The Pittsburgh Pirates made their first addition to the 40-man roster this off-season, signing veteran catcher Rod Barajas to a one year, $4 M deal. The deal comes with a $3.5 M option in 2013 that has no buyout. The move was made exactly one week after teams were eligible to negotiate with free agents. The move was a bit of a surprise considering how young the off-season is. Normally you don’t see moves taking place this soon, outside of players re-signing with their former teams.
“They were aggressive,” Barajas said about the Pirates pursuing him. “They definitely showed that they wanted me to be a part of their team.”
Barajas mentioned that he received a lot of interest, and had a few firm offers from other teams, but that the aggressiveness by the Pirates is what got him to sign. He also noted the success the team had in 2011 as something that drew his attention to the organization.
“I look back at the season they had last year,” Barajas said. “They played great baseball for four months and weren’t quite able to finish it, but they were moving in the right direction. They showed a commitment last year at the trade deadline, trying to bring in players to make that run.”
“It was an organization that definitely wanted to win, and I figured that’s not going to change. I figured the Pirates are going to be looking to do the same thing this year.”
The Pirates declined the options on two of their catchers earlier in the off-season, opting to buy out Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit, rather than bringing them back for expensive options. Snyder was owed $6.75 M, with a $750 K buyout. Doumit was owed $15.5 M over two years, with a $500 K buyout. Both catchers have been injury prone over the last few years, and neither player topped 53 games started in 2011.
Barajas does come with some concerns about the amount of games he can play. He has caught less than 100 games in each of the last two years, and the last time he caught over 100 games was in 2009, when he started 110 games and caught 120. He noted that his goal is 120 or more games if everything goes well and there are no injuries. Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington noted that the game has changed, and the everyday catcher isn’t the norm.
“The reality of the catching market now is that very few catchers catch over 120 games,” Huntington said. “Very few start over 110.”
The free agent market confirmed this. Barajas has caught more innings over the last three years than any other free agent, with 2483.2 innings. That’s more than Ryan Doumit (1867), Chris Snyder (1541), and top free agent Ramon Hernandez (1841) in the same time span. Some might chalk this up to a weak free agent class, although it’s a growing trend in baseball. Over the last three years, only ten catchers in the majors have caught more innings than Barajas.
Barajas was added to serve as the starting catcher, with Huntington citing his game calling, receiving, blocking, and veteran leadership with the pitching staff as strengths. Huntington also added that his bat can add an impact, specifically from the power standpoint. Barajas has 52 home runs over the last three years. Only five other catchers have topped that amount in the same time span. Offensively, power is about the only part of his game, as he has a low average and a below-average walk rate, leading to a .699 OPS over the last three seasons.
If Barajas is only expected to catch 120 games in a best case scenario, the question does come up as to who will catch the remaining games. Huntington said that the team hasn’t closed the door on Ryan Doumit or Chris Snyder, although the Pirates could go in to the 2012 season with their current options as backups.
“If we end up with Jason Jaramillo or Michael McKenry, then we feel good about that,” Huntington said about the number two catching position.
The Pirates currently have four other catchers on the 40-man roster. McKenry and Jaramillo seem to be the front runners for the backup job, out of the internal options. Eric Fryer needs more time in AAA to work on his hitting. He played some third base during the instructional leagues to add some versatility to his game, although he is likely to remain behind the plate for now. Matt Pagnozzi is a depth guy, and is now the number five catcher on the depth chart, taking the Dusty Brown/Wyatt Toregas role from last year.
Barajas has caught 966 games in his major league career behind the plate. That experience could help some of the younger catchers in the upper levels, such as McKenry, Fryer, or 2009 first round pick Tony Sanchez. The team didn’t talk to him about being a mentor to the young catchers, but it’s something he would embrace.
“I felt like that was a huge positive I had coming up was the veteran players added around me,” Barajas said about serving as a mentor. “Not just catchers, but pitchers and position players who kind of took me under their wing, and I want to pass that on.”
“No one has to approach me and ask me to help out on certain aspects of the game. I’m willing to do it. I enjoy it, I love teaching, and if any of those guys have any questions, I’m definitely an open book for him.”
The Pirates had six open spots on the 40-man roster prior to the move, so no corresponding move needs to be made. The current 40-man roster/payroll projection is at $33.4 M after the move. Barajas was a Type B free agent, so the Pirates don’t owe any draft pick compensation for the move.