Pirates’ Spring Position Battles: Catcher

This is the first of a series on the Pirates’ spring position battles.  Or maybe I should say “battles,” because I’m not sure how many real battles there are going to be.  But we’ll look at every player in camp and see what their short- and long-term significance to the Pirates might be.  We’ll start with the catchers.

The underlying assumption in all of this is that there’ll be something resembling a season this year, not to mention a spring training.

Catcher isn’t exactly a loaded position in the Pirates’ organization.  There’s only one catcher in camp who has the capability to be a major league regular.  Fortunately, he’s a solid one and has four years of control left.  Beyond that, the camp doesn’t offer any clue about the team’s long-term future behind the plate.  The only “battle” will be the Pirates deciding exactly how to get through the 2021 season.

Jacob Stallings:  Stallings has made a career out of being an underdog.  He was a 7th round draft pick as a college senior due to the Pirates’ need to save pool money for their attempt to sign Mark Appel.  He signed for just $10,000.  The Pirates eventually employed him as the AAA emergency catcher; he got outrighted off the 40-man roster not once, not twice, but three times.  Yet now he’s the team’s starting catcher and one of the best defensive backstops in MLB.  His offense is just competent enough, combined with that defense, to make him average or better at the position.  He has only 41 RBIs in the majors, but one-tenth of them have come on walkoff hits.  In 2019, he was 23rd among all catchers in fWAR (1.3) despite getting only 210 plate appearances.  In 2020, he was 11th (1.0).

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  100%

Michael Perez:  The only other catcher on the 40-man roster, Perez came via a waiver claim from Tampa Bay.  He has limited major league experience — 84 games and 228 plate appearances over three years — and hasn’t hit much.  Perez has a career OPS+ of 67, although he was a marginally decent hitter in AAA.  Due to Mike Zunino getting hurt, Perez was the Rays’ most frequent catcher in 2020, but he saw little post-season action during their run to the World Series.  He was horrid at the plate in 2020, batting 167/237/238.  He appears to be solid defensively, but overall, among 58 catchers with 50+ plate appearances in 2020, he ranked 55th in fWAR (-0.5).  Given his roster status, Perez probably has the inside track on the backup catching job, but Stallings better not get hurt.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  80%

Tony Wolters:  Signed to a minor league deal, Wolters spent five seasons with Colorado, the last two as more or less the regular.  He’s an athletic guy who was originally drafted as a middle infielder and has played there a few times in the majors.  He’s very similar to Perez; he has a career OPS+ of 61, but he’s strong defensively, probably more so than Perez.  He’s been especially good at controlling the running game.  Even so, Wolters’ hitting is so bad that he’s been below replacement level in three of his five seasons.  Among those 58 catchers with 50+ PAs in 2020, he ranked 57th, so the Pirates have picked up two of MLB’s four worst catchers from 2020.  Wolters will probably be Perez’ only real competition for the backup job.  Even though he’s the one without a roster spot, he seems like the better of the two, so he may have a chance of winning it.  There also may be a good chance of him opting out of his deal if he doesn’t.  Regardless, Stallings better not get hurt.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  75% if he doesn’t opt out

Andrew Susac:  Susac was with the Pirates last year on a minor league deal and got a courtesy callup at the end of the season.  He was removed from the roster and signed another minor league contract for 2021.  He’s had mostly brief stints in MLB in six seasons, but has also been plagued by wrist and thumb injuries.  He hasn’t had 200 ABs in a season since 2016.  Susac has shown some power at times and probably has the most offensive upside of any of the catchers here except Stallings.  He seems to be pretty solid defensively.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  20% (60% if Perez and Wolters aren’t both in the system)

Joe Hudson:  Signed to a minor league deal for 2021, Hudson is an all-defense catcher.  He’s especially good against the running game, with a 43% CS rate in the minors.  He showed a little power in 2018-19 in the Pacific Coast League, but otherwise has had a rough time at the plate since he reached AA.  He has 30 ABs in the majors.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  10%

Arden Pabst:  A good defensive catcher, Pabst hit very well in half a season in high A in 2018, but was badly overmatched in AA in 2019.  The Pirates didn’t bring him to their training site at Altoona in 2020, so he seems to have fallen behind Jason Delay on the depth chart, although Delay was drafted a year later.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  <10%

Jason Delay:  Another defense-only catcher, the Pirates drafted Delay in the fourth round as a senior and signed him well below slot.  He shared catching duties with Pabst at Altoona in 2019.  Delay hit the better of the two, although all his offense came in May.  He struggled the rest of the year and his career OPS is .654.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  <10%

Christian Kelley:  The Pirates have always liked Kelley’s defense, which is why they’ve given him non-roster invites the last four years.  He’s never hit well and had a really rough time when he got to AAA in 2019, with a .533 OPS in a year when offense exploded due to a juiced ball.  The fact that the team brought in Wolters, Hudson and Susac makes it clear what they think of Kelley, Delay and Pabst.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  <10%