The Pirates Have Some Catching Prospects Developing Behind Elias Diaz

ALTOONA, Pa. and BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates made a few trades from their minor league catching depth last year, sending out prospects Reese McGuire and Taylor Gushue. At the start of the season, McGuire was the primary starter in Altoona, and Gushue was the primary starter in Bradenton.

Regardless of how you feel about the trades, the end result was that moving McGuire and Gushue opened the door for playing time for two other catching prospects in the system — Jin-De Jhang and Christian Kelley.

Jhang has been on the prospect radar for a few years, but has been stuck behind McGuire the entire time. With McGuire gone, Jhang was able to finally get a starting workload, rather than splitting time between being a backup and a DH.

Kelley was drafted in the 11th round in 2015, and really came onto the radar last year, showing off solid defense in West Virginia, while also showing some potential for offense. It’s not a surprise that Gushue was moved in favor of Kelley, since the Pirates promoted Kelley to Bradenton at the end of last year, and had him taking starts from Gushue.

I had a chance to catch up with both catchers recently, looking at their progress this season, and how they are handling the starting roles.

Jin-De Jhang

The biggest focus for Jhang has always been his weight and training. When he came into pro ball, he didn’t look like a guy who would be able to stick behind the plate, due to his size. Here is the earliest photo we have of him, taken in Spring Training 2012.

By comparison, here he was during Spring Training this year.

Jhang, who goes by the nickname “Johnny”, is still a big guy, but he’s in much better shape now than he was when he first entered pro ball.

“We do such a good job as an organization of supplying these guys with the right information,” Altoona manager Michael Ryan said. “Our strength department does a good job individualizing each workout. Johnny, because of the trades we’ve had with catchers in the organization, I think he needed to do a little more with his body, because he knew he needed to be catching a lot more. Credit to him. It’s been working for him. He’s more flexible back there. He’s been blocking a couple of balls that he may not have a few years ago, and he’s doing a great job.”

Jhang said that he feels stronger and more loose, and has noticed the difference in his blocking and footwork. He was always surprisingly quick and agile for his size, but maintaining his weight has only helped.

That was a key focus for him as he became a regular catcher. Those duties typically come with a workload that sees a catcher starting three days in a row, then getting one day off. Jhang said that it feels just like normal, and Ryan hasn’t noticed any issues.

“I don’t see any fatigue or that it’s affecting him,” Ryan said. “He looks normal each day. Even on the third day of his three that he catches in a row, he looks the same.”

Another key for Jhang has been his comfort with the English language. Signing out of Taiwan, Jhang wasn’t always strong in this area. He made quick improvements, to the point where the Pirates trusted sending him to Morgantown in 2013 without a translator. He always had a feel for the baseball lingo, but has expanded that in the last few years, only helping his relationship with his pitching staff.

“It’s kind of more comfortable, because I can speak more English,” Jhang said about the relationship with his pitching staff. “We can have more conversations.”

“I think that’s the key with the language now,” Ryan said. “He can honestly communicate with the pitchers, and he can understand with conversations in between innings on what pitchers want to do, and he applies it. I think it’s a huge step for him and his career. It’s not a coincidence that he’s developing into a better catcher because of the way he can communicate with our guys. It’s huge for him.”

The one downside this year has been his offense. That has always been a strength for him, but he has only managed a .439 OPS on the season. He had a .721 OPS last year in Altoona, and has shown good hitting tools throughout his career. That has even been the case when I’ve seen him this year, even though the numbers don’t reflect it.

“You can tell he can hit,” Ryan said. “It’s a timing thing. If you look at his at-bats, he’s still in Spring Training mode. That’s not really a concern right now. You can tell pitches that he takes, swings he’s pretty close. He’s going to hit. It’s a timing thing right now.”

Jhang went to big league camp this year, where he didn’t receive a lot of at-bats. He was injured toward the end of that time, and missed his regular Spring Training. After a brief rehab from his oblique injury, he returned to Altoona on May 20th. I think it’s more likely that this impacted his offense, rather than the alternative that he just forgot how to hit — which doesn’t match up with the skills he shows at the plate.

The offense is still what will drive Jhang’s value, but he has gotten to a point where he’s a strong enough defender to stick at the position and provide defensive value behind the plate. That will only improve now that he’s getting more experience with a starting role.

Christian Kelley

From the time he was drafted, Kelley stood out for his defense. He had some offensive abilities, but they lagged behind the defense. This year, he has been focusing on a few offensive changes, and has been seeing better results.

Kelley added a big leg kick during Spring Training, and after getting comfortable with the concept, he toned it down to the point where he got comfortable with the kick.

“I kind of toned that down a little bit, and it’s helped me with my timing,” Kelley said. “The leg kick is making me get ready earlier, and then toning it down was allowing me to be on time a little faster.”

