Pirates catcher McKenry is looking to learn from veteran Barajas
BRADENTON, Fla. — There is a lot Pirates catcher Michael McKenry wants to learn this year from Rod Barajas. But McKenry first must answer the long list of questions Barajas has for him.
"I think he can teach me just about anything," McKenry said. "He's got 13 years in the big leagues, which is about 12 more than I have. Right now, though, it's (Barajas) who's asking a lot of questions because he's trying to learn the pitchers."
It's an unusual flip-flop of roles — the newbie McKenry instructing the veteran Barajas — but it's what happens in spring training when a catcher must quickly get acquainted with a pitching staff. Anyway, McKenry is used to the crazy turns a career can take.
McKenry, 26, has played in only 64 big league games, including 58 with the Pirates. He went to spring training last year with the Colorado Rockies, then was dealt to the Boston Red Sox days before the regular season. The Pirates traded for McKenry in early June after they lost their top three catchers to injuries in the span of 11 days.
"I wouldn't say it was bizarre," McKenry said. "I'd say it was a blessing. It's been kind of a thrill ride."
A .222 batting average and .276 on-base percentage seemed to prove McKenry's good-field, no-hit reputation. Yet he did provide one of the season's best moments in the July 8 game against the Chicago Cubs — hitting a three-run, game-winning homer on an 0-2 pitch from closer Carlos Marmol.
It was McKenry's first home run in the majors. He showed a glimmer of promise with the bat, as 14 of his 40 hits went for extra-bases. After the season, he went to Instructional League for one-on-one tutoring from manager Clint Hurdle in the batting cage.
"Clint kept it simple, and that's what I needed," McKenry said. "At times last season I showed some things I think I can do well, but I put a little too much pressure on myself. It's about taking a step back, enjoying the game, making it simple — look at the situation and try to conquer it."
In November, the Pirates gave Barajas, 36, a one-year, $4 million contract. That might seem like a too-sweet deal for a guy who has played in more than 98 games just two of the past six seasons. But Barajas' value goes beyond what he does on the field.
"He'll be a presence on the bench even when he's not in the lineup," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He'll help our guys grow. One of the primary reasons we got Rod was he's going to sell out to our pitching staff."
But first he's got to get to know them. Barajas caught A.J. Burnett in 2008 when they were teammates in Toronto, and he's familiar with Erik Bedard. But Barajas is starting from scratch with Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens.
"This whole camp is a learning process for me," Barajas said. "Mac (McKenry) will be sitting there, and I'll ask him some questions: 'What does so-and-so like to do• Does he throw the slider or the curveball or the changeup?'
"Just because Mac's a younger guy in the league doesn't mean he doesn't have information. He's going to be a huge asset for me."