It’s common for a small market team like the Pirates to take on risks. They do so by adding reclamation pitching projects, or by relying on prospects, or by adding injury prone guys and hoping for the best possible health.
Sometimes those risks work out, giving the team a lot of value, and showing why a small market team would practice this method. Sometimes they don’t really get value, but the plan doesn’t totally backfire on them. And sometimes they get the worst possible combination of events that could happen with a risky approach.
The Pirates took on a risk when they signed Francisco Cervelli to an extension in early 2016. At the time, Elias Diaz was down with an elbow injury, and they didn’t have any internal catching options lined up to take over after the 2016 season. Cervelli was risky because he had a history of being injury prone, and very limited experience as a starter. But he showed his upside with a 3.7 fWAR in 2015 when he was healthy and productive as a starter.
The downside to the risk showed up in 2016. After the extension, Cervelli returned to his injury prone ways. He had only 393 plate appearances in 2016, but was still productive with a 1.6 fWAR. It’s not the best situation, but not the worst either.
The 2017 season showed the worst.
Cervelli’s injury issues this year limited him to just 81 games, with 304 plate appearances. He was worth 0.9 fWAR during the season, which isn’t horrible when you consider that a win on the open market is worth $8-9 M and he was making $9 M. The problem was that the team needed value from Cervelli, and they ended up getting break-even production while needing backups for half of their games.
The backups didn’t help the situation. Chris Stewart, known for being injury prone himself, was limited to 144 plate appearances and struggled to the tune of a -0.6 fWAR. The combination of injuries led to increased playing time for Elias Diaz, who didn’t make a successful jump to the big leagues, and had a -0.3 fWAR in 200 plate appearances.
The combination of Diaz and Stewart made the Cervelli issue worse. The Pirates were getting about fair value for Cervelli’s contract, and could have gotten some real value if he stayed healthy. Instead, he was injured for half the season, leading to below-replacement value behind the plate, which wiped out the value he provided.
It may not work out like this every year, but the 2017 season showed one of the worst things that can happen when you rely on two injury prone catchers and one unproven prospect behind the plate.
The Pirates will have an interesting decision to make behind the plate in 2018. They have Cervelli under control for two more years at a total of $22 M. He needs to put up just a little over 1 WAR each year to be worth that, although that ignores the issue that the Pirates need to get more than break-even value from him.
At this point, I don’t think you can count on more than 300-350 plate appearances from Cervelli. Anything beyond that would just be a bonus. And if the Pirates wanted to take a risk, they could hope for better health than he has shown in the last year, or at least hope for the health and production that he had in 2016.
The problem is that they don’t have an alternative right now. Diaz doesn’t look ready for the majors. I wouldn’t bank on Cervelli being more than a 1 WAR player, and I wouldn’t bank on Diaz being better than replacement level right now.
I’m not totally writing Diaz off though. He is older than most who get the prospect label, turning 27 next month. He hasn’t shown his skills yet in the big leagues, whether in the form of framing runs, or maximizing his arm against stolen bases. We’re only starting to get to understand advanced catching defensive metrics, and we don’t really have data on how long the adjustment period is from Triple-A to the majors for some skills, or whether learning a new pitching staff can lead to a slower start.
I think it’s fair to say that no conclusions should be drawn about Diaz due to the limited amount of time he has been in the majors. It’s the same approach I’d take if a top prospect came up and didn’t light the world on fire in his first half season in the majors. You want to see a larger sample size than this before making any final statements.
Diaz has had the look of a backup catcher who can provide strong defense, or maybe an average starter who is defensive minded and can hit enough to justify starting. The bat is another thing that hasn’t shown up consistently, although the tools are there. Whether they finally show up will play a big role in determining his future role in the majors.
The key thing here is that Diaz isn’t ready now, and we don’t know when or if he will be ready in the future. I’d count on him as a backup catcher at this point, or at least split time with another backup. And that complicates the future of the catching situation.
Do the Pirates continue to spend money on Cervelli, hoping for the best possible health in order to get value from the catching position? Or do they go with a cheaper option in Diaz, while adding another backup type, and relying on Jacob Stallings for depth in the minors? The cheaper route has a lower upside, and you’re probably hoping for half a win combined at best. But if you can maximize the savings from Cervelli elsewhere, then that might make up for the lack of upside behind the plate.