Elias Diaz is Getting His Shot in Pittsburgh With Francisco Cervelli Out

PITTSBURGH — Just moments after Pirates manager Clint Hurdle shut veteran catcher Francisco Cervelli down for the remainder of the 2017 season, he called the development of rookie catcher Elias Diaz “one of the best things that happens in this month of September.”

Diaz, 26, has taken over the lion’s share of the catching duties with Cervelli on the shelf and he’ll be the starter going forward as the Pirates try to develop him into the catcher that he was always projected he could be.

The biggest hurdle to that goal to this point has been playing time. Diaz has been infrequently healthy while Cervelli played over 230 games over the last two seasons. Now, he’s making up for lost time in September.

“I think he’s improving,” Hurdle said. “I think he’s shown growth. I think it comes with confidence and playing time. The back-pick the other day of (Joey) Votto, that’s a clean play, a good baseball play. The transfer has gotten shorter and quicker. The arm strength is there. The ball blocking ability we’ve seen. More reps with all the pitchers and more with the bullpen guys.”

The next step for Diaz will be a smooth transition into winter ball this offseason in attempt to keep things rolling straight from this fall into next spring.

“We’ve planned out an attack for winter ball,” Hurdle said. “It’s feasible. He wants to play and we think it would be healthy for him to play. Guys like him and (Jose) Osuna, we’re going to try to set up a six-week period of winter ball play to get them active, and in his case, just to continue to catch, continue to swing the bat and put the two pieces together.

“The complete game part of it has been critical for him up here as well. To add to that number at the end of the year. It’s still going to be a guy that’s never caught 100 games in a year. The aptitude has been really good. The coachability has been really good. The game was moving much quicker for him two weeks ago than it is now. He’s been able to slow the game down.”

Part of the game slowing down for a catcher is knowing when to literally slow the game down and go out to have a chat with a pitcher that needs a talking to. Diaz was able to settle Jameson Taillon down on Monday, and Taillon thinks he’s come a long way in that regard.

“He was my Low-A catcher, so the relationship was already there,” Taillon said. “We’ve been through some stuff together. We’re comfortable with each other. He’s making a lot of progress really quickly. He’s learning a lot. I’m doing the same. The pitcher-catcher relationship is really important. I’m excited that I’ve gotten the opportunity to throw to him, work with him and grow with him.”

Diaz sees some of that growth in himself — particularly in the pitch-calling, sequencing, game-planning, pitch-framing and pitching staff management aspects of his job that don’t necessarily show up in the box score.

“The growth spurt has been huge,” he said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “Obviously, when you’re getting so many more repetitions, some many more opportunities, the growth is going to happen. In the big leagues, it’s the highest level you can get to. There’s a lot of adjustments that have to be made. When you’re on the bench, it’s hard to make those adjustments and get those reps. But when you’re getting playing time, the growth spurt is huge. I’m definitely growing right now.”

Hurdle was critical of Diaz’s pitch calling earlier in the year, but said he has made marked improvement as the season has gone on.

“He’s learning,” Hurdle said. “He’s doing what he needs to do. He’s asking questions. … All of it has been really solid development.”

The Pirates have Francisco Cervelli under contract for two more years, but that’s a contract the Pirates could move on from this offseason if they decided to. Even if Cervelli stays in Pittsburgh, there’s no telling how much he’d play. He suited up just 81 times in 2017.

If Diaz could prove this fall and winter that he can be a major-league catcher the team could pick up the option on Chris Stewart and trade Cervelli for some help somewhere else. If Diaz looks like a backup options, they can decline Stewart’s option and use that cash elsewhere.

But Neal Huntington needs to know what he has in Diaz before he can accurately make those decisions. That’s what makes the stakes for Diaz’s development this fall so high.

  • The Pirates have not demonstrated the ability to “trick” other teams into taking players who are overpaid and under performing (even if it is due to injuries). Liriano, Walker, Pedro, Morton, Neise, etc
    I believe the reason is that we optimistically think we can fix them or get too much for them. After we’ve either proven they no longer have value (Pedro, Liriano) or annoyed trade partners, we are forced to just let them go.

    The only way to get value for Cervelli would be to keep him and hope he starts off hot and keeps healthy and then trade him at that point.

  • He’s in the negative in Framing Runs, Blocking Runs and Throwing Runs. He has been a bad defensive catcher. That’s not good.

    • He is adjusting to MLB. It simply isn’t the same catching AAA and MLB. Same game, different stage. Everyone takes a little time to get over stage fright.

  • Another tremendous throw from Diaz to get Braun, from the left knee, a dart right on the bag. Frazier didn’t even have to move the glove to make the tag. And he got hit in the head with the bat during the swing, to boot, and didn’t lose any focus.

    If we’re measuring framing by calls bought/lost, he’s been poor tonight, but honestly, I can’t see anything wrong with how he’s receiving the ball on most of the missed calls. The glove’s been stationary. He’s just catching it at exactly the place it was pitched. I’m inclined to call it strictly umpire error this evening.

