The catchers the Pittsburgh Pirates have assembled for 2012 are “out” machines. From what we gather, the team is focused on being defense first at the position with three players in the mix. One look at Rod Barajas defines “defense-first” – at least it did a couple years ago during his eight-year streak of throwing out base stealers at a rate of at least 33% – but regardless of his offensive inabilities, he will be the Bucs’ starter as he is one of the highest paid Pirates.
Michael McKenry will compete with the switch-hitting Jose Morales for the backup catching position for the Pirates. Morales is a line-drive hitter who – unlike Barajas – isn’t afraid to take a walk, but he seriously lacks power.
While throwing out 36% of base runners in a six-year minor league career, McKenry built a strong defensive reputation. But what gets lost is the fact that the 5’9″ McKenry also put up some nice power numbers in the minor leagues. The problem is, it’s been a few years since “Fort McKenry” has been productive at the plate.
He made a splash with his unforgettable big home run at PNC Park last season. The trouble was, he had just one more all season as he collected out after out, piling up 49 strikeouts in his 180 at-bats.
But he needs to be more than just a good story about “an undersized catcher who does a nice job with the staff and sweats a lot” for the Pirates to excel in 2012. He has been working hard this off-season to do just that.
McKenry went to the Florida Instructional League in October and has traveled to Pittsburgh to continue working with Clint Hurdle on finding that stroke that made him so dynamic in the minor leagues.
Because it’s hard to imagine the streaky Barajas making
a tremendous much of any offensive production for the ball club, McKenry is the wildcard. It’s not like McKenry can’t hit for power; he simply hasn’t done it recently. If somehow Hurdle can help McKenry find it, his cult following would certainly grow.
McKenry showed he can handle the pitching staff when he was thrust into the role of the starting catcher for the Bucs. Any sign of an offensive game disappeared in 2010 when he made his Triple-A debut in hitter-friendly Colorado Springs. He had 384 at-bats and struck out 77 times while posting a 752 OPS.
It was the first backward step his offense took as a ballplayer.
It was surprising for the Rockies organization, because in his age 22 season McKenry had an OPS of .931 with 22 homers. When he was 23, McKenry had an OPS of .827 with 18 homers and 28 doubles. He followed that up with an .831 OPS, 12 blasts and 25 doubles.
He was traded to the Red Sox in March after he wasn’t able to beat out Jose Morales (who was out of options at the time) and Matt Pagnozzi for the Rockies catching job in spring training.
The Pirates will be looking for McKenry to build on his “defense-first” 2011 season. A few things would be nice to see. Of course, he needs to win the competition with Jose Morales. It shouldn’t be hard for McKenry to win that battle.
But without some offensive production from McKenry, it’s hard to see the Pirates catching position as upgrading what—on paper –is a weak Pirates offense. It would be amazing to see him earn his “Fort McKenry” nickname rather than what we see as “Fort Necessity.”