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Bucs should take catcher in Rule 5 draft

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Milwaukee Brewers Photo Day Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Regular readers – if any exist – might note that I’m a bit worried about the state of the Pirates’ catching corps. In a nutshell, beyond Jacob Stallings – who has performed much better than I ever imagined – the organization seems bereft of any legitimate backstop prospects. According to Baseball America, none of the club’s top 30 prospects can be found behind the plate, and that’s a shortcoming that must be addressed – and soon.

The avenues through which the Pirates could land their catcher of the future are obvious – trade for one, sign one in free agency, draft one in June or sign an international prospect. There is a fifth avenue, and one that will come around in a little more than a week: the Rule 5 draft.

This year’s draft will take place Dec. 10, during which clubs will have the opportunity to dip into a pool of prospects who – according to MLB.com — fall into two main categories: those who signed at age 18 or younger and who have not been added to their organization’s 40-man rosters within five seasons, or those 19 or older who haven’t been added to their club’s roster within four seasons.

If the Pirates – or any other team – choose a player in the Rule 5 draft, they must pay that player’s team $100,000 and keep that player on the major league roster through the entire 2021 season or offer the player back to his previous organization for $50,000. Or, the two clubs could work out a trade arrangement that would allow the selecting team to keep the prospect and send him to the minors for further seasoning.

The Pirates, given their horrific 19-41 mark during the 2020 season, will select first in this year’s Rule 5 draft. According to Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a team with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft has never passed on that opportunity to add a player to its roster.

So, given that track record – and the aforementioned paucity of catching prospects – perhaps it would be wise for the Bucs to select the best young catching prospect available and stash him as a third option behind Stallings and Michael Perez, the former Tampa Bay Ray who was claimed off waivers at the end of last month. I realize that roster spots are precious, but it’s not like the Pirates will need every spot to compete for the playoffs. Now might be the perfect time to take a chance on a young prospect, essentially hide him for a year and – if need be – let him go back to the minors in 2022 to continue his development toward a real major league job.

It’s not likely that scores of potential elite catching prospects are swimming in the player pool that will be available in next week’s Rule 5 draft. But a couple of names are at least worth considering.

After consulting MLB.com, three catchers who rank among their respective club’s top 15 prospects were not added to those teams’ 40-man rosters by the Nov. 20 deadline and are available in the Rule 5 draft: Washington’s Israel Pineda (No. 14), Milwaukee’s Payton Henry (No. 15) and St. Louis’ Julio E. Rodriguez (No. 15). Each offers something a little different and is at a different stage of development. All received the same overall scouting grade from MLB.com: 45 on the 20-80 scale. Pineda and Henry are given grades of 40 by FanGraphs while Rodriguez is not rated.

Pineda is the youngest of the three and therefore would seem to be the longest shot in terms of sticking in the majors all season. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound right-handed hitter turns 21 in early April and hasn’t played above Class A’s South Atlantic League, where he spent the 2019 season. He hardly took that league by storm; he batted just .217 with a .583 OPS and struck out 102 times in 378 at-bats. Still, MLB.com projects him as an average hitter with some pop who could produce double-digit home run totals in the big leagues. Defensively, the website noted that Pineda is far from a polished product but notes that he has a plus-arm and, given that he’s just 21, he has time to develop the other needed catching skills. MLB.com rates his scouting grades as follows: hit, 50; field, 50; power, 45; and arm, 60.

Although Henry has the same overall grade, a few of the other numbers differ. A former two-time Utah state player of the year as a high schooler, he signed with the Brewers after being chosen in the sixth round of the 2016 draft. He’s a 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-handed hitter who turns 24 in late June of 2021. MLB.com rates his scouting grades as hit, 40; field, 55: power, 50; and arm, 55. Henry spent the 2019 season in the high-A Carolina League, where he batted .242 with a .711 OPS. He showed some power, slugging 14 homers in 430 at-bats after hitting 10 the previous season in the Midwest League, although just one of his 14 homers went to left field – his pull side – in 2019. Like Pineda, he has amassed some noteworthy strikeout totals, as he fanned 142 times in his most recent full season. Some observers, though, believe that as he learns to recognize pitches better, he will cut down on his chases, and his overall offensive numbers will improve. Defensively, MLB.com characterized his throwing arm as strong and accurate, noting that he threw out 38% of would-be base stealers in 2019, and described him as athletic and agile behind the plate.

Rodriguez, who turns 24 in early June, stands 6-foot and weighs 245. A right-handed hitter, MLB.com grades him at hit, 45; field, 55; power, 40; and arm, 60. He signed a bit later than most international prospects, joining the Cardinals organization at age 19 out of the Dominican Republic. He spent most of the 2019 season in the high-A Florida State League, where he batted .276 with a .727 OPS in 268 at-bats with Palm Beach. Rodriguez hit seven home runs, drove in 31 and earned a promotion to Springfield of the Class AA Texas League, where he hit .222 with a .566 OPS in 45 at-bats. MLB.com rates his arm as “plus” and notes his accuracy as well as his footwork, quick release and his ability to handle pitchers.

So, would it make sense to take a shot at one of these three catching prospects? I can’t begin to know what the Pirates are thinking, but I’m guessing they’ll pass on the catching prospects and instead opt for the highest-rated available pitching prospect. It would be somewhat easy to stash a bullpen arm, using him in long relief or blowout games – of which there likely will be plenty in 2021. But at some point, the club does need to bolster its backstop ranks. I can’t see Stallings being the answer for too much longer – and right now the cupboard of catching prospects is bare.