Williams: Elias Diaz is the Catcher of the Future, But When is That Future?

Prior to the 2015 season, all of the questions surrounding the catching position were focused on whether the Pirates would re-sign Russell Martin. They let Martin walk, instead opting to trade for Francisco Cervelli, who was under team control for two more seasons. With top-prospect-at-the-time Tony Sanchez struggling, the Pirates were hoping that Sanchez could either turn things around, or that another starting catching option could emerge to replace Cervelli.

Right around that time, Elias Diaz started to emerge. He was fresh off a breakout season in 2014 at the Double-A level, with a .328/.378/.445 line in 367 plate appearances. He moved up to Indianapolis the following year, posting a .271/.330/.382 line in 363 plate appearances, and getting the call to Pittsburgh over Sanchez when the time came at the end of the year.

Diaz always got rave reviews for his defense and game calling in the minors, excelling with a plus arm and great work with his pitching staffs. The offense was there, with some power potential, although that didn’t start to show up in games until the second half of the 2013 season in Bradenton, and the 2014 breakout in Altoona.

The Pirates had a starting catching prospect emerging in Diaz. They also had a legit starting catcher in Cervelli, who put up an unsustainable 3.8 fWAR in his first year with the Pirates, mostly unsustainable due to his health and ability to stay on the field for 510 at-bats that year.

The following year saw Diaz go down with an elbow injury early in the season. The Pirates followed that up with an extension of Cervelli, locking him up for three years and $31 M guaranteed, running through the 2019 season. Throughout the 2016 season, Diaz was struggling with injuries, and struggling at the plate as a result. The thought was that if he bounced back, he’d make a good backup, and eventually might get a shot to show what he can do as a starter if — or when — Cervelli went down with an injury.

All of that happened a lot sooner than expected. Diaz continued dealing with injuries throughout the offseason, but returned healthy to start the 2017 season. He also returned productive, hitting for a .281/.298/.388 line in 125 plate appearances in Indianapolis. Cervelli and Chris Stewart both went down with injuries, paving the way for Diaz to get some extended time in the big leagues. He has capitalized on that the past few weeks, posting a .319/.385/.468 line in 52 plate appearances so far this year.

Cervelli and Stewart are now back, and the Pirates have a difficult decision to make. They’ve been carrying three catchers on the roster, allowing them to use Diaz as a pinch hitter off the bench. While the offense so far comes in a small sample size, it has been enough to get the attention of Neal Huntington, and get Diaz this opportunity to stick around.

“Sometimes the best development is done at the major league level, even if it’s not in a regular’s role,” Huntington said to reporters on Sunday, including our Alan Saunders. “That’s a decision we’re going to have to make with Diaz. Right now he’s our best offensive option. So to have the three catchers and to have Diaz be available as a bat off the bench, or to start on a Sunday or a Thursday day game or what have you, it allows Clint to do what he wants to do with his catching – he can be aggressive to pinch run late in a game, he can use Elias to pinch hit late in a game, so we will continue to walk that path and what’s the best thing for us as a Major League team, what’s the best thing for us as an organization and ultimately we are going to do what’s the best for Diaz in the short and long-term.”

I’ve seen Diaz as a guy who can be a starter in the majors one day, and I think that day has come. The only issue there is that the Pirates have a starting catcher right now in Francisco Cervelli. Eventually, the solution here would be to trade Cervelli and to switch to Diaz as the regular catcher. Maybe that happens at the trade deadline or the offseason, but I don’t think the time is now.

While I’ve been a believer that Diaz is the catcher of the future, I’d like to see more than 52 plate appearances before proclaiming that the future is now. If the only issue here is that the Pirates have too many catchers, then they don’t really have an issue. The 2016 Pirates would have loved that “problem.”

The Pirates could go in another direction and waive Chris Stewart, giving Diaz the backup role. But it’s almost worth it to keep Stewart around, as cutting him would reduce the playing time that Diaz would have, since it removes the pinch-hitting option.

