It’s funny how baseball tends to work out, though the Pittsburgh Pirates might not find much that is humorous about their current situation.
One of the big questions surrounding the organization at this time last year was how the Pirates were going to find room in the lineup for two premium catching prospects over the long haul.
Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis were both considered among the top 50 prospects in baseball by many analysts. It was a good problem to have, mind you, but it was going to be interesting to see how the situation would eventually resolve itself.
Now, a case can be made that the Pirates have no catching prospects.
Rodriguez underwent reconstructive surgery on his right elbow on Tuesday and will miss the 2024 season. It remains to be seen how the injury will affect Rodriguez’s ability to be a catcher in the long run.
Rodriguez was going to be the favorite to win the starting job in spring training. Despite batting just .220/.284/.328 with three home runs in 57 games as a rookie last season, Rodriguez won high marks for showing leadership in handling the pitching staff.
Regardless of what they continue to say publicly, the Pirates seemed to have lost confidence in Davis’ defensive ability. He made his major-league debut last season and played in 62 games but logged just two innings at catcher in two one-inning reserve stints.
Publicly, though, the Pirates continue to talk about Davis still possibly being a major-league starter.
“Henry’s going to come into spring training as a catcher,” general manager Ben Cherington said last week at the Winter Meetings in Nashville. “Still believe the best outcome for him, for the Pirates, is that that’s what he’s doing going forward. If at any point it makes sense for him and the Pirates to do something else, we trust he’ll be able to do it. We’ll get to that if and when we get to that, but we believe he can catch. That’s where the focus is going to be.”
Yet if Davis doesn’t show significant defensive improvement during the Grapefruit League season, it is hard to know what the Pirates might do for a starting catcher in 2024
They have two other catchers on the 40-man roster — Jason Delay and Ali Sanchez. It seems unlikely either one would be asked to see the bulk of the action behind the plate.
Delay is a great story of perseverance. He began the 2022 season as basically the bullpen catcher with Triple-A Indianapolis. Yet he reached the big leagues later that year and started 102 games combined over the past two seasons.
However, Delay has hit just .233/.293/.311 in 354 big-league plate appearances.
The 26-year-old Sanchez had a fine 2023 season with Triple-A Reno, posting a .311/.375/.492 slash line with 11 home runs in 67 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ top farm club. Yet Sanchez has played in just seven games in the majors – five with the New York Mets in 2020 and two with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2021 – while spending time in four organizations during his nine-year professional career.
If the Pirates decide to add a catcher from outside the organization, it seems most likely they would sign a free agent on a one-year contract with the hope Rodriguez would be healthy in 2025.
Among the available catchers are Mitch Garver, Tucker Barnhart, Austin Nola, Andrew Knizner and Jacob Stallings.
Garver is likely out of the Pirates’ price range after hitting 19 home runs in 87 regular-season games last season for the World Series champion Texas Rangers then going deep three more times in the postseason.
A reunion with Stallings would be intriguing as he was the National League Gold Glove catcher with the Pirates in 2021. However, his defense regressed during the last two seasons with the Miami Marlins.
Barnhart might fit despite being released by the Chicago Cubs last season in the first year of a two-year, $6.5-million contract. He is a two-time NL Gold Glove winner, and the Pirates would only have to pay him the major-league minimum $740,000 salary as a released player with the Cubs paying the rest.
None of the options beyond Rodriguez are all that appealing, though. He showed enough flashes as a rookie to think he could be a big part of the Pirates’ future.