The Pittsburgh Pirates are currently starting their fourth option at catcher and by fourth option, I mean they scoured the International League and PCL and hoped to find a AAAA catcher with some experience and even modest upside. They plucked Erik Kratz from Houston’s organization, where he appeared in 14 games for the Astros amassing a triple of .069/.100/.103 in the majors. It seems like an uninspiring choice, but when you go outside of your organization for depth help, you get what you get.
This isn’t a huge knock on Kratz as a person. It’s just the reality of things. He’s a 36-year old catcher well past his prime, who’s still managing to hang around on a prayer at the plate and an average arm to second base. For a guy who didn’t make his major league debut until his age-30 season, he’s had an better-than-expected run and earned a career payday in excess of $1.5 million, according to Baseball Reference. He put in a couple of solid years as a backup after a lot of guys in his situation would have given up entirely. At the very least, he gives the Pirates solid defense even if the offense is abysmal.
Normally, when you look three deep at catcher heading into spring training, you feel pretty good about your situation. Then, third string and backup-in-waiting Elias Diaz goes down with an elbow situation. He avoided Tommy John surgery, which has the same recovery time for catchers as it would for their battery mates. Then, Francisco Cervelli popped his hamate bone on an awkward swing, sending him the disabled list for a minimum of four weeks. He’ll be able to play through his recovery after that point, but those injuries often sap players of their power for a considerable time afterwards. Finally, Chris Stewart has been accumulating injuries like an old spinster with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder collects cats. In a perfect world, he’d get assigned to the disabled list himself. In this world, he’s on the bench hoping like hell something bad doesn’t happen to Kratz so he doesn’t have to squat.
The Pirates had other conceivable internal options. Jacob Stallings was a surprise callup, but he’s really struggling with the bat in Indy. I honestly thought his only shot in Pittsburgh this year was if nepotism prevails and his dad got him a job on Pitt’s baseball staff. My first thought was moving John Jaso to catcher and inserting Josh Bell at first. I was wondering why his name never came up in the conversation and then I looked at his defensive stats in 2014. They’re Rod Barajas-like. Even now, Sean Rodriquez is the emergency option despite his wonderfully dreadlocked teammate playing the position for years. After his hot start, I thought Reese McGuire might be a way outside of the box solution, but he has cooled significantly in June.
In truth, the Pirates went three deep at the catching position with Stallings as a potential desperation move preseason. Going beyond that isn’t an issue you frequently need to fret about and it’s even rarer still when that fourth guy needs to start. Unfortunately, lightning has struck twice for the Bucs in five years, as they had to dig deep in 2011 to find Michael McKenry and really he was option 5 or 6. Having three decent catching options is a reasonable amount of depth and the Pirates have managed that pretty much every year. When you get to four, you really need to get creative.
It’s not out of the question that the Pirates could keep digging like they did in 2011, if Kratz can’t get it going at the plate even a little bit. Ryan Lavarnway and J.P. Arencebia haven’t seen the light of day in Atlanta and Philadelphia, respectively, and could likely be had on the cheap. However, both may require a prospect, even a weak one, in return and that may be less attractive than the cash considerations it required to land Kratz. Audry Perez is having a big year in the Orioles’ system and could be due a real shot in the majors. He has 3 career PAs in the majors to date. Of course, the division leading Orioles may not be interested in dishing out their insurance policy behind the plate. Moving to the Pacific Coast League, the Brewers’ Manny Pina is in a similar situation to Perez. Kevin is intrigued by the Twins’ John Ryan Murphy, who is currently in AAA after a poor start to the 2016 season. Murphy is an ex-Yankees catcher, as the Pirates last three catchers have been, and has options to be sent back to AAA after Cervelli returns. Unfortunately, Michael McKenry’s signed on with the Cardinals and I doubt they feel very sympathetic to the catching problems in Pittsburgh.
To expect the Pirates to have three catchers go down and get on just fine is probably an unreasonable expectation. Kratz is an OK emergency option for a team out of internal ones, but the Pirates will likely need to move on to someone else if he continues to under produce. There are a handful of options out there, but none is likely great nor are they likely to steal our hearts the way McKenry once did. The Pirates best hope is for Stewart to get healthy fast to at least minimize the struggles until Cervelli can resume the bulk of the work. Until then, fans will need to accept it and avoid blaming anyone for the catching. You’d sound pretty unreasonable if you did.