First Pitch: Pirates System Will Have Some Difficult Catching Decisions in 2015

We’ve written a lot this week about the catcher position, with a few articles on Elias Diaz having a breakout season in Altoona, along with some focus on a few lower level players who are having good seasons. The Pittsburgh Pirates have collected a lot of catching prospects, especially in the lower levels. The result is that they’re looking at a lot of tough roster decisions in Bradenton and West Virginia next year. They could also be looking at a different kind of difficult decision in the majors if Russell Martin doesn’t sign. Here is an early look at the catching position, all the way through the system, for the 2015 season.

Pirates

The Pirates have Russell Martin and Chris Stewart as their catchers this year, with Tony Sanchez serving as the number three option. The big priority for them this off-season should be extending Martin, as I’ve written before. Stewart had all-around good defensive numbers prior to joining the Pirates, but has really fallen off this year in every way, whether it’s stolen bases, pitch framing, or blocking. Based on how he has played, I could see them non-tendering him.

Next year’s catching position really depends on whether they bring Martin back. There’s really nothing else available on the free agent market. Tony Sanchez would be the top option to start, but he doesn’t look like a starting option at this point. He would make a good backup in 2015, giving him the chance to show improvements with his throwing issues. If Martin isn’t brought back, the Pirates are in trouble in the short-term.

Indianapolis

If Sanchez is in the majors, and I think he will be in some form, then that clears the way for Elias Diaz to move up to Triple-A. Diaz would take over the Sanchez role in 2015, serving as the number three catcher. Beyond the 2015 season, he would be the top option to be the backup in Pittsburgh. He could also be a sleeper option to start if he keeps hitting, although he would need some success in Triple-A for that to happen. For next year, this is pretty straight forward.

Altoona

This is one of the few problem areas for the Pirates. Diaz should move on next year, but they really don’t have anyone to take over in Altoona. Jacob Stallings would be the top candidate. He’s great defensively, and does great work handling a pitching staff. However, he lacks the bat to make it to the majors. My guess is that he will be getting the bulk of the playing time in Altoona next year.

Bradenton

Bradenton will be crowded, and the decision process here will determine how West Virginia plays out. Jin-De Jhang has struggled in his jump from Jamestown to Bradenton this year. He has a .569 OPS in 228 at-bats, and that hasn’t improved as the season has gone on. Jhang has been splitting time with Stallings, who also doesn’t have good offensive numbers. I could see Stallings moving up, simply because that’s a better alternative to him sticking around in Bradenton for a third season. I think Jhang will stay in Bradenton for another year.

Reese McGuire would be the top candidate to move up to Bradenton and split playing time with Jhang. McGuire doesn’t have the best numbers in West Virginia, but such a move to challenge his bat wouldn’t be uncommon. The Pirates have pushed several prospects up to Bradenton after sub-par numbers in a full season at West Virginia. Whether McGuire reaches Altoona in 2016 with similar poor numbers is another topic, but I could see him moving up.

If McGuire doesn’t move up, then one of the 2014 draft picks would be the top option to jump over West Virginia and move up to Bradenton. That could be 4th round pick Taylor Gushue or ninth round pick Kevin Krause. Both players are hitting well in Jamestown, and both come from the college ranks. If the Pirates want to give McGuire more time in West Virginia, then one of these two would be the best option to move up. My guess would be Krause, with the younger Gushue taking a slower path.

West Virginia

Whatever happens in Bradenton will determine how West Virginia shakes out. If McGuire is the starter in Bradenton, then the catching combo of Gushue and Krause would just move up from Jamestown.

The x-factor here is 2014 competitive balance pick Connor Joe. The Pirates have been thinking about trying him out at catcher during instructs. As I reported a few weeks ago, he has been out with back tightness this year. Joe will probably start his career with West Virginia, although there is a possibility that he takes an aggressive path to Bradenton. The Pirates drafted him as a right fielder, and also talked about getting him time at first base. His best value is at catcher, although there’s obviously a lot of options in Bradenton or West Virginia.

The Pirates had this same situation last year with Jin-De Jhang, Reese McGuire, and Wyatt Mathisen. They moved Mathisen to third base, and jumped Jhang over West Virginia. This time around they’ve got more options. They could move on from Jhang as a prospect with a very aggressive push to Altoona, which would be a sink or swim development approach. They could switch positions for someone, with the top candidate being Kevin Krause moving to outfield. Or they could just scrap the plan of Joe catching, thus avoiding the situation. We probably won’t know how this will all play out until the end of Spring Training, just like how it happened last year.

Jamestown/Bristol/GCL

It’s pretty much impossible to get a feel for who the short-season teams will have. This year’s teams feature Gushue, Krause, Danny Arribas, and Yoel Gonzalez as their top options. Two of those guys weren’t in the organization last year at this time, and one (Gonzalez) was in the DSL. The fourth, Arribas, hardly played at catcher last year because of McGuire and Jhang.

A lot of the short-season placements will depend on the 2015 draft, along with the performances in Spring Training. I could see Arribas moving up to Jamestown. He’d probably be a candidate for West Virginia if there wasn’t a logjam. Gonzalez has hit well in the GCL, and should continue getting a lot of time behind the plate, especially since the Pirates paid him a $350,000 bonus. The conservative estimate would be that Arribas goes to Jamestown, Gonzalez goes to Bristol, and Mikell Granberry moves up from the DSL to be the top catcher in the GCL.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Buddy Borden Strikes Out Ten, Huge Offensive Numbers Around the System

**Jamestown Sends Three to NYPL All-Star Game

**Prospect Highlights: Stetson Allie Homer, Broxton’s Having a Solid Season

**Minor League Schedule: Gerrit Cole Makes Third Rehab Start For Indianapolis

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • pilbobuggins

    Spot on tim. All I can say is if the bucs don’t pony up and sign martin it’s going to be a long year.

