The Pittsburgh Pirates are now far enough removed from the catcher desert that it’s possible to look at the old days with a sense of morbid amusement.
Stocking a farm system with catchers isn’t an easy undertaking. It’s not like other positions. First of all, catchers get hurt a lot. And second, it’s harder to cover for injuries. In the minors, if all your third basemen are hurt, you just move somebody to the spot, even a pitcher on rare occasions.
You can’t do that with catchers. A team needs to worry both about producing catching prospects and about keeping its minor league rosters properly staffed.
As we all know, the prospect part was going nowhere in the Pirates’ system when Ben Cherington took over. He changed that in a hurry with a string of trades and by drafting a catcher first overall in 2021. But even the staffing part wasn’t going so well. By my count, there are 29 catchers currently in the system and only 12 pre-dated Cherington.
Why so few leftovers? Didn’t they draft catchers under Neal Huntington?
Well, yeah, but not terribly well. The following is a rundown off all the catchers Huntington drafted. If you’re squeamish, now is the time to avert your eyes. At the end, I’ll take a quick look at how things might move forward in the area of adding catchers to the system.
(Draft round in parentheses.)
Chris Simmons (41): The Pirates picked Simmons out of West Point. He got into nine games in short season ball, but the Army rescinded the arrangement that let some guys play pro ball and that was all for Simmons.
Tony Sanchez (1): Sanchez made it to the majors for 52 games across three seasons. Drafted as a defensive catcher, his defense didn’t work out once he reached the majors.
Joey Schoenfeld (10): A prep draftee, Schoenfeld played three years and never got past the GCL.
Matt Skirving (30): Skirving played two years and didn’t make it to full season ball. He’s currently the Assistant Director of Amateur Scouting Operations for the Pirates, after joining them as a scout in 2014.
Ryan Hornback (27): Hornback played two years and didn’t make it to full season ball.
Derek Trent (31): Trent lasted two years and failed to reach full season ball.
Jon Schwind (41): Schwind quickly became an organizational player, mostly as an outfielder, and hung around for seven years. He also coached. He made it as high as Triple-A (three plate appearances), making him only the second of the first seven catchers Huntington drafted to reach full season ball.
Wyatt Mathisen (2): A prep draftee, Mathisen shifted to third base early. He eventually reached the majors with Arizona. He spent part of last year in Triple-A with the Giants and part of it in independent ball.
Jacob Stallings (7): Huntington’s one unequivocal success at drafting a catcher was selected as a college senior to save bonus pool money.
Reese McGuire (1): After the Pirates gave him away to save Bob Nutting some money in the Francisco Liriano trade, McGuire reached the majors with Toronto. He played 89 games in the majors in 2022, split between the White Sox and Red Sox. He hasn’t lived up to the first round pedigree, but he seems likely to stick around for some time as a backup catcher or even semi-regular.
Max Rossiter (15): The Pirates drafted Rossiter in 2012 and he didn’t sign. On the second go-round he signed, played exactly one game, and retired. Apparently there was a failure to communicate, or something.
Andrew Dennis (37): Dennis lasted two seasons, 21 games total, in short season ball.
Connor Joe* (Supp. 1): Joe gets an asterisk here. A college outfielder, the Pirates intended to convert him to catching. The very first thing he did, though, was suffer a back injury and he never caught in pro ball. He did reach the majors, though, and now he’s back with the Pirates.
Taylor Gushue (4): Gushue didn’t seem to be going anywhere with the Pirates and they traded him to the Nationals for Chris Bostick. He reached the majors with the Cubs for two games in 2021, and played in Double-A and Triple-A for the Nationals in 2022.
Kevin Krause (9): Krause had some power, but he was hurt a lot, including the entire 2015 season, and quickly moved to the outfield. He reached Altoona for two games and has played in independent ball the last two years.
Christian Kelley (11): Kelley started a trend of the Pirates focusing on defense-only college catchers. He reached Triple-A with them and also played in Triple-A for the Brewers in 2021.
