Pittsburgh Pirates: Three Free Agent Catchers to Target

Oct 15, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Guardians catcher Austin Hedges (17) reacts after hitting a single against the New York Yankees in the second inning during game three of the NLDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 15, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Guardians catcher Austin Hedges (17) reacts after hitting a single against the New York Yankees in the second inning during game three of the NLDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates need more catching depth badly, and these three free agents should be on their radar.

The Pittsburgh Pirates might have some top prospects like Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis in the system, but their major league catching corps is bare bones thin. After designating Jason Delay for assignment and non-tendering Tyler Heineman, the only catchers left on the 40-man roster are Rodriguez and Ali Sanchez. The ladder might not even survive the Spring Training roster crunch.

The Pirates need catching, and while the catching market might not have many options, there are certainly some players the Bucs should pursue. They need more catching depth than what is on the roster, and they’ll find someone on the market to fill the gap until Rodriguez and Davis are ready. So with that, who are some free agents they should look into?

Mike Zunino

Mike Zunino had a rough 2022 season. He was limited to just 36 games, and when he did play, he batted for a weak .148/.195/.304 with a .219 wOBA and 43 wRC+. Along with mediocre offensive work, he also displayed below-average defense. While he did have +2.2 framing runs, he was worth just a total of -2 defensive runs saved, which is very atypical for the defensive-minded backstop.

But Zunino had a great 2021 season. Through 375 plate appearances, Zunino slashed .216/.301/.556 line with a .358 wOBA and 134 wRC+. He was a powerhouse at the plate, crushing 33 dingers with a .342 isolated slugging percentage. It’s one of the most powerful offensive seasons by a catcher in recent history.

Since the turn of the millennium, his 33 home runs are tied with Mike Piazza (2002) and Gary Sanchez (2017) for the sixth most in a single year by a backstop. His .342 isolated slugging percentage is also the third best since 2000 (min. 300 plate appearances) while also ranking top 50 in wOBA and wRC+ among seasons from a catcher.

On top of providing prodigious power, Zunino also was a plus fielder. He saved seven runs through his defense and eight runs through his framing. 2022 is more or less an outlier, defensive. Throughout his career, Zunino has +51 defensive runs saved and +71.2 framing runs saved.

He might only bat around the Mendoza line, but you won’t find a team who wouldn’t take a Gold Glove-caliber backstop who can provide upwards of 30 home runs when he’s healthy simply because he isn’t a good average hitter. Zunino has been one of the better defensive backstops throughout the league for nearly the last decade, and the fact that he can hit 20-30 home runs a year makes him quite valuable.

Austin Hedges

Austin Hedges is the definition of a defensive specialist. Throughout his major league career, he’s been below average to downright atrocious at the plate. However, he keeps getting semi-regular playing time because he’s just that good of a defensive catcher.

Last season, Hedges batted just .163/.241/.248, leading to a .489 OPS, .225 wOBA, and 42 wRC+. This is undoubtedly one of the worst seasons for a catcher in major league history, offense-wise. Since integration in 1947, Hedges’ 2022 season is the 20th worst per wRC+. His wOBA is the seventh worst, as well as his OPS (min. 300 plate appearances).

So how did a guy who was historically bad at the plate start nearly 100 games for a team that not only won their division but did so by a lead of over ten games? The answer is simple; he was just that good defensively.

Hedges racked up +8 defensive runs saved, and +4.4 framing runs in just 839.2 innings. With +75 defensive runs saved throughout his entire career, he has the 7th highest total among catchers. He makes the pitching staffs good. While the Cleveland Guardians are pitching development gods, you also can’t deny that Hedges has contributed to improving the pitchers in Cleveland.

Hedges is really good at his job. He hasn’t posted a wRC+ over 50 in the past four seasons, but there’s a reason good teams are starting him for more than half of their games. He’s one of the best defensive catchers the game has seen in a long time and should certainly be on the Pirates’ radar.

Omar Narvaez

Omar Narvaez is a prime bounce-back candidate. The backstop was an all-star in 2021 after posting a .736 OPS, .322 wOBA, and 100 wRC+ to go with quality defense behind the plate. However, he missed about half of the 2022 season, and the numbers reflected that.

Narvaez only collected 296 plate appearances, batting just .206/.292/.305 with a .269 wOBA and 71 wRC+. On the plus side, he had a healthy 9.8% walk rate and 19.3% strikeout rate, but his isolated slugging percentage fell from .136 in his all-star year to just .099 this past season. He was also abysmal post-All-Star Break with a 22 wRC+ down the stretch.

However, Narvaez is a solid defender behind the dish. He’s made massive strides over the past three years. During his time with the Chicago White Sox and Seattle Mariners, Narvaez was one of the worst defensive catchers in the league, with -41 DRS and -22.3 framing runs. But over the past three seasons, he’s completely turned things around with +6 defensive runs saved and +20.2 framing runs. Last year, he only caught 681 innings but had +1 DRS and +7.5 framing runs.

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Narvaez may not be an All-Star again, but if he provides the Pittsburgh Pirates with a 90-95 wRC+ bat and rock-solid defense behind the plate, he’s worth the investment. He’s a notable rebound candidate who should be on the Pirate radar.