You know what? I'm tired of being negative about this off-season. I still don't think that things are going to play out terribly well for the Pirates this winter, but I also don't think I've done a good job of making it clear that I don't think the Pirates are breaking up the 1927 Yankees again. Ronny Cedeno and Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm and Garrett Jones (should he be non-tendered) are all replaceable. They're not All-Stars. They might be the best the Pirates can do for 2012, but doesn't just thinking that make you feel dirty? I hope the Pirates can do better. So let's sit down and think of ways Neal Huntington might be able to improve this team this winter, because otherwise, it's going to be an awful and negative off-season.
Here's reality: Mike McKenry and Matt Pagnozzi are probably going to be the Pirates' starting catching platoon in April 2012 and even if the Pirates can upgrade on that duo, it'll like be marginal. The Bucs will offer Ryan Doumit arbitration and he'll turn it down to go be a catcher/DH in the American League. They won't offer Chris Snyder arbitration because they're rightly afraid of his bad back forcing him to accept, then only play 30 games again 2012. They won't make a serious trade for a catcher because Tony Sanchez isn't all that far away from the Majors and despite his terrible 2011, they can't be ready to give up on him yet. They won't sign Ramon Hernandez, because they won't give up a second round pick to sign a soon-to-be 36 year old catcher that never topped 352 plate appearances in his three years with the Reds to a one-year deal.
There's been some talk of the Pirates trading with the Yankees for Francisco Cervelli, but ... I dunno. I just don't think that Cervelli provides a big enough upgrade on what they have to justify giving up much of anything for him. He'd probably be better than McKenry and Pagnozzi, but not hugely so and if the Yankees want anything other than an organizational minor leaguer with maybe a hint of upside, I'm not sure it's worth it.
The Pirates could also look to the free agent market beyond Hernandez, of course, but it's a pretty thin market this winter. Rod Barajas can still thump the ball a little bit (17 homers in 339 plate appearances with the Mets and Dodgers last year) and his defense probably isn't bad, but he's also 36 and he's not getting younger and he'll likely give you an OBP below .300. They'll almost certainly be interested in Kelly Shoppach, who the Rays just let loose by declining his option. Shoppach, you may recall, was supposed to be part of the legendary "Jason Bay for Cliff Lee" trade that never happened and maybe was discussed and maybe was as real as Bigfoot. That means he's from the Indians and he did overlap with Neal Huntington just a bit after he was traded from Boston in January 2006. He used to be a pretty good prospect (Baseball America's #74 in 2004) and he had a pretty good year with the Tribe in 2008, hitting .261/.348/.517 with 21 homers in 403 PAs, but he's fallen off of a table since then. He can't hit right-handed pitching at all, which is a problem since, you know, most pitchers are right-handed. He is, however, a strong defensive catcher according to Matt Klaasen's rankings at Beyond the Box Score. You can't say that about anyone that played catcher for the Pirates last year, not even Mike McKenry (the Fort scored about eight runs worse than Shoppach in a similar amount of playing time).
So Shoppach might be worth a look, if only to shore up the defense behind the plate and to split time with McKenry, taking all of the starts against lefties and some of the starts against righties and maybe giving the Pirates some pop behind the plate. It wouldn't be ideal, but it woud be a short-term solution until Sanchez is ready if you're the sort of person that thinks that Sanchez will ever be ready. I'm not really sure about Sancehz at this point, personally, but given his huge weight-loss in 2010 I'm willing to give him a shot to play out of his funk in 2012 before writing him off entirely.
The other option is the internal one: let Eric Fryer battle it out with Pagnozzi and McKenry. He's got a very strong defensive reputation and he can get himself on base pretty well. He didn't hit with much pop in Indianapolis after his demotion last year but he's generally shown some in the past. He's really, really hard to get a read on because of glacial ascent through the Brewers, Yankees, and Pirates systems, but he's definitely shown flashes of being able to hit here and there and, as mentioned, he might be a better defensive option than McKenry or Pagnozzi. At the very least, giving up an extended shot early in the year in Pittsburgh will give the Pirates an idea of if he's a viable backup or a real option if Sanchez doesn't come around or if he's nothing at all. In other words, I'm sure that McKenry and Pagnozzi will be bad, but I'm less sure that Fryer will be so.
The bottom line is this: the Pirates can't replace Ryan Doumit's bat behind the plate this year and with Sanchez (plus Ramon Cabrera and Carlos Paulino behind him) they're unlikely to look for anything other than a stopgap. With the benefit of an entire winter, they can probably find a stopgap better than the one they found in the middle of the season last year (McKenry), but hoping for a lot more isn't likely. Maybe they best they can do for now is to find a guy with either a little bit of on base ability or a little bit of pop that will shore the position up defensively. At the very least that would offset the loss of Doumit's bat a little bit, because he's generally accepted to be one of the worst defensive catchers in the league.
Re: schuleg's point about Jaramillo -- I thought he was also an option for 2012, albeit not a very exciting one.
And Pat -- FWIW Bigfoot does in fact exist, I've seen it with my own two eyes. It lives just northwest of St. Louis in Hazelwood, MO.
RE: sanchez - putting eggs in one basket is about as foolhardy a plan as a team can concoct. Not long ago the Texas Rangers had a bevy of catching prospects (Teagarden the defender, Ramirez the hitter, Laird the overall) percolating in the upper minors. All three washed out to a large extent, some dramatically, some less so (Laird still has value as a backup). There is no absolute for a prospect - ever. Holding a spot for a player and assuming he will make it is attrociously stupid.
What the Pirates should do is find the best catcher possible and if Sanchez proves a productive player (converting that potential to production) then they will have a pleasant problem on their hands.
And what, no Jaramillo in the mix?
Well, you have a point...but who is the best catcher in this market? It's probably Hernandez, but it's not a given that he's worth the draft pick as compensation, and how agressive do you want to be in the trade market when you still have Sanchez close to the majors? Is there a catcher out there who's worth a Marte or one of the young arms? it's not a matter of putting all your eggs in one basket asmuch as it is a matter of risk and reward.
Best catcher on the FA market? Maybe Hernandez, although he is weak defensively and aging, not a good combination.
My point above all remains - Sanchez may or may not be close. Penciling him in for anything other than a repeat of AA (although they will promote him to AAA, more than likely) is foolhardy.
And yes, if the Pirates can acquire a better catcher and it costs Marte, for example, then I say do it. A major league quality catcher is worth more than an OF unless that OF is a superstar. Marte, in my opinion, does not appear to be a five-star prospect, so he's available.
I'm not sure that's a table Shoppach has fallen off of; that's a full-gainer from the Wile E. Coyote School of Cliff Diving.