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The Pirates Have Interest in Gary Sanchez. What Could It Mean?

The Pittsburgh Pirates are reported to be among the teams that have shown interest in free-agent catcher Gary Sanchez. Of course, “showing interest” doesn’t mean that a signing is imminent. But it’s telling as far as what the Pirates think of their catching situation.

The 2023 season ended with Endy Rodriguez as the Pirates’ primary catcher. He hit .220/.284/.328, 3 HR, 13 RBI in 57 games. Defensively, he showed potential, nailing 30 percent of would-be base stealers while being worth three Defensive Runs Saved. Unfortunately, Rodriguez is out for the season after arm surgery, hence the need to shore up the catcher’s spot.

Pirates Showing Interest in Gary Sanchez

Who is Sanchez?

Sanchez, 31, is best known for his tenure with the New York Yankees. There, he was a two-time All-Star and runner-up for the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year Award.  He was thought to be a rising star among American League catchers. He has also played for the Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, and San Diego Padres. His lifetime slash line is .225/.309/.469 with 173 HR and 448 RBI. He belted 33 home runs in 2017 and a career-high 34 in 2019. Although the right-handed batter hasn’t put up those kinds of home run totals since, he remains a threat to hit the ball out of the park, doing so 19 times with the Padres last season. His slash line has declined in recent years as well. Combining 2016 and 2017, Sanchez hit .284/.354/.569, but he hasn’t come close to those figures since.

Once maligned for his work behind the plate, his defense has improved as his offense has declined. For his career, he’s been “worth” -21 Fielding Runs Above Average and zero Defensive Runs Saved. However, in 2023, he turned those figures around to two and seven, respectively. In terms of Defensive Runs Saved, the Fielding Bible ranked him tied as the eighth-best catcher in baseball last year. However, that site also gives him -1 Strike Zone Runs Saved, a measure of the all-important pitch framing skill, which places him middle-of-the-pack. In 2022 and 2023, his caught-stealing percentages were slightly above the major league average. Sanchez would eventually become Blake Snell’s personal catcher en route to Snell’s second Cy Young Award. That’s a ringing endorsement for the Pirates or any team with interest in Sanchez.

A Former Number One Pick Lurks

Pirates general manager Ben Cherington is on record saying that Henry Davis, the number one overall pick in the 2021 June Amateur Draft, will get every opportunity to be the starting catcher in 2024. Don’t be so sure. Other than a few public statements expressing confidence in his abilities as a catcher – what else would you expect them to say? – the actions of Cherington and his like-minded, analytically hip manager Derek Shelton speak loudly to the contrary.

Last year, Davis was called up around the same time as fellow catching prospect Rodriguez. The Pirates resolved the issue of playing time for two catchers by converting Davis to right field, although it was Rodriguez who had minor league experience in the outfield and at first and second base. In right field, Davis showed a strong arm but did not field well. At bat, Davis produced a slash line of .213/.302/.351, with 7 homers and 24 RBI in 62 games.

What Would Happen to Davis?

It’s clear that Cherington and Shelton view the catcher as a defense-first position. Since taking over the Pirates in 2020, they’ve preferred defensive catchers at the expense of offense. These have included light hitters Jacob Stallings, Luke Maile (who never got to play for the Pirates due to an injury), John Ryan Murphy, Michael Perez, Jason Delay, Tyler Heineman, Roberto Perez, Andrew Knapp, and Austin Hedges. Pitch-framing skills are highly valued in the Pirates’ organization as well.

Davis must develop these skills to see significant playing time wearing “the tools of ignorance” with Pittsburgh. However, if he reaches his potential on offense, his bat will be sorely needed in the Pirates’ lineup. What to do if the Pirates’ interest in Sanchez results in a contract? One possible play would be to use Davis as a designated hitter. Another, less-discussed play, would be to send Davis to the minors to develop his defensive skills. He does have minor-league options remaining. The hope might be for Sanchez to play well enough to be traded at the deadline. By that time, Davis hopefully will have acquired sufficient experience and instruction in the minors.

What Would Happen to Delay?

Most speculation has Sanchez and Davis sharing the catching duties while Delay, who also has options, goes to the minors. Again, don’t be so sure. In 2023, which was pitcher Mitch Keller’s All-Star season, Delay was being used as his personal catcher. It’s unknown whose idea that was, Keller’s or Shelton’s. However, it seems unlikely that Keller, in his third full season, had that kind of leverage. Rather, it was likely Shelton’s idea. In any case, Shelton plainly liked that combination. He may not want to break it up. Moreover, the Fielding Bible credits Delay with five Strike Zone Runs Saved. That ranking places him tied for eighth in all of baseball, indicating he has the framing skills the Pirates like.

How Would Sanchez Fit?

On one hand, Sanchez doesn’t have the on-base skills the Cherington/Shelton regime values. On the other hand, as noted, they haven’t looked at the catching position as an offense-first position. With Sanchez’s power, he’d certainly provide more offense than others who have been used there in recent years. Due to his improved defense, Sanchez should be a plus player overall for the Pirates and worthy of their interest.

Sanchez’s presence in the lineup would bump Davis, if not to the minors, into a designated hitter/right field rotation that already includes Andrew McCutchen and Edward Olivares. In turn, that could force Joshua Palacios, a valuable pinch hitter in 2023, to the minors. Often these problems solve themselves, with a player getting injured or falling into a slump. Still, they’re nice problems to have for a team that’s spent the past few years trying to figure out whether they even had enough good players.

The Fall-Out Elsewhere

It’s known that Cherington has the authority to increase the payroll, but we don’t know by how much. Thus, it’s unknown whether signing Sanchez would preclude Cherington from continuing to look for help for the starting rotation. Perhaps Cherington is losing faith that another starter can be acquired and is looking to allocate those dollars elsewhere.

The Last Word

It takes two to make a deal. Sanchez has other options in this thin market for catchers. The reality is that a player with other options won’t sign with the Pirates until they show they are winners. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of their interest in Sanchez.


Photo Credit: © Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports


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