Around the Horn: Catchers
Barajas, McKenry to team behind the plate for Pirates
This is the third of a seven-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Pirates' projected starters and other options heading into Spring Training. Up next: Catchers.
As the Pirates survey their catching options for 2012, the landscape is certainly quite different than it was a year ago, when Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder were expected to shoulder the workload behind the plate. The two ended up contributing, but so, too, did another six catchers.
There was a point in June when the Pirates' catching depth was so challenged that the organization had no choice but to dip into its Double-A club for help. In all, eight different catchers appeared in a Pirates uniform in 2011. It was a total unmatched by the franchise since 1953.
More than half of those catchers to appear in a Major League game with the Pirates last season are no longer with the organization, including Doumit and Snyder. Both had club options declined at the end of the year, and Pittsburgh opted not to pick up either.
In their place steps Rod Barajas, a 13-year veteran who signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Pirates in November. Expected to sit behind him on the depth chart is Michael McKenry, who impressed defensively in his first sustained stint in the Majors.
"They really showed that they wanted me to be a part of this organization," Barajas said earlier this offseason. "For me, to feel like I'm wanted is huge. The way they came after me -- that's what you want to feel when you're a free agent. I felt like, for my career, this was the best fit."
Barajas, 36, will earn the majority of the starts, though questions about his durability are legitimate. He has started 110 games only once since 2005. Last year, Barajas appeared in 98. A sprained right ankle kept him off the field for about a month.
Aware that they will have to be sensitive to his age, the Pirates anticipate only having Barajas start about two-thirds of the games. That will leave a heavier load on McKenry's plate, though the club is hopeful that the young backstop will have benefited from a series of winter hitting lessons with manager Clint Hurdle.
"Looking at the market, looking at what is actually happening in Major League Baseball today, the days of 130-140 game starting catchers, it's become the rarity," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We're going to have to make sure we monitor his workload and put him in position to be successful."
Though his career batting average and on-base percentages are hardly special, Barajas can provide some power in the bottom part of the lineup. He hit 16 home runs last year.
McKenry isn't going to provide a huge offensive boost either, though the Pirates are counting on him to improve upon his rookie season numbers. After being traded to the Pirates in mid-June, McKenry, 26, hit .222 with two homers and 11 RBIs in 58 starts.
He traveled to meet with Hurdle once in October, November and December for personalized hitting lessons, lessons that focused on both mental preparation and physical execution. McKenry said that he believes the stability of being in one organization should put him in position to have more success at the plate this year.
He was a part of three organizations in 2011.
"Being traded a couple times last year, I was kind of in hoopla with the hitting," McKenry said. "I'm almost too coachable at times. I was listening to so many different people and trying to take in so many different ideas. I didn't have a filter to sift out what works for me. It's just one of those things where I'm at the point in my career that I have to take a grasp of it and figure out who I am as a player and build a foundation."
On the defensive end, McKenry has shown that he can handle duties behind the plate just fine. He adapted to working with a new pitching staff quite quickly when he arrived, and he proved himself not to be a liability defensively.
While the Pirates have not already definitively named McKenry their backup catcher, he is certainly the favorite to win the job. He and Barajas are the only two catchers currently on the 40-man roster.
Jose Morales, who signed a Minor League contract with Pittsburgh, and former first-round Draft pick Tony Sanchez will also be in camp. However, both are expected to begin the year in the Minors. Morales will provide depth in Triple-A, while Sanchez is merely looking to get back on track after a disappointing 2011 season.
Regardless of what kind of spring showing Sanchez has, he is not in the mix for a Major League roster spot. In his first full pro season, Sanchez, the team's first-round Draft pick in 2009, hit .241 with 20 extra-base hits and 44 RBIs in 118 games.
"We love Tony and feel like he learned a lot of things [last] year," Huntington said. "Defense, he continued to get better and better. On offense, he had some struggles. He got in his own way too many times. We feel like he's been able to have a good year of development, but he is not in the picture for next year out of the chute."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.