad-nauseum, and that is “what if this prospect washes out”. The good thing about Sanchez is that his defense is already major league average, and just needs some polishing to reach his full potential for the majors. The big thing he needs to work on is his hitting. Sanchez is a guy who looks to me like he will make the majors, and his hitting will determine just how good he will be.
In the short term, the Pirates can’t count on Sanchez to make a quick ascent to Pittsburgh. They need to hope that either Doumit or Snyder bounces back in 2011, buying the Pirates at least one extra season (2012) to give Sanchez time to develop further. The ideal situation would be for Doumit to bounce back, allowing the Pirates to exercise his 2012 and 2013 options. That would guarantee Doumit $15.5 M over those two seasons, which means the Pirates would need to see Doumit return to his 2008 numbers, with strong proof that those numbers were legit. That could give the Pirates until mid-2013 to develop Sanchez, which should leave plenty of time should another emergency come up to delay his path to the majors.