If the Pirates continue with three catchers, then the choice isn’t between Diaz and the other two catchers. It’s between Diaz and the other bench options, like Chris Bostick, Phil Gosselin, and others in Indianapolis. You could make the argument that Diaz is the best offensive option in that group, even if he doesn’t add much versatility on the defensive side. But the Pirates also have plenty of versatility on their roster already, so it wouldn’t hurt to carry an extra catcher.

Neal Huntington didn’t sound on Sunday like he knew how long Diaz would be in this role, but said there were some benefits to continuing with this approach.

“He’s still going to benefit from playing regularly – but he’s also going to benefit from being around a Major League environment and seeing hitters adjust at the major league level and working through in his old mind what pitch he would call or what he would be looking for as a hitter,” Huntington said. “So there is some benefit to him, and that’s where does the balance end up? How long does he fit in this role? Right now we feel good about it, but we may hit a point in time where we may need to get him back up or may need to get him playing regular basis. We’re not there right now.”

One big benefit to having Diaz in this current role would be the ability to see him for an extended period, giving a look of more than 52 plate appearances. We’ve seen the Pirates move young players into regular roles by putting them on the bench first, then giving them increased playing time as their production picks up. Adam Frazier made that jump, and is getting regular playing time this year. Jose Osuna has been getting priority playing time when the Pirates have too many injuries. This is a more difficult approach to take with catchers, but it’s possible if you use the prospect as a third catcher in this role.

If Diaz continues the path he’s on right now, then the Pirates will have to do something to make him the starting catcher. But I don’t think there’s any need to rush that situation right now and get rid of catching depth, especially since all three catchers currently on the roster have dealt with multiple injuries in the last year.

  • Keeping Diaz in the bigs is a no-brainer. He’s 27 years old for goodness sake. No use hiding him under a bushel any longer. Given Cervelli is somewhat injury-prone, what’s the problem having them share a bit more than the usual starter/backup split of games? Stew is physically done – waive or trade him if anyone is desperate enough to take him. Surely Jaso can be the emergency backup catcher in a pinch. He is a utility fielder in the truest sense of the word!

  • I like Diaz off the bench for a pinch hitter, leaving you with a capable backup in Stewart should Cervelli go down during the game. But I want to see Diaz and Cervelli split time 50/50 keeping them both more fresh for the end of the season and our playoffs (should we get there by some miracle…hey if we do, at least it WON’T be as a wildcard team.)

  • Stewart is gone after this year. No question Cervelli signing was at the time a good move in the mind of NH. But watching Cervelli catch now, man he drops a lot of pitches and his framing is not a useful. By the time the contract ends, Cervelli will be the beneficiary of that deal. No power, and injuries is where things are now. He may be traded after next season with one year to go. But no one takes him with that deal now.

  • Bill Harvey
    June 20, 2017 3:04 am

    I think, if the right deal comes along, Cervelli could be traded at the deadline. It would open up the always useful, financial flexibility. $10 mil could buy a lot of bullpen help. Regardless, I think this is going to be a very active trade deadline.

  • Chris Stewart is 35 years old, injury prone and in the last year of his contract. Stewart goes either through trade throw in at deadline or, if no other options, DFA him. He’s taking more time away from Diaz.

    • I don’t think that is true right now. Stewart is number three not Diaz.

      There are three timeframes to be aware of:
      1. Rosters expand in 10 weeks
      2. Trade deadline could shake up the roster in 6 weeks
      3. Marte comes back in about 4 weeks
      Plus Meadows is a wild card if he starts to hit.

    • Stewart is the true backup right now. When a start is needed, it goes to Diaz. And having Stewart on the team gives Diaz pinch hitting chances, which he doesn’t get if you release Stewart. Diaz actually gets more playing time with Stewart on the roster.

      • Tim, is Cervelli Nova’s personal catcher (when healthy)?

      • Reading your (always excellent!) articles it has been apparent for some time that Diaz fits as the Pirates’ starting catcher at some point, especially if he can demonstrate in a larger “sample size” that he can provide some reasonable offense to complement the obvious skills behind “the dish”.

  • If the Pirates are going to be sellers at the deadline, or even the off season, catching is always in demand. My concern is the health of all three guys.

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