PITTSBURGH -- General manager Ben Cherington didn’t exactly hide what the Pirates were looking for in a catcher this offseason, saying last week that the club sought “someone who we feel would prioritize the pitcher and the defensive aspect of the game.”
They seem to have found that on Monday, signing defensive-minded catcher Luke Maile to a one-year contract. With this signing, the Pirates’ 40-man roster is now full.
Maile hit .151 with a .440 OPS in 129 plate appearances for the Blue Jays last season. He showed some promise with the bat in 2018, posting a .700 OPS (94 OPS+) and 2.1 Wins Above Replacement in a career-high 68 games with Toronto, but he owns a slash line of just .198/.252/.304 in 657 Major League plate appearances for the Rays and Jays.
Comfortable with their young catching tandem of rookie Danny Jansen and former Pirates prospect Reese McGuire, the Blue Jays non-tendered Maile earlier this month.
Defense is the 28-year-old Maile’s strong suit, though, particularly his pitch-framing and ability to slow runners on the bases. Last season, he ranked 16th among all catchers in adjusted fielding runs above average, according to Baseball Prospectus. He also ranked 16th in that category, right between Russell Martin and Mike Zunino, in 2018.
Maile may not be their starting catcher, as Jacob Stallings is set to return next year. Stallings comes with even higher defensive marks, ranking eighth in adjusted fielding runs above average this past year, and he hit for more power under the guidance of hitting coach Rick Eckstein. It’s also still possible the Pirates could acquire a younger catcher via trade, as they were reportedly seeking a long-term option behind the plate at the Winter Meetings.
For now, they have guaranteed themselves a solid defensive duo in Stallings and Maile. That was always going to be the priority after a tough season for Pittsburgh’s pitching staff, a group that Cherington believes can improve organically with better defense behind the plate and behind the pitcher’s mound.
“I don’t think experience [in a catcher] necessarily is the criteria, but someone who either has or shows potential to be very good defensively and be part of our game-planning and pitching process,” Cherington said during the Winter Meetings. “It helps if they can contribute offensively, too, but you can’t get everything you want.”
Maile, an eighth-round Draft pick out of the University of Kentucky in 2012, has ties to both Cherington and Pirates manager Derek Shelton. He came up through Tampa Bay’s system and debuted in 2015, when Shelton was the Rays’ hitting coach. He then moved to Toronto, where Shelton was on the coaching staff and Cherington was working in the front office, in 2017.