Kelley isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with his offense, but is showing a lot of promise. He has a .266/.374/.335 line, with the average and OBP being above-average for the pitcher friendly Florida State League. The one thing that has been lagging behind is his power.

“More of my hits have been with two strikes, and all of my leverage has come before two strikes,” Kelley said. “Making hard contact before two strikes would definitely help me to improve that.”

Kelley shows some power potential, with the chance for double-digit home runs if he can eventually apply his power to games.

Overall, it’s a surprise that Kelley has had any time to focus on his offense with the pitching staff he’s had to work with in Bradenton. That staff is highlighted by Mitch Keller, the top pitching prospect in the system, along with Taylor Hearn and Gage Hinsz, who are also top ten prospects. It has also included Dario Agrazal, Pedro Vasquez, Cam Vieaux, and hard throwing reliever Jake Brentz.

“Honestly I’ve thought about [offense] less than I ever have, just because of the staff we have,” Kelley said. “Maybe that is what has been helping me. I’ve been given the opportunity and challenge by the organization to catch all of these great arms that we have. It’s a lot of future big leaguers. I’m more focused on catching those guys than I am on the hitting.”

You almost feel sorry for Kelley during some stretches when considering the velocities with this team. Keller, Hearn, and Hinsz can all sit mid-90s or higher, and usually line up three days in a row. In fact, the team jokes about how opposing teams will react to seeing those three. Earlier in the season, Agrazal added another guy who brought mid-90s heat. Vasquez has bumped his velocity up closer to the mid-90s lately. And then when Brentz would come in pitching out of the bullpen, you had a lefty who sat 97-99, hitting 100.

“Oh man, they’re making me work,” Kelley said of the staff. “They can pound the bottom of the zone for strikes and working to get under it, it’s fun.”

A big thing that stands out with Kelley’s defense is his leadership over the pitching staff. That will be valuable as he continues moving up with this group, and will help the transition one day if he arrives in the majors with the group.

Catchers of the Future

If I’m picking a catcher currently in the system who can take over for Francisco Cervelli, I’d go with Elias Diaz. But Jhang and Kelley could both emerge as future MLB catchers. I think the upside with each guy is a backup, although I can see a path for each guy to be a starter. For Jhang, that path involves maintaining his offense in the upper levels, while continuing the improvements he’s made with his defense and conditioning. That’s not an easy path, and it seems much more likely that he ends up a backup. For Kelley, the defense is there, but he’ll need to find a way to get his power more consistently into games. He’s got an easier path to being a starter, since there is less to work on defensively.

I don’t think the catcher trades from last year were made specifically to free up space for Jhang and Kelley, but I also think the Pirates were comfortable trading from their catching group, knowing that they still had these two to provide some depth.

  • .439 OPS for Jhang? Yikes. Heading should have been “developing….real slow.”

  • Gushue has 14 HRs and an 820 OPS in high A with WSH this year. The Bucs may regret offering Gushue in that trade. Was Kelley’s defense that far ahead of Gushue’s?

    • Real question is whether Bostick delivers equal or better value than Gushue might have to the Bucs over their respective MLB careers.

      • Not my question. More than likely, the Pirates gave the Nats a list of players to choose from in exchange for Bostick. The Pirates chose to make Gushue available which may (or may not) have been a mistake regardless of how Bostick pans out.

        • You have to give up value to get value in most cases. If Bostick outperforms Gushue the Pirates have a win, regardless of how well Gushue performs. Also Kelley may out perform Gushue. Time will rell.

    • FWIW, he had 12 homeruns in his first six weeks and just two with a .600 OPS since then.

    • It’s his second run through High-A, so that adds a disclaimer to the numbers. Also, we’re comparing the Carolina League with the Florida State League, which isn’t an even comparison. But the biggest thing left out is the difference in defense, and yes, Kelley is that far ahead of Gushue. It’s not to say that Gushue was horrible. He had some skills, but was much more raw than Kelley, and might not be as good as Kelley even when/if he gets polished.

  • How do the 2017 Pirate drafted catchers look?

    • From the prospect page:

      Jason Delay: “…has a similar profile to Jacob Stallings…They saved some by signing Delay for $100,000, which was $350,500 below the slot amount.”

      Deon Stafford: “…lacks arm strength to control the running game and there are some doubts about him sticking at catcher…”

      Manny Bejerano: 30th round.

  • The Pirates have human beings playing the catcher position at various levels of minor league baseball, yes.

    • John Dreker
      July 10, 2017 5:29 pm

      Someday I would love to see a real-life battle in a Colosseum type setting between the “How come you never mention Player X” crowd and the “Only the top prospects matter” crowd.. I would thoroughly enjoy that.

      Ladies and gentlemen. Before you stands two men. One asked about writing a Carlos Munoz article seven times (crowd boos), the other summed up a 2000 word James Marvel article by saying “AAAA player at best” (more boos). They will now fight to the death for your amusement! Let the battle begin! (loud cheers)… #bucketlist

      • Hilarious

      • Drekkodus: “What is your name gladiator?”
        BFSIM: “My name is BuccoFanus StuckInus Marylandius. And I will have my vengance. In this article or the next.”
        Drekkodus: {gives thumb down}

      • I hear you!

