What’s the situation for the Pittsburgh Pirates behind the dish?


For the last two seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates had one of the best backstops in all of Major League Baseball behind the dish in the form of Russell Martin. However, with Martin now a member of the Toronto Blue Jays after signing a five-year, $82 million deal this offseason, the Pirates will have a much different look in 2015 and beyond.

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Over the course of the last two seasons, Martin emerged as a legitimate MVP-caliber catcher, breaking out in a big way offensively in 2014, when he batted .290/.402/.430 across 111 contests, adding 11 home runs and 67 RBIs. When you factor in his stellar work behind the plate (for example, he caught 39 percent of would-be base stealers last year) – his value is abundantly clear.

Moving forward, Pittsburgh has the likes of Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez at the catcher position. Cervelli is currently penciled in as the primary starter for the Pirates after being acquired in the Nov. 12 deal that sent Justin Wilson to the New York Yankees. A very solid 2014 campaign with the Bronx Bombers gives one plenty to believe he could be a long-term solution in the wake of Martin’s departure.

Across an admittedly small sample size of 49 games last season, Cervelli batted an eye-catching .301/.370/.432 – which, had he amassed the necessary plate appearance requirements, would have ranked third amongst all American League catchers. During his big league career, the 28-year-old is a .278 hitter – which is still nothing to shake your head at. In comparison, although Martin is widely viewed a the superior option defensively, he has a career batting average of just .259 – nearly 20 points lower than that of Cervelli.

He caught one out of every four attempted base stealers with the Yankees last season, which, as noted, trails Martin in that regard. However, according to the defensive runs saved above average (Rdrs) measure, he was roughly one run below the league average for catchers. Martin, by contrast, came in 12 runs above league average.

Comparing Cervelli and Martin is an apple-and-oranges type of thing, based solely on their salaries alone.

Of course, Martin, who had a dWAR of 2.0 and an overall WAR of 5.5 cost the Pirates $8.5 million in 2014. On the other hand, Cervelli made $700,000 last season, posting numbers around league average (1.1 WAR, 0.1 dWAR). So keep that in mind when comparing the two players: their costs alone make them very difficult players to compare in terms of value.

Behind the Venezuelan native, the Pirates have a pair of other alternatives in Stewart and Sanchez. Stewart, also a former member of the Yankees, seemed to figure things out at the plate for the first time in 2014 with the Pirates, collecting 40 hits in 136 at-bats (.294) – far above his career mark of .228. If he can maintain that kind of approach at the dish moving forward, he would indeed prove to be a valuable piece for the Pirates.

In 2013, when Stewart appeared in 109 games as a member of the Yankees, he was roughly one win above replacement level defensively – the second-best mark of his big league career. Last season with the Pirates, he came in with a dWAR of 0.2, to go along with an oWAR of 0.7. Once again, these numbers are solid for a backup option, but should he stutter, Sanchez, a former first-round pick of Pittsburgh, is waiting in the wings.

After breaking onto the big league scene in 2013 with the Pirates, Sanchez appeared in 26 games last season for Clint Hurdle‘s team, struggling offensively (.267/.300/.360) – but, at the same time, taking a step forward from the year prior. Over the course of his Minor League career, the formerly-touted prospect has a .265/.359/.420 slash line in 488 games. Behind the dish, he’s thrown out 23 percent of baserunners to go along with a .978 fielding percentage.

Although he seemed to be on the brink of putting everything together with Triple-A Indianapolis after a stellar 2013 campaign, last season was a step back for Sanchez. He will likely begin 2015 in the Minors again – especially coming in at third on the depth chart at the big league level – but look for him with the Pirates if he shows signs of success again next season.

With Sanchez in the Minors and seemingly near-big league ready and the duo of Cervelli and Stewart ready behind the dish in the Steel City, Pirates fans should not mourn the loss of Russell Martin: Rather, they should thank the front office for letting him walk and taking his $82 million worth of baggage with him.

The Bucs are going to be solid behind the plate in 2015 – even without Martin.

Next: What will Pedro Alvarez bring to the 2015 Pirates?