The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired backup catcher Chris Stewart today, which led to a lot of questions about the future of Tony Sanchez. In my non-tender preview, I gave Michael McKenry a 50% chance of being tendered, saying the Pirates could keep him as a depth option, or go with a better player at a similar cost. They opted to go with the better player, as Stewart has poor offense but some of the best defense in the game. The difference here is that McKenry had an option remaining, while Stewart is out of options. That makes it likely that Stewart will be the backup catcher, leaving Tony Sanchez in Triple-A.
In the long-term, I don’t think this impacts Sanchez’s future with the Pirates. Russell Martin is only under contract through the 2014 season, and if he has another year like he did in 2013, he will get a huge deal with another team. That means Sanchez is still the starting catcher of the future for the Pirates.
What the Stewart addition tells me is that the Pirates would rather have Sanchez playing everyday in Triple-A, rather than playing on the bench in Pittsburgh. There are some benefits to Sanchez getting regular time with Indianapolis. For one, you don’t burn a year of control using him as a backup. He also stays fresh in the event that Martin goes down this year, which would lead to the need for Sanchez to take over as the starter.
The backup catcher job doesn’t provide a lot of value. Stewart has statistically been one of the better backups in the league. From 2011-2013 he had a 2.1 WAR, which ranked 34th out of 63 catchers with 350+ plate appearances during that time. I went with 350+ because that gave 60+ catchers, which is enough for a starter and a backup from every team. All of Stewart’s value comes from his defense, as he has a plus arm and some of the best pitch framing skills in the game.
The one benefit Sanchez could provide over Stewart is his bat. The value of a bat for a backup catcher isn’t that big, since catchers aren’t normally used as pinch hitters and play about 30 games a year. I would have liked to see Sanchez as the backup for another reason — to spend a year in the same clubhouse as Martin. One of the big issues with Sanchez is that he tends to have problems with his throwing accuracy. That popped up this past summer for a week or two. The problem usually stems from a bad throw, followed by Sanchez trying to make up for it with the next throw. This leads to another poor throw, and eventually leads to Sanchez getting in his own head and trying to do too much. My feeling was that Martin could help Sanchez with this problem. However, you could argue that this could also be helped by a coach in Triple-A, or a veteran backup catcher with Indianapolis.
I don’t think that the addition of Stewart impacts Sanchez beyond the 2014 season, since Sanchez is the only player in the upper levels and the majors who could replace Martin as the starter. As for the 2014 season, it’s a debate between what benefits Sanchez and the team more. He could spend time in the majors, getting occasional at-bats and working with Martin. Or he could get everyday time in Triple-A, save his service time, and be ready to take over if Martin gets injured.