        It can’t be easy coming up with daily content when your focus is on such a singular product.

        Like, here is what we have to write about. We’re going to write about it, because that’s our job. We don’t get to decide whether or not the content is actually interesting or will ultimately be relevant.

        • Since the site is Pirates Prospects, and our job is to cover every player in the system, then every prospect we write about is relevant.

          The reason this site is around is because every other news outlet feels that the only minor leaguers that are relevant are the top 10 prospects who are located in Indianapolis, and only when they’re about to arrive in the majors.

          So in a few years, if Jhang and Kelley arrive, those outlets will be doing introduction articles to these guys, while having no clue who they are. Meanwhile, we will be pointing to articles that we’ve written for years, detailing the development process, while providing the latest update.

          It’s incredibly easy to come up with daily content, since there are so many players to cover, and due diligence on those players leads to many article possibilities. The last few weeks we have actually had an issue of too many things to talk about.

          • Again, for those who find reading and writing about potential backup catchers two to three years away from the Major Leagues, more power to you! It’s great you have writers willing to provide content for this niche audience.

        • Cmon man

  • if all goes according to plan, Diaz will be 29 1/2 when he takes over for Cervelli.

    …older than Cervelli was when he took over for Martin.

  • Why exactly don’t the Pirates cut Stewart loose? They say Diaz needs to play everyday. However, that same rationale doesn’t keep them from sending Moroff down.

    • Personally, I wish the Pirates could find a taker for Cervelli and Stewart and let the Diaz/Stallings Era begin. Cervelli was nice, but not another $22M nice.

      • HamburgBucco
        July 10, 2017 5:06 pm

        I would love Stallings in Pittsburgh, but I reckon they will cut him at the end of the season, won’t they ?
        He would be a very decent backup once Cervelli and Stewart are gone.

        • Stallings is like the 3rd string quarterback…he’s easy to root for…until you’re stuck with him being the starter πŸ™‚

          But, no, I don’t see it as being a big step down in talent from Stewart to Stallings.

          • HamburgBucco
            July 10, 2017 6:11 pm

            Yes, but it is rare that teams have two or three QBs of equal quality.
            Ideally if you are lucky enough you have a starting catcher who is strong with both glove and bat and then you need one or two backups who at least are strong and reliable on the defensive side.
            Stallings surely is good enough for that.
            If he then gets the odd RBI it is a bonus.

    • I don’t think anyone has rationale for why Moroff is still on this team and gets an excessive amount of playing time. Hanson is twice the player Moroff is talent wise but, when Hanson was on the roster you saw him almost exclusively in a pinch runner role. However, it seems like every time I turn on a Bucs game I see Moroff striking out. Hundred dollars says they send down the 20 times more effective Osuna as opposed to joke Moroff when Marte comes back.

      • scrappy2499
        July 11, 2017 7:36 am

        The only thing I can think is that when Hanson got pulled from a couple games down in the minors for not hustling or other issues it must have rubbed some in the front office the wrong way…He didn’t seem to get much of a chance with the big club.

  • Eric Marshall
    July 10, 2017 2:44 pm

    How would you say Gushue’s line with high A Washington compares to Kelley and Jhang? Looks impressive overall offensively.

  • HamburgBucco
    July 10, 2017 2:38 pm

    What about Stallings? Looks like a very solid defensive catcher who could easily serve as backup in place of someone like Stewart.

    • I agree, why was Stallings left out? If the likely ceiling of the profiled players is a back up — isn’t Stallings already at that ceiling? I suppose he’ll end up as a minor league free agent before he has a chance as a back up with the Pirates. Other than Diaz, the Pirates really don’t have much to write home about in the way of drafting or signing a future catcher. Same for 3B with only Hayes as a realistic starter in the pipeline who may not develop enough power (we’ll see). I don’t quite understand why they aren’t playing Craig at 3B (at least sometimes) to give them at least two realistic options for a future 3B.

      • Hayes is still very young, so plenty of time for power to show up, plus Craig looks like a very good 1st baseman defensively. Also there is a young kid in the DSL that may fit that power 3B profile(Sherten Apostel). He has some pop and size at 6’4 200 to fill out some. Big arm 18 years old so long way away, but something to dream on power corners Bell and Apostel, but I haven’t given up on Hayes’ power either.

    • meatygettingsaucy
      July 10, 2017 3:59 pm

      I think more to the point is Stallings has seen major league time and is pretty much fully developed barring something out of left field. As for Jhang and Kelley they are still developing and it is uncertain what their futures may be.

  • I probably just forgot about reading his latest update, but what’s the status of Agrazal’s injury at the moment?