Certainly no small reason of why the Pittsburgh Pirates snapped a 20-year losing streak and playoff drought was catcher Russell Martin, one of the most lucratively paid free agents in team history. However, with former first round pick and fellow backstop Tony Sanchez waiting in the wings, The transition between Martin and Sanchez will be an interesting story line to the season with the former on the last year of a two year contract as the latter could be playing for Triple-A Indianapolis on his 26th birthday. With the first workouts of spring training less than three days away, here's a preview of what the 2014 Pirates will have in store behind the dish.
The Pirates outbid the New York Yankees in the fall of 2012 to bring over the former Yankee and Dodger catcher on a two-year, $17 million deal, and the Canadian did not disappoint. While Martin hit just .226, he had a .327 OBP in addition to 15 home runs, 55 RBI and nine stolen bases. But that wasn't what caused Martin to finish 24th in MVP voting during the 2013 campaign, it was his superb handling of the pitching staff. Martin was second in the major leagues with a 3.16 catchers ERA and he also vastly improved the Pirates defense of the running game, throwing out more than 40 percent of the runners who tried against him. Martin also had an incredibly clutch playoff game against the Cincinnati Reds in the battle for the Wild Card spot. After Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto dropped the ball as fans were berating him, Martin turned on the very next pitch and sent a laser out into the left field stands. It was one of the loudest, if not the loudest, moment in PNC Park history and one no one who was in attendance or watching on television would ever forget.
But can Martin repeat last season's successes? He is notorious for starting off strong and tailing off offensively as a season progresses, and 2013 was no different, with Martin finishing April with a .903 OPS only to see his numbers tail off in nearly every month to follow. Martin should still be as excellent behind the plate, however. One of the most nimble catchers in the game, Martin is known for his excellence blocking pitches and framing others for strikes. Pirates pitchers are looking forward to working with the former All-Star for another season, and barring injury, Martin will be starting behind the plate for the vast majority of games this season, no matter how well Tony Sanchez progresses in Triple-A.
The Pirates made a trade with the Yankees for Stewart back in early December, presumably to replace Michael McKenry as the team's backup. With the Yankees dire situation behind the plate last season, ironically after Martin left to join the Bucs, Stewart played in 109 games last season, the most he had seen a diamond in his big league career. While he only hit .211 and had a putrid .566 OPS, he was tenth in the big leagues with a 4.06 catchers ERA and has always been known for his defense behind the dish. With the team seeming to prefer Sanchez spend time in Triple-A getting regular duty as opposed to being the backup in Pittsburgh, Stewart will likely be the team's backup catcher come opening day.
Sanchez has been toiling away in the minors for some time now. While he made his major league debut with the team this past season, Sanchez never saw consistent time with the team. He did manage to make one of the best defensive plays of the year by a catcher when he made a catch over the railing in a September game against the San Diego Padres. He left something to be desired at the plate, although he did show somewhat of a power stroke that would translate well as a catcher. He had a .688 OPS in limited time, hitting two home runs and knocking in five. Look for Sanchez to begin the season with Triple-A Indianapolis, however, he will see the field for the Pirates at some point this year. No team only goes through two catchers each season, and the 2014 Pirates likely won't be an exception.
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