PITTSBURGH — Just moments after Pirates manager Clint Hurdle shut veteran catcher Francisco Cervelli down for the remainder of the 2017 season, he called the development of rookie catcher Elias Diaz “one of the best things that happens in this month of September.”
Diaz, 26, has taken over the lion’s share of the catching duties with Cervelli on the shelf and he’ll be the starter going forward as the Pirates try to develop him into the catcher that he was always projected he could be.
The biggest hurdle to that goal to this point has been playing time. Diaz has been infrequently healthy while Cervelli played over 230 games over the last two seasons. Now, he’s making up for lost time in September.
“I think he’s improving,” Hurdle said. “I think he’s shown growth. I think it comes with confidence and playing time. The back-pick the other day of (Joey) Votto, that’s a clean play, a good baseball play. The transfer has gotten shorter and quicker. The arm strength is there. The ball blocking ability we’ve seen. More reps with all the pitchers and more with the bullpen guys.”
The next step for Diaz will be a smooth transition into winter ball this offseason in attempt to keep things rolling straight from this fall into next spring.
“We’ve planned out an attack for winter ball,” Hurdle said. “It’s feasible. He wants to play and we think it would be healthy for him to play. Guys like him and (Jose) Osuna, we’re going to try to set up a six-week period of winter ball play to get them active, and in his case, just to continue to catch, continue to swing the bat and put the two pieces together.
“The complete game part of it has been critical for him up here as well. To add to that number at the end of the year. It’s still going to be a guy that’s never caught 100 games in a year. The aptitude has been really good. The coachability has been really good. The game was moving much quicker for him two weeks ago than it is now. He’s been able to slow the game down.”
Part of the game slowing down for a catcher is knowing when to literally slow the game down and go out to have a chat with a pitcher that needs a talking to. Diaz was able to settle Jameson Taillon down on Monday, and Taillon thinks he’s come a long way in that regard.
“He was my Low-A catcher, so the relationship was already there,” Taillon said. “We’ve been through some stuff together. We’re comfortable with each other. He’s making a lot of progress really quickly. He’s learning a lot. I’m doing the same. The pitcher-catcher relationship is really important. I’m excited that I’ve gotten the opportunity to throw to him, work with him and grow with him.”
Diaz sees some of that growth in himself — particularly in the pitch-calling, sequencing, game-planning, pitch-framing and pitching staff management aspects of his job that don’t necessarily show up in the box score.
“The growth spurt has been huge,” he said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “Obviously, when you’re getting so many more repetitions, some many more opportunities, the growth is going to happen. In the big leagues, it’s the highest level you can get to. There’s a lot of adjustments that have to be made. When you’re on the bench, it’s hard to make those adjustments and get those reps. But when you’re getting playing time, the growth spurt is huge. I’m definitely growing right now.”
Hurdle was critical of Diaz’s pitch calling earlier in the year, but said he has made marked improvement as the season has gone on.
“He’s learning,” Hurdle said. “He’s doing what he needs to do. He’s asking questions. … All of it has been really solid development.”
The Pirates have Francisco Cervelli under contract for two more years, but that’s a contract the Pirates could move on from this offseason if they decided to. Even if Cervelli stays in Pittsburgh, there’s no telling how much he’d play. He suited up just 81 times in 2017.
If Diaz could prove this fall and winter that he can be a major-league catcher the team could pick up the option on Chris Stewart and trade Cervelli for some help somewhere else. If Diaz looks like a backup options, they can decline Stewart’s option and use that cash elsewhere.
But Neal Huntington needs to know what he has in Diaz before he can accurately make those decisions. That’s what makes the stakes for Diaz’s development this fall so high.