4 catchers the Pittsburgh Pirates should eye before trade deadline

Jun 2, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros catcher Victor Caratini (17) walks to the dugout prior to the game against the Minnesota Twins at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 2, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros catcher Victor Caratini (17) walks to the dugout prior to the game against the Minnesota Twins at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports / Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates definitely need some help behind the plate. It’s been one of the weakest spots on the team this year. Yasmani Grandal has struggled to hit and has made some game-changing brainfarts behind the dish. Henry Davis hasn’t been what many were expecting either. While Joey Bart has been a good pickup, he’s also hurt. Jason Delay isn’t a bad option, but is best suited for backup duty.

The trade market should have some potential options they could turn to. Even if they don’t need a permanent solution with Endy Rodriguez returning next year, they need to find someone who can weather the storm and at least provide solid defense behind the plate.

4 catchers the Pittsburgh Pirates should eye before trade deadline

Matt Thaiss

One of the backstops that could be on the trade market this summer is LA Angels catcher Matt Thaiss, who would be a prime trade target for the Pirates to go after. Not only would he be a solid option behind the plate, but also at first base as he has plenty of experience there too. He could help fill two of the largest holes on the Pirates’ roster.

Thaiss only has 63 plate appearances on the year, but is turning in a respectable .222/.333/.352 line, leading to a roughly league average .311 wOBA and 100 wRC+. Thaiss walks a lot with his 14.3% BB%, but he also goes down on strike three quite frequently and has a 30.2% K rate this season. There are some things that could work in his favor, however. His barrel rate has improved each of the last three seasons and is now up to 11.4%. Last year, he had a .331 xwOBA, which was much higher than his bottom line wOBA of .295. This year, he has a .315 xwOBA, which basically says he’s a league average-to-slightly above league average batter.

One of the most important things for a catcher is defense, and Thaiss has gotten better behind the plate. Thaiss was originally drafted as a catcher by the Angels in 2016, but transitioned to the infield corners as he got into pro ball. In 2022, he moved back behind the plate, and the results were about what you’d expect from someone who just started to catch again after over five seasons. He had -4 defensive runs saved and -4.4 framing runs. He only allowed two passed balls in 683 innings, which was the only positive his glove brought in 2022-2023.

But so far this year, Thaiss has caught 132.1 innings, mainly serving as Logan O’Hoppe’s backup. He has zero DRS, but +0.6 framing runs. He’s yet to allow a passed ball and has +2 blocks already, per Baseball Savant. His poptime is 1.99 seconds, which is slightly better than average. Plus he has a strong arm and his throws average 84.7 MPH from behind the plate.

Thaiss could also help cover first base. First was his primary position throughout the minor leagues. He has over 200 innings logged at first where he has +2 defensive runs saved, albeit -1 out above average, but a +16.0 UZR/150. Thaiss also has a lot of innings logged at the hot corner, but it’s his worst position between his three options. Plus he hasn’t logged more than five innings at third since 2019.

Thaiss doesn’t become a free agent until after 2027, so he gives you a solid backup/platoon catcher/first base option for the next handful of seasons. He’s trending upward too as he posted negative fWAR in 2022, +0.4 in 2023, and is already at +0.3 this year (but in 244 fewer plate appearances). That’s about +1.5 fWAR over 300 plate appearances, which is good for a part-timer. If Thaiss is on the market, the Pirates 100% need to consider trading for him.

Carson Kelly

Kelly was formerly one of the highest ranking catching prospects in the late-2010s with the division-rival St. Louis Cardinals. He was included in the deal that sent Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis from Arizona. Kelly had a lot of ups and downs while in the desert, and was eventually released by the D-Backs late last year. He then signed with the Detroit Tigers and has become a solid backstop for them in 2024.

Through 132 plate appearances, Kelly owns a .246/.326/.364 line, .311 wOBA, and 101 wRC+, coming out to about league average production. He’s only drawn a walk 7.6% of the time, but has a solid 22% strikeout rate. Kelly has not hit for much power with a .119 isolated slugging percentage. But could potentially hit for more if he were to be traded. His ISO at home is under .100 and .166 on the road. He also has a 90.7 MPH exit velo. Comerica is one of the largest parks in Major League Baseball, so his power could play up if he's outside of the Tigers’ stadium.

Kelly has always graded out as a solid defender, and 2024 is no different. He already has +5 defensive runs saved with +0.7 framing runs. Kelly’s 1.99-second pop time is more than playable behind the dish, though his arm strength, averaging just 81.8 MPH, is a tad low. But Kelly makes up for it with his elite blocking. He has only allowed one passed ball in 312.1 innings and has +8 blocks above average.

