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Bucs’ catching picture not exactly bright

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates-Media Day Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

For some time now, I’ve been lamenting the lack of catching prospects in the Pirates minor league system. Last year, I was banging the drum for Ben Cherington to acquire former Oakland prospect Jonah Heim, but that ship sailed recently when the A’s sent him to Texas as part of the Khris Davis-for-Elvis Andrus trade.

Cherington did snag an intriguing catching prospect this winter, acquiring Endy Rodriguez as part of the three-way deal with San Diego and New York that saw Joe Musgrove head west. The Padres technically sent pitcher Joey Lucchesi to the Pirates, but they quickly passed him on to the Mets in exchange for Rodriguez.

It’s hard to dislike that deal, given the paucity of Pirates’ young catching hopefuls. But we’ll likely be waiting for some time before we see Rodriguez. He won’t turn 21 until late May, and he hasn’t yet advanced beyond Rookie League ball. That’s where he spent a portion of the 2019 season with the Mets’ affiliate, hitting hit .293/.847 in 75 at-bats.

Rodriguez immediately became the Pirates’ top catching prospect after joining the organization, but those in the prospect ranking business seem to have differing views on his potential. He doesn’t rank among the club’s Top 30 prospects according to Baseball America, but MLB.com has him at No. 22 and Keith Law of The Athletic has him slotted in at No. 13 in his rankings of the Bucs’ Top 20 prospects.

Law describes Rodriguez as a “very good catch-and-throw guy with some life in his bat.” Law grades him as having a solid floor as a backup while FanGraphs rates his future value at 40 on the 20-80 scale – a bench player. However, Law did tab Rodriguez as his second sleeper pick for 2021, so he’ll be worth keeping an eye on when the minor league season gets under way in May for teams below the Triple-A level.

Law’s assessment of Rodriguez isn’t exactly glowing, but it appears to be brighter than any other catching hopeful in the upper levels of the Pirates system. That group consists of four right-handed hitters: Jason Delay, Christian Kelley, Arden Pabst and Deon Stafford. The club has other catchers in the organization but those four have advanced the furthest in their respective climbs through the minor league system, and the first three are non-roster invitees to Bradenton.

Delay, a 5-foot-11, 195-pounder, was the Pirates’ fourth-round pick out of Vanderbilt in the 2017 draft, but he has yet to distinguish himself, at least offensively, in the minors. Delay, who turns 26 on March 7, hit .247 with a .627 OPS at High-A Bradenton in 2018 and in 2019 slugged eight home runs, drove in 37 and batted .234/.684 in 231 at-bats for Altoona in Class AA.

Those aren’t terrible numbers, by any means, but it’s not like we’re looking at the next Buster Posey. Next on the list is Kelley, a 5-10, 190-pounder who will play this season as a 27-year-old. Kelley, chosen in the 11th round of the 2015 draft out of Cal Poly Pomona, is one rung ahead of Delay. In 2019, he logged a .179 batting average and a .533 OPS in 252 at-bats at Triple-A Indianapolis. He never hit much in his two previous minor league stops — .235/.675 in 311 at-bats at Altoona in 2018 and .243/.635 at Bradenton in 2017.

Pabst, at 6-1 and 210 pounds, is exactly one week younger than Delay. He was taken in the 12th round of the 2016 draft out of Georgia Tech. He split time with Delay at Altoona in 2019, hitting .192/.540 in 250 at-bats. That came after a solid offensive season the previous year at Bradenton, where he batted .281/.832 in 171 at-bats.

Stafford, selected one round after the Pirates chose Delay in 2017, turns 25 next month. He last played regularly in 2019, when he batted 275 times at High-A Bradenton and hit .229/.660 with six homers and 32 RBIs. The year before at West Virginia of the South Atlantic League, the 5-11, 211-pound Stafford showed some pop with 11 homers and 49 RBIs in 344 at-bats.

Obviously the offensive numbers are only part of the story when evaluating catching prospects. It’s difficult to gauge the defensive side of the ball; FanGraphs offers a glimpse by providing passed-ball and caught-stealing numbers. At Indy, Kelley allowed three passed balls in 648 innings, was charged with six errors and gunned down 23 of 80 would-be base stealers (29%). At Altoona, Delay was charged with eight passed balls and three errors and threw out 17 of 71 runners attempting to steal (24%) in 565 1/3 innings. Pabst had seven passed balls at Altoona but just one error in 633 1/3 innings and nabbed 20 of 57 runners (35%). Stafford made seven errors and was charged with six passed balls in 598 1/3 innings at Bradenton while throwing out 14 of 79 base stealers (15%).

Those numbers – like many – should be taken with a grain of salt, as we have no idea how adept their pitchers were at holding runners, what the game situations were, etc.

All of these numbers don’t provide much in the way of clarification in terms of who might be behind home plate once Jacob Stallings moves on, at least in the short-term. Perhaps one of these four will serve as a capable stop-gap measure until Rodriguez is ready to take over. All I know is, I got spoiled in a big way as a young Pirate fan watching Manny Sanguillen operate behind home plate. During his eight-year run as the Pirates’ everyday starting catcher from 1969 through 1976 – except for an ill-fated run of 59 games in 1973 as the Pirates’ right fielder following the death of Roberto Clemente — Sanguillen averaged 135 games, 507 at-bats, seven homers, 62 RBIs, a .303 batting average and a .745 OPS. He averaged just 23 walks a season during the stretch, but also struck out only 34 times a season. Younger Pirates fans might prefer Jason Kendall; I was living on the West Coast for his entire career, so I can’t speak to his day-in, day-out effort. But his numbers during his nine years as a Pirate certainly were solid for a catcher.

Maybe 30 years from now, Pirates fans will be talking about Endy Rodriguez the same way. A guy’s gotta dream, right?