INDIANAPOLIS — Depth and development: Triple-A Indianapolis needs to provide both.
The Pirates want to see the young prospects mature and develop into future major leaguers, while there ideally needs to be enough players ready to step up a level in case of injuries. And as this season has detailed, teams can never have enough depth. One position has made that evident the past two seasons: catcher.
Depth and development are not a concern at the catching position this season based on the play from Elias Diaz and Jacob Stallings. As the primary catcher in Indianapolis, Diaz is hitting .290/.304/.370 this season in 25 games. He’s thrown out more than half — 13 of 25 — of stolen base attempts. Stallings is hitting .306/.370/.449 this season as the backup catcher, showing consistent offensive production despite not being an everyday player.
Those players, as Indianapolis manager Andy Barkett noted, don’t have the same experience as major leaguers Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. But if needed, Diaz and Stallings could be more than serviceable options if one or both major league catchers were injured.
“For me, the big league club has to sleep at night knowing they have some options here if something were to happen,” Barkett said. “These two guys could go up there and fill in until those two guys would be ready to come back. I think one or both, either one of them.”
Indianapolis is 16-3 in May and have had almost every spot in the lineup produce offensively, but April was rough at times. The teams had a pair of 20-plus scoreless inning streaks, but during that stretch one position kept producing: catcher.
“Both of them are swinging the bat well,” Barkett said. “I’m really proud of Stallings, being the hitting coordinator last year, and watching him grow into the year he’s had so far and the player he is right now.”
Pitchers have always raved about throwing to Stallings, but he had one glaring issue last season: his offense was lacking. He’s never had great production at the plate, with a minor-league best .275 average in Double-A Altoona in 2015. Stallings has slowly reversed course, hitting .400 in 15 at-bats with the Pirates last season. And he hit .321 with a .965 OPS in 51 Spring Training at-bats.
“I think (this season’s success) is a carry-over from last year,” Stallings said. “And if you have success it gives you confidence.”
That confidence is raised on the strength of calmness, Barkett said.
“It’s not just about the results, but more how calm he is,” said Barkett, who was the organization’s assistant hitting coordinator last season. “Last year he seemed more panicked and looking for answers, but now he’s looking to be the best version of himself that he can be.”
Stallings’ production is more impressive considering he only gets to play once every few days, with the exception of when Diaz was promoted to the Pirates when Cervelli was injured. The lack of consistent at-bats has hindered some players, but Stallings takes the role in strides and looks for the positives.
“For some guys it probably keeps them out of rhythm, but not me personally,” Stallings said. “For me, doing well and getting off to a pretty good start – you get to sit on that for a couple of days. That creates good vibes, which helps me the most. I don’t feel I get out of rhythm or timing, too much, but for me it’s just about staying with my approach and good results will come.”
Stallings shouldn’t be expected to hit well in the majors going forward, since his track record of a lack of offense outweighs his recent small sample of hitting. But the recent results give some hope that he can hit enough to get his defensive skills to the majors as a backup or a depth option.
Indianapolis’ primary catcher — Diaz — has one of the best arms at his position in minor league baseball. He’s thrown out more than half of attempted base stealers, with a couple of the ones that he didn’t falling more on the pitcher than Diaz.
Diaz had a solid Spring Training, hitting .286 with a .781 OPS. He’s developed a good relationship with the pitching staff as he continue to grows in that role.
Cervelli and Stewart will remain the two catchers with the Pirates unless one gets injured, which happened to both of them at one point last season. Diaz would have been promoted, but he was also injured for a good portion of the year. That led to Stallings making his major league debut, even though he was struggling at the plate.
The Pirates went out and found Eric Fryer and Erik Kratz as fill-ins until Cervelli and Stewart were healthy again. But if both major league catchers get injured this season, the Pirates might not feel so compelled to go to the open market looking for replacements.
Diaz has already played four games with the Pirates when Cervelli was dealing with a foot injury. Barkett previously said Diaz is good enough right now to be a backup for any major league team, and could probably start for a few of them. And Stallings is playing well enough that the Pirates might not feel the need to trade anybody away for a temporary catcher. Having that type of depth at the Triple-A level, in case of an emergency, is a luxury that not many organizations possess.