Pirates pick up catcher in deal with Hedges
Veteran expected to start, mentor youth with Davis, Rodriguez waiting in wings
The Pirates entered this offseason wanting, if not needing, to add depth at several position groups. They’ve added at first base. They’ve added to the bullpen. They’ve added to the rotation. Now, they’ve added behind the plate.
Pittsburgh on Tuesday agreed to a one-year deal with Austin Hedges, filling the team's last true vacancy. Terms of the deal were not announced, but a source told MLB.com it's for $5 million.
Hedges, 30, is one of baseball’s best defensive catchers. Since 2015, he leads all backstops in defensive runs saved (75). Hedges does not provide much offensive production, owning a career .578 OPS and 54 wRC+, but he has been a valuable catcher due to his defensive prowess.
At the Winter Meetings, general manager Ben Cherington discussed the team’s desire to add catching depth without impeding catchers Henry Davis and Endy Rodriguez, the team’s No. 1 and No. 6 prospects, respectively. Prior to agreeing with Hedges, Rodriguez was the only catcher on the 40-man roster.
“I think it’s likely we would like to add to that group at some point this offseason, but there’s nothing on the doorstep or anything,” Cherington said at the Winter Meetings. “We’ll prioritize a combination of the defensive part of the game again and try to be able to match up offensively with competitive at-bats.
“We feel good about the strength of the position generally in the organization. Probably mostly focused on strengthening the position if we can in 2023 without putting up a massive brick wall in front of younger guys. We’ll see what comes to us.”
Along with his defensive metrics, Hedges has experience working with young pitchers. In 2022, the average age of the Guardians’ pitching staff was 26.3 years old, the youngest in all of baseball. Only two of Cleveland’s pitchers -- Bryan Shaw and Anthony Gose -- were at least 30 years old. Hedges’ experience working with young pitchers will be invaluable to the Pirates, who expect to have a young pitching staff next season.
Pittsburgh’s Opening Day starting rotation projects to feature Roansy Contreras (23 years old), Johan Oviedo (25 in March), Mitch Keller (27 in April), JT Brubaker (29) and Vince Velasquez (30). Luis Ortiz (24 in January) will compete for a rotation spot as well. Quinn Priester (22) and Mike Burrows (23), the Pirates’ No. 3 and No. 8 prospects, respectively, will likely make their debuts next season. With Hedges, the Pirates have found an experienced backstop who can guide the youth.
Assuming health, Hedges projects to be the Pirates’ Opening Day catcher, but he might transition into a backup role later in the season.
Manager Derek Shelton noted that Davis and Rodriguez will begin next season in the Minor Leagues, likely with Triple-A Indianapolis. By the summer, however, both Davis and Rodriguez might prove themselves ready for the Major Leagues. Rodriguez, in particular, was added to the 40-man roster in November ahead of the Rule 5 Draft. Should Davis and Rodriguez earn callups, the Pirates will likely prioritize their playing time and move Hedges into a reserve role, one in which he can serve as a mentor to the 20-somethings.
While Hedges fills the role of starting catcher, the Pirates will need to add a backup catcher to the mix as well. Jason Delay, who is currently in the Pirates’ Minor League system, is one option. In 57 games with the Bucs last season, Delay, who is not on the 40-man roster, had two defensive runs saved with a .536 OPS.
With Hedges agreeing, the Pirates likely will not be re-signing catcher Roberto Pérez, who received praise for his veteran leadership in the clubhouse and behind the plate. Pérez, who turns 34 this month, expressed a desire to return to the team after sustaining a season-ending hamstring injury, but a reunion now seems out of the cards.
“I feel like I owe them another year of me,” Pérez said in May. “I love it here. Great organization. They have treated me well. I love the coaching staff. I love the people around them. The players. The front office. They have been so good to me, and I feel like I owe them. Hopefully I'll be back. I'm hoping to come back.”