About five years ago at this time, almost every article surrounding the Pirates’ catching situation boiled down to one thing: How can the Pirates replace Russell Martin after the 2014 season?
The Pirates added Martin on a two-year deal prior to the 2013 season, and saw his value soar. He was set to receive a big deal via free agency, and the Pirates had a need at catcher. Their catcher of the future at the time — Tony Sanchez — was not ready, and had some concerning development issues starting to show through. The rest of their internal options were backups.
Would the Pirates pay big to bring back Martin? Or would they give the internal options a shot?
They went with a different solution, trading Justin Wilson to the Yankees for Francisco Cervelli and giving Cervelli the starting job. The irony of this was that the Yankees let Martin walk two years prior to this in order to give Cervelli the starting job. Injuries derailed that plan, and lowered Cervelli’s value with the team, especially after the Yankees added Brian McCann.
Two years later, the Pirates made the same move, letting Martin walk via free agency, and using Cervelli to replace him.
The results were great. Cervelli posted a 5.9 fWAR that first season with the team, helping to fuel their 98 win season, and making people forget about Martin. The Pirates didn’t wait to determine their future catching situation, opting to extend Cervelli at the start of the 2016 season. That extension hasn’t worked out as well, as injuries made Cervelli around replacement value in two of the three years of the deal. He did post a 2.6 fWAR in 2018 and had a 2.7 fWAR in 2016, his follow-up to 2015.
Overall, Cervelli ranked sixth out of 37 qualified catchers in fWAR from 2015 to now. That’s just above Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina, and just behind Martin (11.9 vs 11.4). That’s impressive when you consider the two replacement-level years during that span.
But now the Pirates have ended their run with Cervelli, releasing him so that he can finish the 2019 season elsewhere, and moving on with their catching situation. That catching situation is very similar to where it was when Cervelli first joined the team.
The Pirates have Elias Diaz and Jacob Stallings as their internal options. Diaz looked like he might be headed toward a future starting role last year, but has struggled this season, putting the future of the position in question if the Pirates opt for him as a starter. That’s not to say that Diaz can’t be a starter in the future, but the Pirates definitely shouldn’t be relying on him as Plan A.
Jacob Stallings has established himself as a good backup catcher, and perhaps he could be a poor man’s starter, especially if his current offensive numbers remain and support his defensive skills.
Behind those two, the farm system is thin. There’s not a single catcher ranked in our updated top 50 that is coming out soon. The best guys in the system — Christian Kelley, Arden Pabst, Jason Delay, and Deon Stafford — project as backups, if they make the majors.
The Pirates need to find a starter for 2020 and beyond. The best internal options — Diaz and Stallings — have question marks and/or limited upsides. The projected free agents don’t provide many options. So the solution would be to find the next Cervelli or Martin type breakout.
I don’t know who that is at this point, though I’d probably start looking at Yankees catchers to begin my list. Add this to one of the many areas the Pirates need to upgrade this offseason if they want any chance of contending in 2020.
For now, the Francisco Cervelli era is over. It was a great run overall for Cervelli and the Pirates, following a great run from Russell Martin. We’ll see if they can repeat their magic a third time this winter.