2012 saw a revival of sorts for the Pittsburgh Pirates, with the franchise playing competitive, meaningful baseball all the way into the final month of the season after two decades of incompetence. The 79 wins the Pirates piled up represent the most games they’ve won in a calender year since 1997, and the expectation for 2013 to be the first winning season since 1992 has reached a fevered pitch. The fast starts in 2011 and 2012, along with Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and a promising cadre of young pitchers give fans a reason to believe again. But Pittsburgh has some foundational problems to address at the core of their roster. Shortstop Clint Barmes would struggle to hit water if he fell out of a boat, the corner outfielders are woefully inadequate for a true contender, and the pitching staff is in need of a true ace. But none of those issues are as glaring as the Pirate’s ongoing comedy at the catching position, where Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry received a majority of the playing time.
The carnage this duo encapsulated on the Pirates’ offense cannot be understated. Here is just a sampling of some of Pittsburgh’s league-wide ranks on offense from the catching position: runs scored: 25th, hits: 26th, RBI: 19th, batting average: 25th, on-base percentage: 20th, and OPS: 19th. That production was buoyed a little bit by the fact that Pirates’ catchers put up middling power numbers, but otherwise on offense Barajas, McKenry, and co. were a black hole.
Defensively, the duo was about as inept at the basics of catching as you can be. No team in baseball was worse at limiting their opposition’s running game than the Pirates’ duo. They gave up the most steals (154), while gunning out the fewest runners (19), good for a laughably bad 11%. Just how bad is that caught stealing rate you ask? Well, only one team this millennium has been worse and that was the 2007 San Diego Padres, who gave up a whopping 189 stolen bases that year, while only nabbing 20 total runners.
Some teams over the past decade have been able to thrive while having a noodle-armed catcher behind the plate. Jason Varitek’s Red Sox are the best example, but Varitek himself was a plus offensive player miles better than anyone the Pirates ran out behind the plate one year ago, which makes it imperative that they upgrade the position. Those aforementioned 2007 Padres even won 89 games, although they had Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and a rather spry 41-year-old Greg Maddux carrying their rotation that season.
Michael McKenry will be back without a doubt next season because he makes the league minimum, but he should be a back up catcher who gets 40-50 starts at most. He’s shown some decent pop for a catcher, and that’s a solid professional skill, but his defense is poor. Barajas should not be brought back, even if he agreed to play for actual peanuts. The Pirates need to move on and get an actual upgrade at the position if they want to break the streak. But who should the Buccos target out of a rather thin crop of potential catchers?
Mike Napoli is the bell of the ball as far as catchers go this offseason, but the market for his services will probably run a little bit high for Pittsburgh’s blood. But he’s also exactly what Pittsburgh needs. Neil Walker will be 27 next season and has already shown the ability to make a couple of All-Star teams in his career. Andrew McCutchen is the kind of MVP type player teams dream about having locked up for the next 5 seasons, and Garrett Jones has been a solid source of power for the Pirates over the past 4 seasons.
Adding Napoli to that mix would give the Pirates a legitimate chance to finish in the top half of the National League in offense for the first time since 2003, That year Pittsburgh finished a mighty 7th in the NL in offense, with a group led by Brian Giles, Jason Kendall, and Matt Stairs. Mike Napoli would immediately step in as the #4 or #5 hitter in the lineup for the 2013 Pirates. He’s got a career .863 OPS (126 OPS+), which would be the highest on the team, and Napoli is a legitimate threat to hit 25-30 homers and could bounce between catcher and first base, which would allow Garrett Jones to patch one of the holes in the outfield.
Napoli is no stud on defense, but he would at least represent a marginal upgrade behind the dish, while being galaxies better than Barajas or McKenry with a bat in his hands. Now, the Pirates are probably going to have to shell out a decent amount of money to get Napoli, but a 4 year/$60 million type deal may be just the type to get the job done. That would represent a significant step up in payroll for the Pirates, but the team spent just $63 million total a year ago (25th in baseball), giving them plenty of room to add.
Paying $15 million a year for the 31-year-old catcher would be an overpay, but it wouldn’t be a bad overpay. Napoli has been a rather consistent performer the last 4 seasons, bopping at least 20 homers each year and posting an OPS above .800 in 3 of the 4 seasons. The Pirates also have a rather talented collection of minor league pitchers, who are about to hit the big leagues, reminiscent of the Washington Nationals, a team who overpaid for Jason Werth, but is happy about it nonetheless.
The two crown jewels of the system are Gerrit Cole, a righty with a dominant fastball-slider combo who’s put up big strikeout rates at UCLA and in the minors. and Jameson Taillon, a 20-year-old with a dominant fastball that can touch 98. Those two right-handers, along with McCutchen, are the future of the franchise, and it would be a smart idea to build a solid offense to support them upon arrival, which could be as soon as next year if the Pirates are aggressive. Napoli would be the perfect fit.
Russell Martin wouldn’t be a bad idea either in the Steel City if the Pirates are willing to shell out a little bit of dough to pick him up, but he’s probably going to end up being more of an overpay than Napoli will. Like McKenry and Barajas, he doesn’t offer much in the way of offense, outside of the occasional long ball, but his defensive skills are far, far superior. Martin made $7.5 million a year ago in New York and a small pay raise to around $9-11 million would probably get him signed.
The rest of the catching options left aren’t really that appetizing. David Ross would have been a pretty solid fit, but Boston already snatched him up. AJ Pierzynski is out there, but he’s probably not going to sign with the Pirates. Both Kelly Shopach and Dioner Navarro are unappetizing options. This offseason represents an opportunity for the Pirates to make a big splash, to prove the ownership is really serious about building a contender. The offense could use a remodel to support a pitching staff that has the potential to be among the 8 or 10 best in baseball over the next 3 seasons, and a McCutchen-Napoli-Jones middle of the order would be just the trick.