On the day the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Chris Stewart from the New York Yankees, the move didn’t really make much sense on the surface and I wrote about why it didn’t. The Bucs were essentially replacing Tony Sanchez, probably a superior catcher to Stewart, with an aging veteran with limited offensive skill. However, I was wrong, the Pirates aren’t necessarily replacing Sanchez with Stewart — they are replacing Michael McKenry with Stewart.
Before the trade, the Pirates’ depth chart at catcher would have been Russell Martin at the top, and then McKenry and Sanchez would battle for the backup job. Now, the position is deeper than it was before. Stewart is a clear upgrade over McKenry. Neither McKenry or Stewart are good offensive players; McKenry hit for a .217/.262/.348 line with a 70 wRC+ and Stewart hit .211/.293/.272 with a 58 wRC+. The difference between the two is that while McKenry isn’t good defensively, Stewart is nearly elite.
Not only can Stewart block balls in the dirt and throw out base runners, but he is also among the best in pitch framing. The art of pitch framing is slowly becoming important in the game of baseball. In 2013, Stewart was second in runs above average saved compared to other MLB catchers. His 22.7 RAA was second behind only Jonathan Lucroy, and he is ahead of elite defensive catchers like Yadier and Jose Molina.
I had originally been down on the trade because it came off as a way to make sure Martin’s eventually replacement, Sanchez, wouldn’t get a lot of playing time with the major league team this season. The idea that Sanchez won’t see much time at the big league level is foolish. Very rarely will a team get through a full season without a catcher going on the disabled list. Just two seasons ago, in 2011, the Pirates used eight catchers. Even without injuries, Sanchez would still be called up most likely to catch and to be the designated hitter in American League ballparks against left-handed pitchers. He would also be called up in September when the rest of the September call-ups occur.
While acquiring Stewart doesn’t increase the talent on the major league team, it does give the organization more depth that will be needed. Judging a roster by the way it looks on Opening Day can be misleading — the important thing is how the roster will look from the beginning of April until the beginning of October — and hopefully the end of October as well.