John Bormann (24): Bormann famously got into one MLB game, making one plate appearance for the Pirates after a midnight ride following some injuries. Other than that, he reached Altoona and Indianapolis for two games each. The Pirates released him in 2019 after he’d played in five games for Bradenton.
Brent Gibbs (7): Gibbs lasted two years, reaching low Class A.
Arden Pabst (12): Pabst reached Altoona in 2019, played a little in independent ball in 2020, then returned to Altoona in 2021. He hit below .200 both years in Double-A. The Pirates released him after 2021 and he caught on with the Braves. He was hurt most of 2022 but got into one game in Triple-A.
Jason Delay (4): Delay turned out to be the most successful of Huntington’s good-glove, no-bat college catchers, although the gross incompetence of the current front office in handling last year’s catching situation is what got him to the majors. He could be the backup for the Pirates in 2023.
Deon Stafford (5): Stafford had some power, but the defense wasn’t there and the bat wasn’t consistent. He topped out at Double-A and was released in 2021. He’s spent the last year and a half in independent ball.
Manny Bejerano (30): Bejerano lasted two years and didn’t reach full season ball.
Grant Koch (5): Koch was drafted as more of an offense-oriented catcher, but he hasn’t hit at all as a pro. He’s hung on as an organizational catcher and has reached Altoona, but he got into only 32 games in 2022, 28 of them at Bradenton.
Zac Susi (12): Susi lasted two years, reaching low Class A.
Ryan Haug (27): Haug lasted two years, reaching full season ball for three games. He’s played the last three years in independent ball.
Kyle Wilkie (12): Wilkie played one year in short season ball. After missing the pandemic season, he split 2021 between Bradenton and Greensboro, appearing in only 29 games. He was released after that season.
Eli Wilson (16): Wilson was the closest thing to a catching prospect that Cherington inherited, but he’s gotten buried under the wave of catching prospects Cherington has added. He played only sparingly in 2022 for Greensboro, and spent a lot of time at third and as DH.
Ethan Goforth (25): Goforth was Wilson’s backup at Bristol in 2019. After the 2020 season was wiped out, he got into six games in 2021, four of them at Bradenton, before making the move to managing the DSL Pirates in 2022.
Marshall Gilbert (29): The Pirates sent Gilbert to Bristol, which had Wilson and Goforth. He didn’t play much and retired after that one year.
Dylan Shockley (34): Shockley quickly settled in as a defense-oriented organizational catcher, filling in where needed. He got into 24 games for Altoona in 2022. He probably would have played more, but a thumb injury cut his season short by a couple months.
What’s so striking about this list isn’t just the failure to provide help at the major league level. It’s also the number of catchers — keeping in mind that most of them were college draftees — who didn’t even reach full season ball.
The staffing part of this is changing now. The draft in Huntington’s day lasted 50, then 40, rounds. The three drafts since Cherington came along have lasted 45 rounds combined. He’s drafted only three catchers so far: Henry Davis, Wyatt Hendrie and Nick Cimillo.
Davis obviously will reach the majors. Hendrie’s done pretty well so far; his defense alone should get him at least to Double-A. (That’s a floor, not a ceiling.) No real data yet on Cimillo.
But the catchers have to come from somewhere. Teams figure to be signing more non-drafted free agents, basically the guys who would have been drafted in rounds 20-40 in prior years. That’s how the Pirates will find guys like Shockley going forward.
They’re also adding a lot of catchers from Latin America. I count about 13 catchers in the system who could be in the DSL or FCL in 2023, although a couple could trickle upward to Bradenton. Seven of the 13 have signed just since January 15, 2022. At least two from 2021-22 — Axiel Plaz and Miguel Sosa — look like legitimate prospects, and Jonathan Rivero was the team’s top international signing, bonus-wise, this year.
The international scene may play a much bigger role than the draft in staffing the system with catchers going forward.+ posts
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.