Rod Barajas: Signed in the offseason Barajas will assume the role as the regular starting catcher in 2012. He has some durability issues so I expect him to start between 90 and 100 games. He will do his job of helping out the pitchers and giving some power to the bottom of the lineup (I’ll predict 14 HR). However is poor on base skills will prove to be frustrating as the season goes along and he will begin to lose playing time to other alternatives. It is possible that if a contending team develops a need for a catcher he could be moved at the deadline but I expect him to remain with the team for the duration of the season (except for the occasionally DL stint). His 2013 option will not be exercised at the end of the season.
Michael McKenry: McKenry will manage to edge out Jose Morales for the backup catching position but his playing time at first will be minimal. There will be sentiment amongst the fan base for him to receive the regular starts but his bat will simply not play. The power he displayed in the minors will not be seen this season but he will continue with the solid defense. I expect we will see his bat stay at about the same level it is currently meaning his OBP will be around .300 and his SLG will be around .350. The lack of bat will keep him out of the Pirates plans for the starting catcher job but his defense and handling of the pitching staff will allow him to hold down the backup job.
MINOR LEAGUE DEPTH
Jose Morales: Morales will compete with McKenry for the backup catcher job in Spring Training and this will be a real competition but in the end he will lose out and head to AAA to serve as the backup catcher. He does have an opt out clause but since he has another one later in the season I believe he will opt not to exercise the first and go to AAA. Morales’s bat plays better than McKenry but his defense is behind and McKenry’s familiarity with the staff puts him at a disadvantage. I expect Morales to receive a call up some point before his second opt out date and he will have a decent showing but will not remain on the roster.
Eric Fryer: I have rather high expectations of Fryer but I do not think the Pirates share my thought process. I am assuming Tony Sanchez will start the season in AA leaving the AAA catching job to Morales and Fryer. Hopefully if that is the case, Fryer will receive the majority of the playing time. Fryer’s defense behind the plate is good enough to be a starting catcher, in fact he is probably the best of all the upper level catchers at throwing out potential base stealers. His bat has always shown potential and I think this season will be no different as he should post solid AAA numbers. The Pirates will overlook his production and keep him down in AAA longer than he should be and sometime in June Sanchez will be promoted pushing Fryer to a reserve role. Somehow some way I expect Fryer to get a chance and have a good enough showing where the Pirates will consider going into 2013 with him as the starting catcher.
Tony Sanchez: Sanchez will begin the season in AA as the starting catcher. Last season was only a minor setback and he will rebound this season eventually earning a promotion to AAA. Having rebuilt his strength his power will return and his offensive game will develop. His defense is already strong and it will continue to improve. He probably will not show the type of bat the Pirates first hoped when drafting him but he will do enough this season to reestablish himself as the Pirates catcher of the future.
Ramon Cabrera: Cabrera should start the season in AA but due to the presence of Sanchez his time at catcher will be limited meaning he should see a decent number of at bats as a DH. Cabrera’s bat has never been his problem and he should do fairly well in AA. His stature and defense is what hurts his overall prospect value and obviously he cannot do anything about his stature but he will also have difficulties working on his defense until Sanchez is promoted. Cabrera’s hitting will almost surely take a downturn this year but that should be expected going from a hitter friendly home park to a pitcher one. Overall he should have a solid season and give the Pirates a solid catching prospect to start in AA or AAA next year (depending on how much time he has the starting catcher in AA this season).
Carlos Paulino: Paulino who was acquire last offseason for Jim Negrych had a surprising season in A+ last year and should be moving up to AA, however due to Sanchez being held back he will likely repeat the level. I believe his bat was greatly helped by being in A+ last year so not much can be determined until he gets his chance in AA. My prediction is that he will struggle. Even if his offense dose struggle Carlos Paulino has the defensive tools to make a decent backup in the majors. He will be a work in progress but is a good catcher to have in the system for depth purposes.
Summary: The Pirates will struggle to get good production in the major leagues from their catcher. Barajas is no longer an average major league catcher but will hopefully prove to be at least adequate but I have my doubts. McKenry has the making of being nothing more than a backup and while there is value in that it is lessened by the lack of a strong starter. Although this season’s combination may not prove too successful I foresee brighter days ahead. Eric Fryer should establish himself as a good major league backup and could even prove to be a decent fill in at starter. In reality though the future of the catching position is dependent upon Tony Sanchez and I see him having a good bounce back season. The 2012 season will not be a pretty one for the Pirates catchers but I see brighter days ahead with Fryer and Sanchez waiting in the wings.