The Pirates called up Elias Diaz on September 1st to be their third catcher in the majors. The decision to call up the top catching prospect signaled that he had moved ahead of Tony Sanchez on the depth charts, and the fact that Sanchez hasn’t even been called up, despite the Indianapolis season coming to an end, further cements that idea.
Despite getting the call at the start of the month, Diaz has seen his time in the majors limited to just one at-bat. He hasn’t spent any time in the field, which raises the question about why the Pirates aren’t playing him.
The basic answer to that question is obvious — third catchers don’t get much playing time, and are usually on the roster to give more playing time to the backup. This has been shown by the usage for Chris Stewart. The Pirates’ backup catcher has only started five games this month, which is his second lowest monthly total this year. However, he has played in 12 games, which is his highest monthly total of the season. He has been used often as a late replacement, helping to reduce the workload of Francisco Cervelli. And the Pirates can do that because they’ve got Diaz on the bench as the extra catcher if Stewart goes down in these situations.
But the question gets more complicated when you think about Diaz as one of the top prospects in the system, and a guy who could be a future starter in Pittsburgh. Why would the Pirates bring him up and burn service time if they have no plans to use him outside of one at-bat?
To the service time aspect, that’s something that shouldn’t matter to the Pirates in this case. Diaz isn’t a guy who projects to be a star in the future, which means Super Two isn’t a big factor. The Pirates have Cervelli and Stewart under control next season, which means Diaz will start back in the minors, and will still likely have 6+ years of control remaining when he is called up. Those years of control probably aren’t even going to matter to the Pirates, since Reese McGuire projects to be the starter in Pittsburgh long before Diaz is eligible for free agency.
That still raises the question as to what he has been doing outside of that one at-bat. A lot of the work he has put in so far has been done behind the scenes, working in the bullpen and in the batting cage, but mostly spending time learning the pitchers in the majors.
“You watch him in batting practice. He’s been out early for early work. He’s thrown to the bases,” Clint Hurdle said recently of the work Diaz is doing. “I get the reports back – he’s doing a lot of work in the bullpen catching our starters. He’s actually matching up and catching some of our starters now along with Stewart.”
Diaz has been getting a lot of advice from Francisco Cervelli, with the current starter seemingly taking the future starter under his wing.
“I’ve been catching bullpens, and watching the bullpens of the starters,” Diaz said. “I talk with Cervelli about how they like to pitch.”
Learning the pitchers in Pittsburgh is an important step for Diaz, especially since he projects to be catching a lot of these guys on a regular basis in the future. Diaz is a defensive catcher first, and so it makes a lot of sense that he’d spend a few weeks learning the pitching staff and focusing on the defensive side of things. Offensively, he can contribute, much like the last two defensive-minded catchers in Pittsburgh (Russell Martin, and now Cervelli). And the Pirates feel that he still has what it takes to produce when called upon, even with a longer layoff than normal.
“I’ve received a multitude of reports during the season, and it’s only been a couple weeks removed from when he stopped playing,” Hurdle said. “I think we have a great feel for the overall toolset. This will be another opportunity that, when the opportunities present themselves, just to play and garnish the experience up here. Not get really over-reactive with it or under-reactive with it – just let him go out and play.”
It would be great to see Diaz in the majors getting playing time, just for the sole purpose of getting a glimpse of the future. But the reality of the present is that Diaz is currently the number three catcher behind Cervelli and Stewart. That’s going to limit his playing time to emergency roles, and the very rare pinch hit situations. For now, the most important thing Diaz has been doing is his work with the pitchers and his work with Cervelli, which will hopefully pay off in ways we can see in the long run.