The 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates saw eight catchers play at least one game behind the plate. That was mostly due to injuries to Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder, which limited Doumit to 60 games and Snyder to 33 games this season. Jason Jaramillo came in to the season as the number three catcher, and started the year in Pittsburgh with Snyder on the disabled list. However, when Snyder and Doumit both went down mid-season, Jaramillo was also injured in AAA with an elbow injury, which really started the carousel.
Dusty Brown and Wyatt Toregas were the first two options that were called up. Neither option fared well, with Brown hitting for a .107 average and a .245 OPS in 28 at-bats, along with poor defense. Toregas only played ten innings, and was outrighted off the 40-man roster when the Pirates traded for Michael McKenry.
McKenry, who came from the Boston Red Sox, wasn’t really seen as anything more than a fill-in at the time. He only had eight major league at-bats prior to the trade, and was hitting for a .274 average and a .790 OPS in his second run through the AAA level at the age of 26. However, because of the injuries at the position, McKenry was given a shot as a starter, where he displayed some impressive defensive work. His hitting wasn’t much, as he ended up with a .222 average and a .598 OPS. However, he won over the fans of Pittsburgh on July 8th in an 8th inning comeback against the Chicago Cubs.
The Pirates entered the bottom of the 8th inning down 4-3. After putting two on with two outs, Josh Harrison brought in the tying run with a single. That brought up McKenry against Cubs’ closer Carlos Marmol. Down 0-2 in the count, McKenry took a pitch right down the middle and sent it deep over the left field wall for his first Major League home run, putting the Pirates up 7-4. The homer could easily be called the best moment of the 2011 season for the Pirates.
McKenry’s defense was enough to lock down the starter role until Ryan Doumit became healthy again, and even when Doumit returned, McKenry received playing time. He ended up with 485 innings behind the plate, the most of the eight catchers who played for the Pirates this season.
Eric Fryer made the jump to the majors this year after zooming through the AA and AAA levels in the first few months of the season. Fryer’s defense was solid, although he didn’t hit as well as he did while in the minors, and was eventually sent back down when Doumit returned. When September came around, the Pirates claimed Matt Pagnozzi off of waivers from the Colorado Rockies, and started him in two games. Pagnozzi joined the team with similar question marks as McKenry, so it will be interesting to see what type of shot he is given, and whether he can live up to what the Pirates saw in him when they claimed him.
Aside from the injuries, the emergence of McKenry, and the massive amount of catchers used, a big story was the lack of progress from Tony Sanchez. The system’s top catching prospect had a down year in Altoona, hitting for a .241 average and a .658 OPS, with very little power production. Defensively, Sanchez saw improvements on his game calling, and remained solid with his pitch blocking. He also got a full season under his belt for the first time, and handled it well, putting up high 1.80 pop times after over 100 games in September, despite never catching that many games in a season before. Sanchez does raise some concerns with his throwing accuracy, but overall his defense wasn’t an issue this year like his offense was.
Who Will Catch in 2012?
The Pirates have options for the 2012 season for both Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit, however, neither option seems likely to be accepted. Snyder missed the entire second half with a back injury, and it probably wouldn’t be wise to bring him back at $6.75 M considering that injury, and considering how much time he has missed due to injuries in the last two years. Doumit has an option for $7.25 M, although if the Pirates want to pick that up, they also have to pick up his 8.25 M option for the 2013 season.
Doumit has missed a lot of time due to injuries in the last few years. He only caught 60 games in 2011, and only 53 of those were as a starter. He caught 100 games in 2010, starting 91 of those games. In 2009 he had another low year, catching 71 games, and starting 70 of those. In 2008, his breakout year, he caught 106 games, starting in 103. Based on his history, the best case scenario would be Doumit catching around 100 games, which means you need another catcher for the remaining 62 games. For that reason, $7.25 M would be too much for Doumit, even without the added $8.25 M in 2013.
Doumit’s defense behind the plate is horrible, but the appeal comes from his offense. We saw that when he was healthy in 2011, when he put up a .303 average and an .830 OPS. However, re-signing him because of the offense isn’t really a guarantee, as he combined for a .251 average and a .728 OPS in 2009 and 2010. The Pirates could decline his option, and offer him arbitration for the 2012 season. If he accepts, he would get a raise over his $5.2 M salary in 2011. If he declines, the Pirates would get a compensation pick in the 2012 draft, as Doumit profiles as a Type B free agent.
Michael McKenry did enough this year to warrant a spot on the 25-man roster next year, although his lack of offense makes him more of a strong backup than an everyday starter. If they don’t bring back Doumit or Snyder, the Pirates could look to free agency for a catching option. There aren’t many strong offensive options, but there are a few good defensive options, and some that hit better than McKenry. Most of the free agent options are 30 or older, and some of the better defenders are 35 and up, which raises questions about their durability going forward.
The Pirates were looking at several catchers around the trade deadline. Some of those options included Chris Iannetta and Francisco Cervelli. They inquired on Geovany Soto of the Cubs, and turned down a Garrett Jones for Jeff Mathis trade. The trade market could provide the answer for the 2012 starter, although I don’t think the Pirates are likely to find a two-way option via trade, as those are rare all around the league. They also probably won’t find anything different than what is on the free agent market, although they might be able to find a strong defender that is under 30.
As far as depth, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pagnozzi retained to take over in the Jason Jaramillo role. Jaramillo is out of options heading in to the 2012 season, and it would be unlikely that he makes the active roster with Michael McKenry ahead of him. Pagnozzi has an option remaining, and could be used as the number three or four catching option out of AAA.
The best option the Pirates have in the minors is still Tony Sanchez. He’s coming off the disappointing year, but you can’t write him off after just one down season. His 2011 season was even more disappointing due to the previously mentioned hole at catcher. Had Sanchez built on his 2010 season at the plate, we might be talking about him as the starting catcher in 2012. Now we’re wondering whether he will return to AA, or get a push to AAA like Chase d’Arnaud received in 2010 after struggling in AA in 2009. Sanchez will spend a month training at Athlete’s Performance Institute in Arizona, which is the boot camp of training facilities. He’s also hoping to play in the Dominican Winter League. Both should help him to bounce back in 2012.
Eric Fryer is a sleeper as a two-way option. He turned 26 in August, and only has 257 at-bats above the high-A level, all of which came in 2011. However, Fryer is very athletic, and has a cannon for an arm. He’s also shown some good abilities at the plate over the last two years, with a .300 average and an .865 OPS in high-A in 2010, and a .345 average and a .976 OPS in his jump to the AA level. With some more time in AAA, Fryer could be ready for another jump to the majors. Worst case, he’s a solid backup, although his bat, his athleticism, and his arm might give him a shot at starting. The Pirates were playing him at third base during the instructional leagues to add to his versatility (he’s already played left field, right field, and first base in the minors), but Fryer is first and foremost a catching prospect.
Outside of Fryer and Sanchez, the Pirates don’t have any options that stand out as top prospects. Ramon Cabrera and Carlos Paulino both had strong seasons in high-A in 2011. Cabrera hit for a .343 average with an .881 OPS, although there are questions about the durability for the 5′ 7″ catcher. Paulino also had a strong year at the plate, with a .299 average and a .790 OPS, plus he has better defense. In each case, the jump to the AA level will give us an idea of how legit their hitting was in the 2011 season.