Entering the spring the Pittsburgh Pirates appeared to have their catching duo set, but has that changed as a result of how their catchers have performed in Grapefruit League play?
On December 16th, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed catcher Luke Maile to a Major League contract. This contract, however, was a two-way contract. This means that Maile can still be optioned back down to the minor leagues.
The non January 10th, the Pirates added to their catching depth. This came when the team inked veteran back stop John Ryan Murphy to a minor league contract. Despite this signing, Maile still appeared to be the heavy favorite to serve as Jacob Stallings primary backup in 2020.
Well, as is often the case in baseball, things have not gone according to plan this spring. While Maile has battled a hamstring issue and struggled at the plate this spring, Murphy has put together a fine spring thus far. This performance from Murphy has raised the question – who should be the Pirates backup catcher?
In five MLB seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, Maile has slashed .198/.252/.304 with a .106 ISO and a 48 wRC+. Despite his woeful offensive numbers, he has posted a 30.1 dWAR while rating a plus pitch framer. As a result, he owns a lifetime 1.2 fWAR.
As for Murphy, he’s slashed .219/.265/.357 with a .138 ISO and a 65 wRC+ in seven MLB seasons. Like Maile, Murphy is a plus defender behind the plate owning a career 23.0 dWAR. However, Maile is the better defender of the two, but Murphy is the better hitter.
In Grapefruit League play, Murphy has been the better hitter of the two. In 8 games this spring Murphy is slugging a cool .632 to go with a team leading 3 home runs. As for Maile, he is just 3-for-14 this spring with each of hits being a single.
Murphy has had the more impressive spring of the two catchers, but that is not the only factor. Due to his ability to be optioned to the minor leagues, it could make sense for the Pirates to send Maile to Triple-A to start the season while Murphy breaks camp with the team. This could be done in an effort to cultivate catching depth, which is something that is never easy for any MLB team to do.
Often time when MLB teams are making their roster decisions at the end of Spring Training minor league options are a factor in roster construction. This could become a factor in the race for the Pirates backup catcher job. The offensive output of Murphy this spring is a factor, too.