Top prospect Davis putting Bucs in a good dilemma

May 14th, 2023

BALTIMORE -- When was assigned to Double-A Altoona to begin the season instead of Triple-A Indianapolis, the rationale was simple: he and needed an opportunity to catch as much as possible day, to go through the grind that comes with being an everyday catcher.

So far, Davis is making it a tad difficult to adhere to that plan. For now, however, the Pirates will be sticking with the status quo.

“We think both guys are accomplishing what they’ve set out to accomplish,” said general manager Ben Cherington on 93.7 The Fan on Sunday. “But [I] would also say that 18 games caught in both places is probably not as many as we would’ve liked to see. So let’s just keep going and I’m sure at some point during the season, there will be a chance to assess that and see if we’re ready to make adjustments.”

Davis, the Pirates' No. 3 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has done just about everything in his power to play his way up to Indianapolis. Through 24 games, Davis is hitting .310/.459/.667 with eight home runs, 17 RBIs and five steals. After posting a 1.107 OPS in April, Davis has a 1.162 OPS in May.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Davis's blistering start is his plate discipline. Entering this season, Davis had an 8.7% walk rate and a 21.3% strikeout rate. This season, however, Davis's walk rate has skyrocketed to 17.1% while his strikeout rate has dropped to 19.8%.

Herein lies the conundrum. Davis, 23, is clearly ready for another challenge offensively. If the Pirates promote Davis, neither he nor Rodríguez, who have both caught 18 games this season, will have the opportunity to catch every day.

Last season, neither Davis nor Rodríguez had the opportunity to catch every day, to experience the grind of baseball's most demanding position. Davis missed a good chunk of the season due to injury and Rodríguez spent a lot of time at other positions. While there’s certainly a temptation to promote Davis given how well he’s swung the bat, keeping him with Altoona will allow both catchers to keep refining the minutiae of their defensive game.

"Henry likes to make things really difficult, for sure,” laughed Pirates director of coaching and player development John Baker. “He’s swung the bat so well. He’s run the bases so well. And his catching has improved. I think that’s the toughest part. There are only six games a week. We’d like both of those to catch four or five or either sometimes in the future six of those games just for their development.”

“Neither guy has really had an opportunity to do much of that, just really be a primary catcher on a team for a longer stretch of time for a variety of reasons," added Cherington. " … So we came into the season with that goal in mind. … We didn’t have any magic number in mind of, 'How many games do they need to catch before we assess things and see where we’re at?' … But I’m pretty sure it would’ve been more than 18 if we set a number.”

Rodríguez, the organization’s No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline and reigning Minor League Player of the Year, has yet to really take off offensively, posting a .738 OPS across 103 plate appearances, but that’s partially been due to a right forearm strain that forced him to sit out a week.

“He is improving on the things that we’ve asked him to improve on, which are the finer points of being a catcher,” Baker said. “He throws very well, receives well, blocks well. But there’s more to it. … The goal for Endy Rodríguez is to stay healthy and catch as much as possible.”

Of course, those are goals for both Rodríguez and Davis: stay healthy and catch as much as possible. In the not-so-distant future, however, the Pirates will have to figure out how to handle two catchers at the same level.

The Pirates have a bit of a blueprint to handle both at the same level. In 2022, Davis and Rodríguez both began the season with High-A Greensboro, then spent a couple weeks together at Altoona. On days that Davis caught, Rodríguez -- the more defensively versatile of the two -- spent time at first base, second base or left field. On the days that Rodríguez caught, Davis was generally slotted in at designated hitter, but towards the season’s end, Davis made two cameos in right field.

This season, Davis has continued seeing time in right field, playing three games at the position so far. On Friday and Saturday, Davis started back-to-back games in right field, the first time he has done so in his professional career, perhaps in anticipation of the reality that Davis and Rodríguez will reunite in Indianapolis. By season’s end, they could both be wearing the black and gold, too.

“They’re going to impact Pittsburgh in the not-too-distant future,” Baker said.