The only major downside about trading for Kelly is that he’s only a rental. He becomes a free agent after this year. But if the Pirates feel they’re potential contenders this year, this could be a solid way to help bridge the gap for the rest of the season until they get Endy Rodriguez back next year. Kelly is having his best year, both with the bat and glove, since 2021 and could definitely be someone worth considering if he is on the trade market.

Blake Sabol

Blake Sabol was a former Pirates prospect. He was their seventh-round pick in 2019 and hit well throughout the minor leagues. But with Rodriguez, as well as Jason Delay on their 40-man roster and Davis on the rise, the Pirates opted not to protect Sabol from the Rule 5 draft during the 2022-2023 offseason. He was then selected by the Cincinnati Reds and traded to the SF Giants, where he spent 2023.

Sabol did not impress with the bat his rookie year. He turned in a .235/.301/.394 triple-slash through 344 plate appearances. His .158 isolated slugging percentage was slightly below average, and he hit 13 homers. But he also struck out over a third of the time with a 34% K rate and paired that with a mediocre 7% walk rate. Overall, Sabol had just a 92 wRC+. 

But there are some positives to work with here. Sabol did hit well vs. RHP, batting .251/.313/.431 with a .321 wOBA and 104 wRC+ when facing a right-hander. His OPS and wRC+ against lefties was just .392 and 45, respectively. Sabol also had a solid first half of 2023 with a .763 OPS prior to the All-Star break. While Sabol has struggled in the minor leagues so far this year, his brief time in the bigs in 2024 was promising. It was only 38 plate appearances, but Sabol had 10 hits, five walks, and nine Ks.

Sabol displayed solid framing with +0.4 framing runs, along with a league average pop time of 2.0 seconds and good arm strength as his throws averaged 83.5 MPH from behind the dish. But Sabol struggled mightily with blocking. He allowed a half-dozen passed balls in just 393.1 innings. He had -19 blocks above average, according to Baseball Savant. He was the worst blocking catcher in baseball, and it wasn’t even close. The next closest backstop in blocks above average was Kyle Higashioka with -12. While 10 other backstops allowed more passed balls, all of them had nearly double the amount of innings caught or more. Because of Sabol’s poor blocking skills, he spent a lot of time in left field where he graded out as an average defender with zero DRS and -1 OAA in 271.2 innings.

Sabol is still on the Giants’ 40-man roster but has seemingly been relegated to third catcher duties. They signed veteran Tom Murphy this past offseason to back up Patrick Bailey. Even after DFA’ing Joey Bart (and trading him to the Pirates) and Murphy landing on the IL, the Giants opted to turn to veteran Curt Casali instead of Sabol to help their lack of backstop depth.

If the Giants would rather sign Curt Casali and turn to him rather than a healthy Sabol, even after trading one catcher and another landing on the IL, you can only make so many assumptions about how they view Sabol. If the Giants don’t view Sabol in that high regard, then maybe the Pirates should trade back for him for a low cost.

Victor Caratini

The Houston Astros’ season hasn’t gone as planned. They’re not far ahead of the fourth-place LA Angels in the American League West. While it’s doubtful the Astros will do a full-scale teardown, they might be willing to move guys who have expiring contracts or those on short-term deals for pitching, something they’ve expressed an interest in. With the Pirates having a ton of pitching in their system, this seems like a potential good match. The Astros have a long-term catcher in Yainer Diaz, but they might be willing to move their secondary backstop in Victor Caratini.

Caratini is having a good season, both with the bat and behind the dish. He is batting .240/.282/.430 through 110 plate appearances and is hitting for a lot of pop with four homers and a .190 isolated slugging percentage. He has also rarely struck out with a 14.5% K rate, but also has rarely drawn walks, clocking in with a 4.5% BB rate. Still, Caratini has a 99 wRC+, making him about a league-average hitter.

There’s more here to work with than a league-average hitting power bat, though. Caratini’s 91.5 MPH exit velocity is the best of his career. He has a .283 expected batting average, a .473 expected slugging percentage, and a .350 xwOBA. Caratini might live up to some of those numbers over a larger sample size.

Caratini has +3 DRS, but -0.7 framing runs. On the plus side, he hasn’t allowed a passed ball since 2022. Caratini doesn’t have a great pop time at 2.04 seconds and his arm strength is below average at 80 MPH, but he has always been about average at catching runners trying to steal. Like Thaiss, he could also be an option at first base from time to time, given he has nearly 300 innings at the position. Granted, he hasn’t played more than nine innings there since 2019.

Caratini is only controlled through the 2025 season, but he’s consistently been one of the best secondary backstops in baseball. He’s always been a solid defender and typically provides more than enough hitting to be the go-to secondary backstop. Again, with the Astros not in the position they were expecting, they might look to move short-term assets, and Caratini could be one of them.