The Decline of the Catching Position Under Neal Huntington

I brought up the dark days of Rod Barajas yesterday in breaking down the Pirates’ 2020 season behind the plate.

The Pirates got much better production, thanks to the unexpected emergence of Jacob Stallings as a starting catcher. But there’s something about the future of the position that reminds me of that Barajas era.

When Barajas took over, the Pirates were waiting on Tony Sanchez to step up as a starting catching candidate. They also had Ramon Cabrera and Eric Fryer in the system as top prospects and potential future backup catchers. The hopes were solely on Sanchez.

Following the 2012 season, the Pirates were still waiting on Sanchez, who had started to develop some throwing issues akin to the yips. The Pirates were now watching 2012 second round pick Wyatt Mathisen, along with Taiwan catcher Jin-De Jhang, and an emerging catcher named Elias Diaz. The prospect group was improving, but it all hinged on Sanchez, and the club felt that Russell Martin was their best bet going forward. By the time Francisco Cervelli came around, the idea that Sanchez could be a starter with the Pirates was long gone, and the attention had shifted to Reese McGuire, Diaz, and Jhang.

Not long after Cervelli was extended, the Pirates no longer had Sanchez or McGuire in the system. Diaz was emerging as a potential starting candidate, fueled by his defense. Jhang was still in the system. Stallings was one of the top five catching prospects in the system. Christian Kelley had also emerged as a potentially better version of Stallings.

Fast forward to now. Diaz and Jhang are gone. Stallings remained and worked out in 2020. But the farm system is as bare as ever.

The top catching prospects in the system are an interchangeable group that includes Christian Kelley, Jason Delay, Arden Pabst, Deon Stafford, and Eli Wilson. The upside for any one of those guys is a backup catcher. The hope for any one of those guys is that they could pull a Stallings and be good enough defensively while being not so bad offensively to warrant a starting role.

Kelley is the best bet in my view, just based on watching him over the years managing his pitching staffs, and seeing similarities to the way Stallings does things. Arden Pabst is very similar. Jason Delay might be the best sleeper candidate in terms of having a combo of passable offense and MLB quality defense. Deon Stafford has the best offensive skills, but ranks lower defensively. Eli Wilson is fairly new, and had good enough offense in the lower levels, but is largely untested.

When the Pirates moved on from Barajas, they looked at their system — a system that included catching prospects who could become starting catchers in the majors — and they felt they couldn’t rely on that system. They turned to Russell Martin, while waiting for the system to produce Martin’s replacement.

When Martin’s replacement was needed, and the system hadn’t produced anyone, the Pirates turned to Cervelli.

When Cervelli entered the second and final year of his original term with the Pirates, they extended him, again feeling the farm system didn’t have enough, at a time when they had former first round picks dropping off the prospect ranks like flies.

They had Elias Diaz step up when Cervelli went down with injuries, but Diaz didn’t reach his expectations, opening the door for Stallings.

Now the Pirates have Stallings as their catcher. He’s going to be 31 years old for the 2021 season. He has half a season of success in the majors, and it’s the type of success you want to improve upon in the long-term.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any improvements in the minors. At best, you’re looking at a different version of Stallings, with the same outcome of defense first and enough offense to play everyday. Perhaps Kelley can emerge as a solid combo with Stallings, and take over the top role. Perhaps the Pirates can perpetually piecemeal together a catching combo of defensive backup types who are good for backups, but not quite good enough to start.

When the Pirates switched to Barajas, they were switching away from a string of catchers who were home grown. They had years of Ryan Doumit, Ronny Paulino, and others. These guys weren’t the best at actual catching, or hitting. But they could at least justify their way to the majors and their place in the majors for multiple years.

That went away by the time Barajas came around. The catcher well dried up, but it was in the process of drying at that point.

The Pirates under Neal Huntington used first round picks in 2009 and 2013 on catchers. They used a second round pick in 2012. They gave out the biggest bonus in Taiwan baseball history to a catcher. Throughout all of this, the best catcher they developed was a defense first, on the fringe between backup and starter, not a long-term solution catcher.

Underneath that, they developed a farm system filled with Stallings types.

And now we’re in the age of Jacob Stallings.

It might not always be Stallings behind the plate for the Pirates. It will be a catcher just like Stallings, unless they can get someone from the outside. They shouldn’t rule that out, as Stallings would make an amazing backup to a potentially better long-term option. But so far their reaches to the outside have yielded a Stallings type catcher in Michael Perez.

It’s going to be a challenge for Ben Cherington to rebuild the catching depth in this organization. It’s an area that has been thinned out over many years for the Pirates, patched over by the savvy moves at the MLB level to bring in Martin and Cervelli. Those former Yankees are gone, and a former Pirates prospect is behind the plate. Maybe Cherington can get a better former Yankee to take over for Stallings. If he can’t do that, he needs to find a better Pirates prospect to eventually upgrade the Pirates’ catching position.