Thin catching market poses challenge for Pirates
Bucs could seek trade or bring back Barajas as complement to McKenry
How convenient:Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and Boston Red Sox counterpart Ben Cherington, both graduates of the University of Massachusetts, will be on the Amherst campus Tuesday night to participate in the school's "Covering the Bases -- An Evening with our GMs" program. Huntington needs a catcher -- bad. Cherington has three of them. So could the roundtable discussion -- which will also involve Indians GM Chris Antonetti -- include a little sidebar session between Huntington and Cherington? The only receiver on the Bucs' 40-man roster is Michael McKenry, who will have an important but as-yet undetermined role on the 2013 club. Boston recently signed free agent David Ross, adding him to Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway, who between them started 120 games last season (although the Red Sox are also in hot pursuit of another free agent, Mike Napoli; they like him as a first baseman). The Bucs and the BoSox could be compatible trade partners. Boston's areas of need include first base and the outfield, and the Pirates have a surplus of Major League experience at both. Garrett Jones is being crowded at both of his platoon positions, and Jose Tabata is someone who could draw interest. Complicating matters for someone like Huntington is the number of other clubs also seeking catching. The depth of the free-agent market can't sustain that competition; most of the dozen-plus out there are in their '30s. And demand will drive up the trade request of teams with an expendable piece -- the very reason Cherington jumped for Ross. "It's a thin market, yeah," Huntington said. "It's an incredibly taxing position and good catchers are really hard to come by -- especially the dual threats. We're working on it ... whether via trade or via free agency, we'd like to add a catcher to our mix." The dual threats to which Huntington referred involve the mitt and the bat. But there is a third slug in the ideal catcher's chamber: the arm. The Bucs overcame a daunting array of handicaps to remain in contention for a postseason spot into September, none more remarkable than their running game. It was in shambles on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Pirates had the fewest steals (73), were caught the most (52) and had the lowest success percentage (58) in the National League. On defense, the Pirates allowed the most steals (154), caught the fewest runners (19) and had the lowest throw-out percentage (11) in the NL. That's the kind of clean sweep no team wants. Clint Hurdle aims to fix the Bucs' own running with increased instruction; there certainly is enough raw speed on the roster. To stop the opposition, the Bucs need more help from behind the plate. That could come from two sources, McKenry himself or a newcomer. McKenry came through the ranks, with two organizations before reaching the Pirates, with a defensive reputation; in 2008, for instance, he nailed 40 of 85 runners in the Class A California League. More recently, McKenry had refocused himself on the bat work he felt he needed to become a big leaguer and now may feel more secure to turn his attention back to defense. Hurdle and Huntington still don't know how much to put on McKenry -- which obviously will influence who they will shop for. No. 1? No. 2? No. 1-A? "Well, you hate to put ceilings or floors on players," Huntington said. "We're very comfortable with Michael as a part of our catching tandem. We'd love to be in a situation where we're one of the few in the industry that has a surefire No. 1 that's going to catch 130 games, but the reality is the catching position has almost become like the running back position in football -- you'd better have two pretty good ones if you want to get through the season. We're looking for someone to team with Michael." The most affordable, best-fit free-agent options are a trio of veterans who last season each threw out more than 30 percent of runners: Miguel Olivo ($3.5 million last season with the Mariners), Humberto Quintero ($1 million, Royals) and Kelly Shoppach ($1.35 million, Red Sox and Mets). Yet, in contemplating who could possibly help the Bucs remedy that weakness, a curious fact emerges: Rod Barajas had come to them with precisely the kind of credits they now seek; his defensive reputation included being a running-game deterrent. In 2011, with the Dodgers, Barajas had nailed 20 of 80 runners, a 25 percent rate only slightly below the league average. From 2002-09, he regularly snuffed out more than a third of runners, way above the norm. Conclusion: The problem lay just as much with the pitchers, without whose increased attention it won't go away. As such, Barajas himself may not be going away. He is a free agent after the Pirates declined his $3.5 million option for 2013, but there is ground for a fresh agreement between the sides. Barajas' positive impact on the pitching staff, not just on good buddy A.J. Burnett, can't be denied. "Absolutely, we'll keep the door open and see if he wants to come back," Huntington said, "We'll see if we want him to come back. Is there still a fit when everything comes together, or not?"
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.