As we mentioned near the tail end of last week’s post, you can never have enough pitching. But as the Pirates gear up for this year’s draft, which will take place in about three weeks, a look at their prospects list reveals at least a small handful of pitchers who might turn out to be bona fide major league starters one day.
It’s tough to say the same thing about another key position: catcher.
I’ve followed the Pirates for well over 50 years, and while there certainly have been dead periods when it came to catching prospects, I can’t remember a more moribund period than now.
It wasn’t all that long ago – 2013, to be precise – that the Bucs had a highly regarded catching prospect – left-handed hitting Reese McGuire, who was the 14th pick overall in that year’s draft out of Kentwood High School in Covington, Wash.
McGuire worked his way up to Class AA Altoona in 2016 and was hitting .259 with a .683 OPS before being dealt to Toronto in the much-maligned Francisco Liriano salary dump deal. McGuire performed well in 2017 in the Blue Jays system and spent most of the last two years in Triple-A Buffalo, earning a late-season promotion to Toronto last year, where he batted .299 with an .872 OPS in 97 at-bats for the Blue Jays.
McGuire figured to give the Blue Jays one of the better young catching tandems in baseball with Danny Jansen, but his progress could be halted by his arrest for indecent exposure during spring training in Dunedin, Florida. He was expected to appear in court last month on that misdemeanor charge, but a hearing for the case was postponed until June 25 due to the coronavirus.
For a while, it appeared the Pirates would not miss McGuire. That’s because they had Elias Diaz waiting in the wings. Many thought that Diaz, regarded as a capable defensive catcher with some hitting potential, could step in and become the Bucs’ everyday backstop once Francisco Cervelli’s reign behind the plate had run its course.
That line of thinking appeared to have merit based on Diaz’ 2018 season, when he hit a solid .286 with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs in 252 at-bats. But the 29-year-old Venezuelan was sidelined with a mysterious illness last spring and never got untracked, as he saw his OPS fall from .792 in 2018 to .603 in 303 at-bats. The Pirates saw enough and said goodbye to Diaz, who ended up as a non-roster invitee with Colorado this spring.
Now, the catching cupboard is bare. Jacob Stallings, long an afterthought in terms of catching prospects, has somehow ascended to everyday status in the big leagues, and while he seems to be a capable defender and handler of pitchers, his offensive potential is limited. Backing up Stallings will be either Luke Maile or John Ryan Murphy. Ouch.
While Stallings doesn’t exactly strike fear in the heart of the opposition, the club’s catching depth in the minor leagues appears even less formidable, at least when it comes to offensive production. Next in line would seem to be 26-year-old Christian Kelley, an 11th-round draft pick in 2015 from Cal Poly Pomona. In parts of five seasons in the minors, Kelley owns a .229 batting average and .617 OPS, and his numbers at Triple-A Indianapolis last year (.179 batting average and a .533 OPS in 252 at-bats) did not scream top prospect.
Behind Kelley is Jason Delay, 25, a fourth-round draft pick in 2017 from Vanderbilt who reached Double-A Altoona last year, where he batted .234 with a .684 OPS. At least he showed some pop by hitting eight home runs and driving in 37 in 231 at-bats. Delay essentially split time at Altoona with Arden Pabst, also 25, who managed a .540 OPS in 250 at-bats.
There are others, of course, but none seem to jump off the page. Deon Stafford, a fifth-round selection from St. Joseph’s in 2017, spent last year at High-A Bradenton and wound up with a .660 OPS with six home runs and 32 RBIs while Grant Koch, another fifth-round pick in 2018 from Arkansas, worked behind the plate at Low-A Greensboro a year ago, hitting .202 with an .591 OPS in 337 at-bats.
Obviously the offensive numbers for a catcher are only a small part of the story, as more emphasis than ever has been placed on pitch framing and other defensive skills in recent years. And I won’t claim to know just how gifted any of these prospects are when it comes to that part of the game.
But it seems clear that the system is void of any high-level catching prospects. None of the club’s top 30 prospects, according to MLB.com, is a catcher, and the same goes for Baseball America (subscription), which rates Kelley as the system’s best defensive catcher.
All of which leads us to the June 10 draft, which appears to be a strong one for catching. The Pirates have three of the top 44 selections, and while I would not be opposed to seeing two of those spent on pitching, I would wholeheartedly support taking the highest-rated catcher remaining on the board with either the 44th pick or perhaps their fourth pick, which is No. 80 overall.
Baseball America’s highest-rated catching prospect is Patrick Bailey, a 6-foot-2, 192-pound switch-hitter from North Carolina State, who is the publication’s 14th-ranked prospect overall and likely will be gone if the Pirates pass on him with their top pick at No. 7. Four notches behind Bailey overall is Tyler Soderstrom, a 6-foot-2 left-handed hitter who has a power bat, but not everyone is convinced he will remain behind the plate. Baseball America’s third-rated catcher is Austin Wells, a University of Arizona product who is the 21st-ranked prospect overall.
One name linked to the Pirates is Ohio State product Dillon Dingler, who has the body type at 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds to take the punishment behind the plate. He also appears to have plenty of athleticism, as he spent part of his freshman year in Columbus playing center field before being used primarily as a catcher in 2019.
One last possibility is Drew Romo, a switch-hitting LSU commit from The Woodlands, Texas. He’s BA’s 38th-rated prospect overall and second-best high school catching prospect behind Soderstrom.
I’m no scout, and I generally side with those who say it’s a mistake to draft based on positional need, but based on the profiles the Pirates have at catcher in their system, it might be time to use a relatively high pick on someone who has the potential to solidify the catching position for a number of years. I can only take watching Jacob Stallings for so long.