Elias Diaz Has No Shortage of Mentors During Spring Training

BRADENTON, Fl. – Elias Diaz has no shortage of mentors during Spring Training.

Everyday, the young catcher meets and talks with Pirates’ legend Manny Sanguillen in the bullpen. And everyday he catches alongside Pirates’ starter Francisco Cervelli, who has taken Diaz under his wing since he was called up to Pittsburgh last September.

I’ve noticed for at least the last two years that Diaz is talking to Sanguillen on a daily basis. Last year I talked to Manny about Diaz, and he praised the catcher’s defensive abilities, highlighting his “quiet glove”. But it’s not just the bullpens that Manny watches. He also grabs a stool and watches him and the other catchers during batting practice, shouting words of encouragement throughout the session.

(In the video above, Manny and Cervelli cheering on Diaz’s power, guessing whether his shots would clear the fence.)

“He’s trying to teach me, and I try to learn from him,” Diaz said of the relationship he has with Sanguillen. “He’s got a lot of experience from baseball, and I hear everything from him… It’s amazing for me, having the opportunity to hear things from players like Manny.”

The relationship with Cervelli is a bit different. In this case you’ve got a guy who is the current starter for the Pirates, talking to a guy who could be the future starter for the team. The two talked everyday when Diaz was up in the majors last September, and have continued that during Spring Training.

“The relationship between Cervelli and me is good,” Diaz said. “He tried to teach me a lot. I try to learn from different catchers. That’s a good opportunity for me to complete my role, and be one of the best in this game.”

Cervelli had a lot of praise for the defensive work and the talent that Diaz shows, and also said he enjoys the opportunity to work with someone from his home country of Venezuela.

“We talk everyday,” Cervelli said. “If I can help him with things, I do it. Especially the mental game, because he’s got all the tools to be in the Major Leagues. He’s a guy who likes to ask questions. We’ve got a good relationship, and I’m going to help him as much as I can.”

Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz joking around in the bullpens between sessions. Photo Credit: Tim Williams
Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz joking around in the bullpens between sessions. Photo Credit: Tim Williams

The interesting twist to that relationship is that the only way for Diaz to arrive in the majors with the Pirates would be for Cervelli or Chris Stewart to get injured, or for Cervelli to leave the team after the 2016 season. Cervelli is a free agent at the end of the year, and told me the team hasn’t talked to him about an extension, although he’s open to staying. But the presence of Diaz could impact the team’s decision.

The Cervelli situation puts Diaz in a weird place, considering the strong catching options in the system. They’ve got Chris Stewart signed to a deal that would have him as the backup catcher through the 2018 season. They have top catching prospect Reese McGuire expected to make the jump to Altoona this season. And if Cervelli returns, that would relegate Diaz to Triple-A depth. But the Pirates do see Diaz as a big part of their future, as Clint Hurdle said this week.

“We like him a lot,” Hurdle said. “The growth that he’s shown. Pull up his first two [seasons] and look at them and see how many organizations would continue to feed a guy or take a guy and use a guy, and expect him to turn into the player that he has. The young man deserves a lot of credit. The development people have stayed with him, they’ve encouraged him. He’s been relentless though on working hard to get better. He’s always aware of where he needs to go to work, to improve.”

Hurdle even joked about the impact Diaz made in his short time in the majors last year, pointing out his high number in Spring Training this year.

“Last year, I told him it was enough at-bats to get a number change in Spring Training, which is good when you get to the big leagues,” Hurdle said. “He got number 32 and got one at-bat last year, so that’s some leverage. We do like the entire package. We like the young man. We like the aptitude, the defensive technique and skills, and the offensive capabilities. It’s a very exciting player.”

The call-up last year didn’t get Diaz much playing time, but that wasn’t the focus. The Pirates wanted him up in order to get him some work with the MLB pitching staff in the bullpens, along with getting some one-on-one time with Cervelli.

“We felt it was important enough to call him up,” Hurdle said of that work. “That was the plan. We weren’t looking to push at-bats on him. We were trying to get some things done collectively as a team, as an organization. The time spent in the bullpen, catching the sides that A.J. Burnett is throwing, Liriano is throwing, Cole is throwing. The interaction, watching the game during the game. Being ready. The video tape. The pre-game prep meetings, and the hitter and catcher and pitching coach.”

Hurdle noted that they took the same approach with Jordy Mercer. He came up a few times in 2012, but barely played, and got just 10 plate appearances in September. However, he worked with the veterans, including Clint Barmes, and Mercer has credited his work with Barmes for his defensive improvements and ability to learn the best routes.

“The year he came up, I just think of that,” Hurdle said of the comparison between Mercer and Diaz. “It adds for them coming in, they’ve done everything but play a lot when he finds his way back.”

Last year, Diaz was splitting time in Triple-A with Tony Sanchez. That prevented him from having an everyday role in Indianapolis behind the plate. This year, Sanchez is gone, and the Pirates will be focusing on making Diaz the primary catcher in Indy.

“That’s what we’ve talked about is having him on the field with more regularity than maybe the situation he was in last year,” Hurdle said. “It’s only going to help, more reps. And the ability to know that you’ve got to post up. One of the challenges from that position is getting out in the position where you can catch four or five or six games a week, whatever it might take.”