    • Alex Henry

      With Volquez and Liriano coming off the books and I find it unlikely for either to return they should push all the chips they have at Martin. Cole, Morton,Locke, Worley, Cumpton would be the 5 till Kingham and Taillon come up in June. Theoretically I think it would workout

      • Jared

        If that’s the starting rotation next year the Bucs are going to be digging out of another early season hole to try to be competitive.

        • leowalter

          Spot on Jared. Theoretically,it won’t matter who is catching.

        • Alex Henry

          In my opinion both Locke and Worley are for real. both mid to high 3 ERA guys. If Cole is healthy I don’t see where it’s any different then this year. Morton is always up and down and I’m not a Cumpton guy but it would not surprise me they may sign bounce back candidate though.

          • Jared

            The Pirates do have money to be able to spend…and they could realistically keep Liriano and Martin. Remove Davis from the team (money savings) and platoon Sanchez and Pedro at 1B. Or use Lambo. If you remove Davis and Volquez you’ve got $8M in money to use (not counting Barmes who will also, hopefully, be gone). So if the Pirates spent even another $4M more than they started this year with in payroll you could well wind up with Liriano and Martin. We are a contending team and it IS ok now to spend some money.

  • Scott Kliesen

    I think we can all agree the best course of action for Pirates is to re-sign Martin. In the event he leaves, the Pirates may be looking to trade for his replacement. Any ideas who will be available in a trade?

    • emjayinTN

      Scott: Martin for more than the obvious. Elias Diaz has accelerated his development and is playing very well at AA – with the bat and on defense. Last year at Hi A he was around 14% for both Walks and K’s. This year at AA he is hitting for better average but has 7% Walks and has remained at 14% for K’s – these are not bad stats; in fact I think they are good. He has the D and the arm and only lacks what Russell Martin can give him better than anyone and that is field presence and how to work a pitching staff. While that has been happening, Tony Sanchez has fallen to just above the mendoza line at AAA and a 12 % rate for throwing out base stealers. We watched him earlier in the season and whatever disease he had in his arm he left behind for Pedro! From everything I am reading about Diaz, he has enough to hold his own with either Stewart or McKenry, and I would have no problem if the club leapfrogged Sanchez and pegged him as the backup for Martin in 2015. Others who may be available – Robinson Chirinos, Texas or Brayan Pena at Cincy. Ryan Hanigan was an excellent Catcher for Cincy – he is now at TB on a 2 or 3 year, very affordable contract. If we fail to land Martin, he would be the guy I would try to pry away from the Rays.

  • William Wallace

    Isn’t the Jamestown franchise moving to Morgantown next year?

  • Lee Young

    They REALLY need to QO Martin, making it unsavory for any team to sign him unless they want to pony up a draft pick. $15 mil may be a little of an overpay, but it’d be worth it, jmo.

    I really think they need to consider QO’ing Liriano also. Some team will give him $15 mil a year (even with the loss of a pick) and we won’t be on the hook for the $$$$?

  • Lee Young

    Connor Joe with back tightness? Maybe the “Chronic Walker Backitis” has me a little spooked, but that sounds ominous.

    • leadoff

      Joe has had Backitis for a long time.

    • emjayinTN

      And we traded Bryan Morris who is having his career year since leaving – a .0.53 ERA and we have yet to get a photograph of Connor Joe on a baseball field.

  • leadoff

    Martin signing is wishful thinking, he is no dummy, he knows he has a chance at a 4 year contract on the open market and the Pirates won’t go that far and should not go that far. Money for a two year contract probably would not be a problem for the Pirates, but 4 years is probably not going to happen. Some type of contract with a 3rd year option might work for the Pirates.

  • freddylang

    I am guessing they will add some 25-26 year old filler to play at Altoona at least part time. They could aggressively push Jhang to AA but I don’t think that is the greatest idea. He is not overmatched plate discipline-wise but he has not hit with any authority. (Although he has improved slightly in the second half.) McGuire and Jhang are so young, it would not be a major setback to have either of them play a half season at their same levels as 2014 and then promote if they play well. Really, all you need is to get the guy I mentioned to fill in at AA…a youngish catcher who has played at AA and has a touch of potential. Maybe they can get lucky and scrape someone up off waivers or give up something minor pitching-wise to get it…but there definitely is a hole there.

    • freddylang

      It would be nice to see Diaz get some AAA ABs this year and then go to the fall league and get on the fast track for the mlb next midseason. Over his last 500 AB he is hitting .308 with 40 XBH, only 83 K and a very good 58 walks.

    • leowalter

      Hello, my name is Carlos Paulino. I am excellent defensively, but I’m not great offensively. However, I was the primary starter at Altoona in ‘ 13, and also in early 2014 until I was injured.

      • freddylang

        Oh yeah. Thanks Leo. I forgot him. I guess really everything kind of fits together nicely.

        • leowalter

          Heh……I know that it is pretty hard to keep track of all these guys freddy, unless we are Tim Williams.