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Martin addition gives Bucs solid duo behind dish

Each Friday leading up to Spring Training, will be taking a look at a different position as part of the Pirates' 2013 season preview. First up is catcher.

Between the 2010-11 seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers let Russell Martin walk as a free agent and replaced him with Rod Barajas.

Two years later, the revolving door has swung the other way in Pittsburgh, with the Pirates choosing to replace Barajas with Martin.

An amusing turn of events, but should it also be alarming for Pirates fans, whose biggest dismay about the 2012 campaign was the apparent lack of production behind the plate, both with the bat and with the arm?

Of the Major Leagues' 17 most active catchers (95-plus starts), Barajas (.206) and Martin (.211) ranked 16th and 15th in batting average.

So while the Bucs got younger at the position, Martin being seven years Barajas' junior, the question is did they get better?

Manager Clint Hurdle and GM Neal Huntington are naturally convinced they did. You don't sign off on and sign, respectively, the richest free-agent contract in club history without that assurance.

The valuation of Martin irtually ignored his offensive numbers, which have overall been in steady decline since he put up a .293 average with 19 homers and 87 RBIs as a big league sophomore in 2007.

The Bucs like Martin's verve, demeanor and arm. Even in an off-year for throwing in 2012, Martin nailed 24 percent of runners, the norm for big league catchers. Under his watch in 128 games, runners stole a total of 63 bases on the Yankees; in their last 40 games alone, the Pirates were victimized by 60 steals in being run out of the National League Central race.

Responsibility for improvement in that area has to be shared by vigilant pitchers. "But Russell has the technique to throw out baserunners," Huntington said.

"Certainly we'll have to help him," Huntington went on, "but his arm strength, release, accuracy -- it's all there. And his enthusiasm about helping us take that next step is a good indicator for us."

Some of Martin's enthusiasm comes from a desire to reclaim his elite status for his next go at free agency, following the 2014 season. While that may sound odd coming from someone who just banked $17 million over two years, the Pirates are taking the attitude of "Whatever rings your bell." They would be happy to benefit from Martin's incentive.

"Off the season I had, I didn't want a long-term contract," Martin admitted. "I feel I can play much better, improve myself."

Martin may not be as much of a pitchers' soul brother as was Barajas, but he will get them more strikes. No one in the Majors is better at catching borderline pitches in a manner to make them look like strikes.

He will also be a worthy successor to Barajas as Michael McKenry's mentor. Their relationship will be intriguing to watch, because last season McKenry clearly played himself off the fringes and into a central role. The Pirates didn't feel comfortable committing the No. 1 job to McKenry, but if he continues to improve while Martin struggles, it will be interesting to see whether his playing time increases.

At the very least, McKenry is a very solid backup. In fact, considering the perception that catching remains the club's weakest offensive position, it is remarkable to realize that, based on recent past performance, it could be the deepest. Between them, Martin and McKenry are coming off a 33-homer season; the Bucs' most powerful positions in 2012 were third base and center field, with 32 homers out of each.

Similarly, last season Barajas' 11 long balls and McKenry's 12 ranked the Pirates fourth among NL teams in total homers by catchers. Even more noteworthy: They caught every inning of every game, making the Pirates the only one of the Majors' 30 teams to get through the entire season with only two catchers (compared to 2011, when the Bucs' eight different receivers were the most).

Martin and McKenry may not get to similarly monopolize the position. Tony Sanchez, the 2009 first-round Draft pick who is a newcomer to the 40-man roster, took big strides last season back into the organization's good graces. In particular, he drew raves for his work with pitchers in his first Triple-A exposure.

Sanchez is certain to open the season in Indianapolis, but he is almost as certain to pop into PNC Park at some point and at least briefly give the Bucs the bragging rights of fielding a team with five No. 1 Draft picks -- their own (Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker) and inherited (Travis Snider, Toronto's top choice in 2006).

Ali Solis, claimed on waivers from the Padres in October, will be in Spring Training as a non-roster invitee. You need catching depth in camp, for all the split workouts and exhibitions, but Solis will get a genuine look. The 25-year-old native of Mexico has a terrific arm that could catch the staff's eye.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Russell Martin, Michael McKenry