Last season during the Pirates merry-go-round of catcher auditions, an unknown player was trust into the limelight with virtually no major league experience. He quickly caught on with Pirates fans due to his blue-collar approach and knack for coming up with clutch hits when the Bucs really needed them. Michael McKenry was acquired from the Boston Red Sox on June 13, 2011, and within 24 hours he was making his Pirates debut against the Houston Astros. Buried in a Red Sox system that was filled with veterans and lower-tier prospects, the opportunity to come to the Pirates and jump straight to the major leagues was probably the best thing that could have happened to the then 26-year old catcher.
McKenry is a throwback to the days when catchers could carve out long major league careers based entirely off of their defensive ability, despite a lack of power or all-star ability at the plate. Before the Mike Piazzas and Brian McCanns of the world, catchers were mostly appreciated for their ability to handle a pitching staff and be rock solid behind the dish. As McKenry showed in 2011, he is a solid defensive catcher – earning the nickname “The Fort” – and has a flair for the dramatic, as his first major league homerun on July 8th against the Cubs would prove. While McKenry will probably never be a player who a team will rely on for 450+ PA, he has earned the right to start 2012 as the Pirates back-up to newly signed starter Rod Barajas. The combination of the two should give the Pirates their best 1-2 tandem behind the plate since the “Spanky and Sluggo” combo of the early 1990’s. With minimal major league experience, there is still hope that his bat could catch up to his defensive skills and the Pirates may have stolen a solid player from the BoSox.
This spring, McKenry has shared time behind the plate with Barajas, Jake Fox, Eric Fryer, and prospect Tony Sanchez. He has only had 15 PA thus far, and is hitting .200 with 1 RBI. As a whole, the Pirates catching contingent has not hit all that well in camp, but both Barajas and McKenry are safe in their positions and barring injury will be packing their bags for Pittsburgh in the coming weeks. On a team that lacks major star power outside of CF Andrew McCutchen, role players will need to be a big part of any successful Pirates campaign in 2012. McKenry is a guy that fans should keep an eye on, already a favorite backstop for many of the Pirates young pitchers, he would be the defacto starting catcher should Barajas not live up to expectations or loses time to injury.
“The Fort” will be back in “The Burgh” this summer, and fans in Pittsburgh may have another unlikely hero to cheer for at PNC Park as the Pirates zero in on their most promising season in years.