BRADENTON, Fla. – Elias Diaz is going to get his shot in the majors this year.
The catcher has already spent time in the majors over the last three seasons, with the bulk of his 206 plate appearances coming last year as a depth option and an injury replacement throughout the year. He’s now out of options, and will enter the 2018 season as the backup catcher to Francisco Cervelli. Considering Cervelli’s history with injuries, Diaz might be looking at a lot of playing time for a backup, whether that’s in the form of additional playing time to keep Cervelli fresh, or as a starter in the event of another injury.
This will give Diaz the biggest opportunity to show what he can do in the majors. To date, he looks like a solid backup, with defense leading the way, and with his bat lagging behind to the tune of a .216/.257/.304 line.
Diaz is hoping to improve the offensive side of his game with a new batting stance this year. He has added a leg kick to his swing, while also going with a more open stance. The goal is to have more control and balance to his swing. It’s not a new approach for him. He hit like that briefly in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues a few years ago, and decided to switch fully to the swing this offseason.
“I just tried to practice it in the offseason,” Diaz said. “I hit like that in Venezuela in 2015, and I got some results. … I hit with a little more consistency and power.”
Diaz doesn’t need to hit much to be a productive Major League player. He’s got strong enough defense to be a backup without much production from the bat. But the Pirates don’t have any internal options to replace Francisco Cervelli, who is under control through the 2019 season, with his $11.5 M salary and injury history likely keeping him on the team through the end of the deal. Diaz has the best shot at replacing Cervelli, and will be needed over the next two years as a starter if/when Cervelli goes down.
If the bat can improve with the new stance, that would be a great thing for the Pirates, giving them a replacement at their weakest position of depth in the system.
As for the defense, Diaz has worked with a lot of the current Pirates pitchers while they were coming up through the minors, so he’s comfortable with his pitching staff. He’s got one of the best arms in the game to help control the running game. The Pirates are working with him on having his arm and feet working together, since he can’t rely solely on arm strength in the big leagues, especially when he has to deal with threats like Billy Hamilton, who Diaz was 0-for-4 against last year.
“I just have to do the same I’ve been doing,” Diaz said. “Try to be accurate. Try to throw quick. When I do a little more, it’s when I make mistakes. I just try to anticipate the runner, make a good throw, move my feet the right way, and that’s it.”
Diaz seems more comfortable now that he knows he’s got a secure role with the club, rather than being a depth option who could come up at any time.
“He’s in a better place now,” Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle said. “It was a different winter in a lot of different ways. From a professional side, there’s probably some confidence and some feel good. On the personal side, things got all disconnected and torn. Getting him back here in this environment, I think he’s confident, I think he’s convicted. I don’t think he’s comfortable, by any means, because he wants more and wants to do better, wants to be a really good player for us when he gets behind the plate. I see that happening and taking place.”
The Pirates need Diaz to show that he can be a starter at some point over the next two years. Improved offense would be the best way to get to that level, and maybe the new open stance and leg kick could help in that regard. He could also be a defense-first starter, although he would need his minor league defense to carry over in a big way to the majors, and still would need an offensive boost. He’ll get a chance to show what he can do this year, with the hope that the new changes will push him beyond a defense-only backup.