Around the Horn: Catchers

Around the Horn: Catchers

With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Bradenton, Fla., in just over a month, it's not too early to start dissecting the Pirates team of 2011. This is the first of a seven-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Pirates' roster heading into Spring Training.

PITTSBURGH -- For a team that has few large contracts, the Pirates sure do appear poised to allocate a significant amount of their payroll dollars to the catching position.

Close to $11 million is due to the tandem of Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit in 2011, as both catchers are entering the final season of three-year contracts. On the surface, that is an unbalanced figure given that the Pirates finished 2010 with baseball's lowest payroll.

However, general manager Neal Huntington has asserted that singling out that financial figure without appropriate context is misleading. And he insists that Doumit -- even after the acquisitions of Snyder, Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay -- can still play a valuable role for the Pirates next season.

First, the context ...

Anticipating Snyder's salary, the Pirates got the D-backs to send over $3 million in the July swap that brought the catcher to Pittsburgh. Subtract that payment from Snyder's $5.75 million salary and now the cost looks much more manageable.

Also, the Pirates have emphasized that Doumit -- assuming he does not get traded -- isn't going to be owed $5.1 million next year to serve solely as a backup catcher.

Yes, Doumit will be Snyder's primary backup. But the Pirates' confidence in Doumit's defensive versatility will prompt the club to use him, as needed, in right field and first base. Doumit may still spend more days coming off the bench than he does starting, but don't expect him to get only one start a week, which is typical of traditional backup catchers.

One thing that can be ruled out as Opening Day approaches is a Spring Training backstop competition. Though Doumit has handled the team's regular catching duties since 2008, Snyder is in line to be the team's starting catcher. That is how it will remain, too, Huntington said, even if Doumit outperforms Snyder in camp.

With Snyder, the Pirates believe they have a defensive upgrade over Doumit, who allowed nine passed balls in 2010 and threw out just 7.1 percent of attempted basestealers. Though Snyder had his share of defensive lapses after joining the Pirates at the Trade Deadline, his track record is impressive.

At the time he was traded, Snyder had led all catchers with a .999 fielding percentage since the start of 2007. He threw out five of the 17 runners attempting to steal against him with Pittsburgh.

While the Pirates are prioritizing defense and rapport with the pitching staff, the club would also like some offensive production out of the position. In this respect, Snyder's first two months with the Pirates were a disappointment.

Though Snyder had five homers in 40 games, he hit just .169 and posted an on-base percentage of .268. Those numbers were both below Snyder's career averages, but not significantly below. He has shown some power over his career, which the Pirates see as a bonus.

As for Doumit, this step back into a bench role will be a transition. The fact that he was able to stay mostly healthy last season was encouraging, and the hope is that by taking away some of his catching duties, Doumit will avoid subsequent injuries.

The concern for Doumit, though, is how much playing time he really will get. With Garrett Jones and Diaz planning to platoon in right field, it is hard to see much opportunity for Doumit to step in. Doumit is an option to play first base, though he'd need to improve tremendously on defense there in order to be an asset.

If he is used primarily as a pinch-hitter, Doumit will be a threat off the bench. The switch-hitter has the ability to change a game with one swing and hit .251 with 13 homers and 45 RBIs in 124 games last season.

There remains, of course, the possibility that Doumit doesn't make it to Opening Day with the Pirates. Though no serious suitors appear to have emerged, the Pirates have made it known that Doumit is an expendable piece that can be traded.

The only other catcher currently on the Pirates' 40-man roster is Jason Jaramillo. After faring well as a backup in 2009, Jaramillo had a trying 2010 season. He hit just .149 in 33 games and spent part of the summer in Triple-A so he could get more consistent at-bats.

There is a chance that the Pirates could retain three catchers on their 25-man roster if manager Clint Hurdle wants the flexibility to use Doumit liberally as a pinch-hitter. If the club goes with just two, Jaramillo is in line to be Triple-A Indianapolis' primary backstop to start the season.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.