The Pittsburgh Pirates have a handful of options to start behind the plate on Opening Day 2023, but which options are the best?
The Pittsburgh Pirates catching situation in 2022 had little stability for a good part of the season. At the start of the year, they had Roberto Perez in place, and he seemed to be pretty decent. He was a league average hitter while displaying some of the best defense behind the dish in the league. But Perez suffered an unfortunate season-ending injury early in the year.
The Pirates did not have much in the way of a backup option. Andrew Knapp opened the year as the team’s second-string catcher, which soon went to Michael Perez. Both Knapp and Perez struggled mightily, and eventually, both were designated for assignment. The role eventually went into a timeshare between Tyler Heineman and Jason Delay, which lasted until the end of the season.
The Pirates have multiple avenues to take regarding the 2023 season and catching. With both Heineman and Delay on the roster, as well as top prospects like Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis both reaching the upper levels of the minor leagues, and even Roberto Perez expressing interest in a reunion, they have plenty of choices. So what are the team’s options, and which option would be the best for Opening Day?
The first option is to roll with Heineman and Delay, at least to start the year. Both are defensive specialists behind the dish but provide little in the way with the bat. Heineman had just a .531 OPS, .244 wOBA, and 54 wRC+. Delay posted nearly identical numbers with a .536 OPS, .243 wOBA, and 53 wRC+. But between the two, they posted +8 defensive runs saved and +7.7 framing runs in just 823 innings. Heineman and Delay may not move the needle with the bat, but the Pirates would be getting a good catching tandem when it comes to defense.
The biggest downside is that the team is getting absolutely zero value with the bat. Even though catchers are not typically your big bats, Heineman and Delay both having a sub-55 wRC+ is extremely poor, even for a catcher. The average league catcher had an 89 wRC+. But the Pirates could get away with it, seeing as teams like the Houston Astros, New York Mets, and Cleveland Guardians started defensive first catchers who were just as bad, if not worse, with the bat than both Delay and Heineman were for at least half of their games played.
Roberto Perez had also expressed interest in returning to Pittsburgh for the 2023 season. Before his injury, Perez looked on his way to piecing together a solid season. He batted .233/.333/.367 with a .315 wOBA and 102 wRC+, giving him overall slightly above-average production at the plate. Behind the plate, he had +3 DRS, and +1.8 framing runs in just 159 innings. That comes out to +15 DRS, and +9.1 framing runs in 800 innings of work. Perez would bring the defensive capabilities you like to see from your catcher, but he can also provide some offense.
But 2023 will be Perez’s age-34 season. Perez looked decent as a 33-year-old, but that was before a massive injury. It was also the third season in a row Perez missed a significant chunk of time because of an injury. Perez worked well with the pitching staff, but so did Delay and Heineman, and it’s entirely possible Perez either suffers another injury in 2023 and eliminates him for a large portion of the season or the injury he sustained this past season lingers on and affects both his offense and defense.
The Pirates could also explore the free-agent market for another catching option. Omar Narvaez could be an option, and Mike Zunino is looking for a bounce-back season after missing most of 2022. He hit 33 home runs while providing the Tampa Bay Rays with great defense in 2021. The catching market is pretty thin, but a rebound candidate like Narvaez or Zunino could be on the Pirates’ radar.
Endy Rodriguez could start the year in the major leagues as the team’s starting catcher. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock ever, and it would also be the most exciting option. The switch-hitting backstop hit .323/.407/.590 with a .434 wOBA, and 166 wRC+. Rodriguez even had a poor April, posting a 182 wRC+ from May onward. He also had a Barry Bonds-esque 222 wRC+ in the second half of the season.
It would be very exciting to see Rodriguez make his Major League debut in the Pirates’ first game of the season. But while the chances of the Pirates starting the top prospect in the major leagues are not zero, it’s not highly likely either. They’ll likely wait until his service time date passes, but Rodriguee one of the Pirates’ first big season promotions.
A prospect who could start the year in the major leagues in 2023 is Blake Sabol. Sabol had a quality year in 2022, batting .284/.363/.494, along with a .373 wOBA and 131 wRC+ through 513 plate appearances. Sabol reached Triple-A this year, posting a .969 OPS, .424 wOBA, and 158 wRC+ in his first taste of the minor league’s highest level. But while Sabol does have the potential to be a good hitter, he’s a mediocre defender behind the dish, and his arm is poor for a catcher. The Pirates could keep around Heineman or Delay as a late-game replacement, though with both first base and designated hitter undecided yet, Sabol might see time there instead.
Personally, I am not opposed to opening the season with Delay and Heineman as the catching tandem. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for great defensive catchers, and while Delay and Heineman provide next to no value with the bat, getting two good defenders to start the season behind the dish before Rodriguez’s arrival would be a decent way to start out the year given the young pitching staff.
But the best option the Pittsburgh Pirates likely have until Endy Rodriguez is ready is re-signing Roberto Perez. With Perez showing interest in returning next season, they might be able to get him at a discount. At the very least, he gives the Pirates decent defense for the first month of the season. Then he can move into a reserve role when Endy makes it to the big leagues.