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Bucs need to upgrade behind the plate

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Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The 2020 season certainly provided challenges for players and organizations as a whole, but one of the scary things is, there’s no telling if 2021 will be more of the same, or a return to what we came to know as normalcy.

I’d like to think that as soon as the World Series ends, baseball will retreat into a “normal” offseason and reemerge in mid-February with those four magic words: pitchers and catchers report. But who knows? What if the coronavirus’ hold on us doesn’t let up, and no effective vaccine is developed to bring an end to the pandemic?

That’s, as I say, a scary thought. It might be the way things ultimately turn out, and perhaps our 2021 season will be a continuation of this one, with teams playing before either no fans or just a handful as the MLB tries to run through the COVID raindrops.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s put those thoughts aside and assume all will be right with the world – at least the baseball world – come springtime. So, let’s focus on one of the many ways the Pirates can improve their club: bolster the catcher position.

At the risk of sparking a backlash of criticism, I’m just not all that enamored of Jacob Stallings. Yes, I know he gets high marks for his pitch framing and his defense in general, and he even earned praise for his offensive production in 2020. I’m not saying that he’s not a decent catcher – there’s just something about him that fails to move me. I don’t know if it’s his body language – his lack of “fire” – that rubs me the wrong way, but whether he’s at the plate or behind it, I’m never saying to myself, “Yes, we’re lucky to run Jacob Stallings out there five days a week.” Still, I realize that top-shelf catching in general seems to be in extremely short supply, and that Stallings doesn’t embarrass himself or the club when he goes out there. So, if I have to live with him as my mostly everyday catcher, it won’t ruin my world. I will begrudgingly accept his 1.1 WAR (FanGraphs) from 2020, his 28% strikeout rate and his .702 OPS, and hope that he can miraculously sustain his .337 BABIP going forward.

But if I had my way, this would be the winter that the Pirates would search for a legitimate partner for Stallings – someone who can help turn the position into a certifiable plus. That guy isn’t John Ryan Murphy, and he’s not Luke Maile, either.

In looking to bolster the catching position, the Bucs should look west — to the Bay Area.

I’m thinking Oakland, specifically. The one thing the Pirates have is a glut of middle infielders in Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Erik Gonzalez and Adam Frazier. The first three of those names are capable of playing at least a decent shortstop, although Newman struggled in the field this season. And the one thing Oakland will need in 2021 is a shortstop.

Marcus Semien has held down the position full time for the past six seasons, but he is entering free agency, and there is virtually no way the A’s, whose ownership is just about as penurious as the Pirates’ Bob Nutting, will be willing to part with the amount of money that Semien will command on the open market. Granted, that amount might not be as large as it figured to be, pre-COVID and before Semien’s robust .892 OPS in 2019 shrank to .679 in 2020, but it’s still going to be more than A’s owner John J. Fisher is willing to spend.

And if you look at Oakland’s 40-man, there is nary a shortstop among the bunch, which means the A’s will need to go shopping this winter. A look at that roster also will reveal Oakland is harboring three capable young catchers in starter Sean Murphy (26) and backups Austin Allen (27 next season) and Jonah Heim (turns 26 at the end of June). I’m not sure what the A’s have to gain by continuing to keep all three catchers, and it looks like Sean Murphy isn’t going anywhere. So if I’m Ben Cherington, I make a play for Heim, offering Newman in return. Maybe Oakland gambles that Newman regains his 2019 form, and in giving up Heim, they’re not leaving themselves uncovered behind the plate.

Stallings and Heim – or even Stallings and Allen – would be an upgrade over Stallings and either of the two backups the Pirates currently have on their roster. And if they were able to get either one of them for Newman, I’d call that a win for the Pirates.

When Ben Cherington was hired as the Bucs’ general manager nearly a year ago, one of the things I remember him saying is that the team needed to work to get better “every day.” Upgrading the catching position is one way to do that.