  • Diaz has regressed a bit the last year or two, probably in no small way due to some injuries, but the elements of a really good catcher are still there. His hands are soft, his arm is strong and accurate, and his instincts are pretty good. I think an offseason conditioning plan with a focus on shedding some weight and regaining some agility would serve him well, and I think he can also improve his framing a bit with familiarity with the staff and a focus on it next spring. I don’t know what he’ll be as a hitter, but that caught stealing he had recently where he picked the ball on his backhand and threw a dart from his knees is a taste of what he can do defensively that most guys can’t.

    I like the idea of going into next season with him and Cervelli as the tandem. Give him plenty of starts, in the hope giving Cervelli more frequent rest will help him stay healthier.

    • They should be open to improving on that duo, but i’m basically with you on the issue.

      I’d totally be open to dumping cervelli and signing Lucroy if he’d come cheap, for example.

      • Unless Lucroy’s decline is somehow not real, Cervelli is a better catcher than him right now. In fact, Cervelli posted more WAR this season despite all the time missed with injuries than Lucroy.

        But if the opportunity to improve at the position presents itself, might as well do it. I just don’t know that I’d consider it a priority.

        • i just see that .273 BABIP and assume that better days are coming. I’d be shocked if Lucroy was just suddenly a bad player, but i’ve been wrong before.

          • His ISO and hard contact rates plummeted this year, it’s not just a BABIP issue. He’s making both more and worse contact now, and I’m not really sure what to make of that, but I’m inclined to say it’s a bad thing.

            • thanks for looking harder into it than i was willing to.

              i’ll just admit it that he’s always secretly been one of my favorite non-Pirates, so i still want them to take a shot haha

    • I also wonder if the Pirates foresee framing decreasing in importance as more and better PitchFX data “trains” umpires to call closer to the book zone and they become more aware of (and resistant to) the techniques catchers use to steal strikes (someone on FG had an article in the past year or two about how the variance between the best and worst framers is decreasing), and therefore are re-emphasizing the “traditional” aspects of catcher defense like blocking, throwing, pitch calling, and otherwise managing the game from the field.

  • justinblain1996
    September 19, 2017 12:41 pm

    The last few years have proven that catching depth has never been a bad thing, but Diaz is definitely a major leaguer. They can’t go into next year with Cervelli/Stewart again and stash Diaz in the minors. And they still would have Jacob Stallings as depth. At this point though I would definitely go Diaz/Stewart.

    • They literally can’t go into next year with Cervelli/Stewart and stash Diaz in the minors, because Diaz is out of options. I think Jacob Stallings has become a perfectly cromulent third catcher, so they could go with either Cervelli/Diaz or Diaz/Stewart; my bet is that they pick up Stewart’s option as insurance against someone getting hurt before the 25-man is set in the spring and then either release him or do a handshake deal where he accepts a minor league assignment (assuming he clears waivers) as a sort of player/coach with the expectation of being officially added to the coaching staff when he decides he doesn’t want to play any more.

    • I’d actually be comfortable with Diaz /, Stallings but I am not anxious to see Cervelli go. My preference would be a 50/50 Cervi/Diaz split.

  • How easy would it be for the Pirates to trade Cervelli at this point? This is NOT a rhetorical question.

    • It seems like there’s always some team that’s just a total disaster at catcher. I think it’d be pretty easy to trade him. I don’t know what they’d get for him, though.

      • That is the key question!

        • Not necessarily. There will be value in freeing up the $ to use elsewhere if Diaz is really ready. I dont see it happening though. That leaves us with Diaz and Stallings at the MLB level and DeJhang that hasnt caught at AAA yet. Maybe midseason or after 2018.

    • He’s guaranteed $10.5M and $11.5M the next 2 years. For a higher-revenue team, that’s doable. But given his injury history and the money, I think the best you’d get is a B level prospect.

      • Conveniently, that’s almost the exact contract that Matt Wieters got last year.

        Wieters had a higher peak and has overall been a far more valuable player, but they’re three months apart in age and were almost exactly equal in value in 2016. Boras had to call in a favor with his friend Ted Lerner in order to get that contract, and even then $5m was deferred.

        Cervelli’s concussion and hamate issues alone most likely put his remaining contract under water.

    • as injury prone as he is, he still produced a WAR and is paid like a player who earns one WAR.

      him being injury prone was baked into his contract.

      He isn’t some overpaid player that is immovable. They wouldnt get anything of note for him, but they wouldnt have trouble finding a home if clearing his salary was the goal.

      if you ask me, they’re better off either keeping Cervy (and trading a Harrison or Mercer if they really need the money), or trading him if and only if they could take a 1 yr cheap flier on a Jon Lucroy and hope he can bounce back. Something tells me that Lucroy will cost more than a cheap flier though.

      • How many injury prone catchers have recently gotten multi-year, eight-figure contracts?

        • i don’t know. i assume that your point is that not many have. But I still stand by my statement that his injury prone nature is baked into the contract. Because if it wasn’t, he’d be paid a lot more.

          This would all work a lot better if they had a more exciting backup C than Stewart in the past / Diaz in the future.