Diaz shows a lot of offensive ability in the cages, and started showing that on the field in the second half of the 2013 season, and throughout the 2014 season. He didn’t have the strongest offense in 2015, although that might have been due to the playing time situation.

“It’s hard to make adjustments,” Diaz said of the struggle with not playing everyday. “And when you catch different pitchers, it’s difficult. But you have to adjust and do what you can do.”

Diaz is one of the best defensive catchers in the minors, and pitchers praise his work behind the plate. He’s got the offensive ability to be more than just a strong defensive backup in the majors, but will need to improve the consistency of that hitting. If the Pirates need a catcher this year due to an injury to Cervelli or Stewart, then Diaz will get his shot in the majors, with more playing time than he received in 2015. If both catchers stay healthy, then Diaz will need Cervelli to depart as a free agent after the season in order to get a shot at the starter job in Pittsburgh before Reese McGuire arrives. He’s got the tools needed to start in the majors, and now it just becomes about getting the opportunity.

  • Shook Mannys hand once. What a strong calloused claw that was.

  • I could think of another player that could’ve benefited from the Mercer/Diaz treatment of coming up and learn from hanging around the big leaguers, the new black sheep: A. Hanson

  • Love seeing Manny around the team!! He was such a fun player to watch! Was there ever a player harder to walk or strikeout? He put everything in play somewhere!

    • Obviously it’s not the same category as an MLB player, but Willians Astudillo, who plays in the Phillies system, had 10 walks and 10 strikeouts in 418 plate appearances this past year. I saw him play about 20 games in 2014 with Lakewood and you basically knew he was swinging at the first pitch every at-bat and he usually put it in play

  • We will be facing off against Mr. Chris Coghlan again this year, but not in a Cubs uniform, but an A’s. Cubs traded him to the A’s today for a borderline bullpen arm.

  • Off topic a bit, but it never gets old seeing Manny Sanguillen in a Pirates uniform. One of my all-time favorite Buccos.

  • I like his swing a lot. His hands are really quiet in the load, and the bat path is quick and direct. He should hit just fine.

    • I hope you’re correct. I still have my doubts, tho.

    • Agreed, very similar to Cervelli in the sense that they’re both low powered bats who’ll make average contact and take a walk or two. Difference will come down to which one truly has the better BABIP skill.

      • If the scouting on his defense is to be trusted, the kid will be a heck of a player even if he never blooms into a Cervelli-level hitter. That’s a heck of a floor to have.

        And you know how much I love floors.

        I mean, can you imagine a world without floors? Multi-story buildings would be either pointless or dangerous, depending on whether or not support beams or catwalks counted as floors…

        That joke was terrible. Go back and unread it if you can.

  • Somewhat bold prediction: Sometime, somewhere this season a regular catcher on a good team is going to get hurt and that team is going to give the Pirates a prospect for Stewart, freeing a slot for Diaz on the active roster.

    • It’s a possibility

    • Possibility but i don’t see it happening. Quality backup catchers are hard to come by and they have Stew locked up for 3 years.

      • At a very cheap price for his production.

        • Tim,
          Way off topic but I “gots to know”…….did Big John Holdzkom show up in shape or is it to early to know?

          • I guess. He’s very tall and skinny, and he’s throwing, so no issues with his arm. Didn’t know there was a risk of him not showing up in shape.

            • I ask because of last year….there was a fair amount of dialogue last year that he did not show up in shape or prepared to compete. He went into a funk when he didn’t make the major league roster when the team came north. If he is right I think he makes us better.

              • I don’t recall that. He had a shoulder issue last year.

                • Local talk shows and print media (in Pittsburgh)had a fair amount of coverage and speculation when he didn’t make the final roster…including some interviews with Holdzkom. Before the shoulder story came out they were attributing his struggles in camp to other factors and in the minors to disappointment at not sticking with the ML club.

                  • Local talk shows can be a scary, scary place.

                  • I was here, and the reason given was a roster crunch. They had the choice of sending him down, or keeping him up and losing Arquimedes Caminero. They went with Caminero.

                    There was probably speculation to follow, and conspiracy theories on why he was sent down, but that wasn’t accurate. It could be that the shoulder issues existed in Spring Training as well, but that’s something I don’t know.

                    What I do know is that he was sent down to keep Caminero, and was in the plans as early season depth until he went down early with a shoulder issue.

                    • Thanks for the response. I hope the shoulder is sound this year because he was a weapon when right.

    • Better chance of that happening with Cervelli than Stewart.

      • Kinda stunned your boy Pedro is still available. Looks like he could play 1st in WBS for Yanks AAA if he wanted.

    • Yung-Han Chang
      February 25, 2016 2:53 pm

      Its more likely that cervelli will be traded at the trade deadline, and Diaz|Stewart would be the combination. I don’t see the Pirates offering a qualifying offer to cervelli.

      • I would imagine they wouldn’t go this route unless they were out of playoff contention. Don’t want to mess with a good thing if everything is working going into the playoffs. However, if the worst happens and they are out they should be able to get a nice haul for cervelli, melancon, and possibly morse if he’s doing well.