The Pirates are facing a delicate situation at catcher.
Assuming they don’t get Blake Sabol back from the Rule 5 draft, they have two top upper-level catching prospects in Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis, and exactly zero catchers besides Rodriguez on the 40-man roster as of this writing.
They have to find not one, but two experienced catchers to get them through what, at most, should be a 2-3 month period in 2023.
Or do they? Davis isn’t an option; since being drafted, he’s appeared in only 67 games, and he was struggling with injuries during many of those.
Rodriguez is a different matter. He’s played 289 games in the minors, has a career OPS of .303/.394/.503, and is rocketing up prospect lists right now.
Derek Shelton put any speculation about Rodriguez to rest during the winter meetings. While discussing the catching situation, he dismissively relegated both Rodriguez and Davis to the minors.
The “needs more seasoning” trope has always been a convenient fallback for baseball lifers and fans who don’t want to see a prospect in the majors. It fits well with other empty buzz-phrases, like “he’s working on some things,” or the even more mindless “more seasoning won’t hurt him.”
These are especially convenient tropes for front offices looking to manipulate a player’s service time. Remember the Cubs sending Kris Bryant to Triple-A, saying he needed to work on his defense at third? They promoted him after he got a whopping 18 chances in the field.
Moar Seasoning! is an easy trope to trot out with Rodriguez. He’s played 31 games in Double-A and six in Triple-A, to go with 186 in A-ball. Trouble is, with top talents, which Rodriguez has certainly shown himself to be, this is baloney. Elite players just don’t need much time. Here are a few examples of games played at each level:
Ronald Acuna, Jr.: 83 games in AAA, 57 in AA, 68 in class A.
Wander Franco: 47 in AAA, 0 in AA
Alejandro Kirk: 14 in AAA, 0 in AA
Fernando Tatis, Jr.: 0 in AAA, 108 in AA
Julio Rodriguez: 0 in AAA, 46 in AA
Adley Rutschman: 45 in AAA, 83 in AA, 17 in class A
This is nowhere close to an exhaustive list. The exact trajectories for guys like this vary, but the speed for this sort of talent is the norm, not the exception.
So, no, not everybody needs a full season, or even half a season, or even any time at all, at each level. It’s obvious from the above that major league organizations are happy to make individualized decisions with their top prospects, based on what they see on the field.
Endy Rodriguez entered different territory this year.
Rodriguez was already a very good prospect, coming off a strong 2021 season at Bradenton. He was plugging along this year, until he jumped to a different level in July.
Over the last half of 2022, Rodriguez was the best hitter in the minors. He put up an OPS of 1.120 in Double-A and 1.208 in Triple-A. Reviews of his defense were very good. He switched back to catching almost full-time once he moved up from Greensboro, where he’d been playing a lot at other positions.
He specifically worked on his throwing, and his CS% jumped from 17% in 2021 to 31%, including 45% at Altoona. By all accounts, he’s a high-energy, highly motivated worker.
Of course it’s possible Rodriguez really does need more time in Triple-A, for something other than just saving Bob Nutting a bit of money by putting off his arbitration eligibility.
That’s not the point.
The important point is the message that Shelton sends when he indicates the decision is already made, regardless of what Rodriguez might do in Spring Training. It can’t be good to demonstrate to young players, over and over, that the front office isn’t interested in what they’re doing on the field.
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.