Prior to the 2015 season, all of the questions surrounding the catching position were focused on whether the Pirates would re-sign Russell Martin. They let Martin walk, instead opting to trade for Francisco Cervelli, who was under team control for two more seasons. With top-prospect-at-the-time Tony Sanchez struggling, the Pirates were hoping that Sanchez could either turn things around, or that another starting catching option could emerge to replace Cervelli.
Right around that time, Elias Diaz started to emerge. He was fresh off a breakout season in 2014 at the Double-A level, with a .328/.378/.445 line in 367 plate appearances. He moved up to Indianapolis the following year, posting a .271/.330/.382 line in 363 plate appearances, and getting the call to Pittsburgh over Sanchez when the time came at the end of the year.
Diaz always got rave reviews for his defense and game calling in the minors, excelling with a plus arm and great work with his pitching staffs. The offense was there, with some power potential, although that didn’t start to show up in games until the second half of the 2013 season in Bradenton, and the 2014 breakout in Altoona.
The Pirates had a starting catching prospect emerging in Diaz. They also had a legit starting catcher in Cervelli, who put up an unsustainable 3.8 fWAR in his first year with the Pirates, mostly unsustainable due to his health and ability to stay on the field for 510 at-bats that year.
The following year saw Diaz go down with an elbow injury early in the season. The Pirates followed that up with an extension of Cervelli, locking him up for three years and $31 M guaranteed, running through the 2019 season. Throughout the 2016 season, Diaz was struggling with injuries, and struggling at the plate as a result. The thought was that if he bounced back, he’d make a good backup, and eventually might get a shot to show what he can do as a starter if — or when — Cervelli went down with an injury.
All of that happened a lot sooner than expected. Diaz continued dealing with injuries throughout the offseason, but returned healthy to start the 2017 season. He also returned productive, hitting for a .281/.298/.388 line in 125 plate appearances in Indianapolis. Cervelli and Chris Stewart both went down with injuries, paving the way for Diaz to get some extended time in the big leagues. He has capitalized on that the past few weeks, posting a .319/.385/.468 line in 52 plate appearances so far this year.
Cervelli and Stewart are now back, and the Pirates have a difficult decision to make. They’ve been carrying three catchers on the roster, allowing them to use Diaz as a pinch hitter off the bench. While the offense so far comes in a small sample size, it has been enough to get the attention of Neal Huntington, and get Diaz this opportunity to stick around.
“Sometimes the best development is done at the major league level, even if it’s not in a regular’s role,” Huntington said to reporters on Sunday, including our Alan Saunders. “That’s a decision we’re going to have to make with Diaz. Right now he’s our best offensive option. So to have the three catchers and to have Diaz be available as a bat off the bench, or to start on a Sunday or a Thursday day game or what have you, it allows Clint to do what he wants to do with his catching – he can be aggressive to pinch run late in a game, he can use Elias to pinch hit late in a game, so we will continue to walk that path and what’s the best thing for us as a Major League team, what’s the best thing for us as an organization and ultimately we are going to do what’s the best for Diaz in the short and long-term.”
I’ve seen Diaz as a guy who can be a starter in the majors one day, and I think that day has come. The only issue there is that the Pirates have a starting catcher right now in Francisco Cervelli. Eventually, the solution here would be to trade Cervelli and to switch to Diaz as the regular catcher. Maybe that happens at the trade deadline or the offseason, but I don’t think the time is now.
While I’ve been a believer that Diaz is the catcher of the future, I’d like to see more than 52 plate appearances before proclaiming that the future is now. If the only issue here is that the Pirates have too many catchers, then they don’t really have an issue. The 2016 Pirates would have loved that “problem.”
The Pirates could go in another direction and waive Chris Stewart, giving Diaz the backup role. But it’s almost worth it to keep Stewart around, as cutting him would reduce the playing time that Diaz would have, since it removes the pinch-hitting option.
If the Pirates continue with three catchers, then the choice isn’t between Diaz and the other two catchers. It’s between Diaz and the other bench options, like Chris Bostick, Phil Gosselin, and others in Indianapolis. You could make the argument that Diaz is the best offensive option in that group, even if he doesn’t add much versatility on the defensive side. But the Pirates also have plenty of versatility on their roster already, so it wouldn’t hurt to carry an extra catcher.
Neal Huntington didn’t sound on Sunday like he knew how long Diaz would be in this role, but said there were some benefits to continuing with this approach.
“He’s still going to benefit from playing regularly – but he’s also going to benefit from being around a Major League environment and seeing hitters adjust at the major league level and working through in his old mind what pitch he would call or what he would be looking for as a hitter,” Huntington said. “So there is some benefit to him, and that’s where does the balance end up? How long does he fit in this role? Right now we feel good about it, but we may hit a point in time where we may need to get him back up or may need to get him playing regular basis. We’re not there right now.”
One big benefit to having Diaz in this current role would be the ability to see him for an extended period, giving a look of more than 52 plate appearances. We’ve seen the Pirates move young players into regular roles by putting them on the bench first, then giving them increased playing time as their production picks up. Adam Frazier made that jump, and is getting regular playing time this year. Jose Osuna has been getting priority playing time when the Pirates have too many injuries. This is a more difficult approach to take with catchers, but it’s possible if you use the prospect as a third catcher in this role.
If Diaz continues the path he’s on right now, then the Pirates will have to do something to make him the starting catcher. But I don’t think there’s any need to rush that situation right now and get rid of catching depth, especially since all three catchers currently on the roster have dealt with multiple injuries in the last year.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.