The Pirates have a difficult decision to make this offseason when it comes to their 2018 starting catcher.
On one side of the debate, they have Francisco Cervelli. The current starting catcher put up a 3.7 fWAR in 2015, then signed an extension early in the 2016 season. He followed that up by missing time with injury, but still managed a 1.6 fWAR.
This year the injuries have continued — a trend that has existed throughout his career, minus that 2015 season — and he will finish the 2017 season with an 0.9 fWAR. He’s being paid $9 M this year, and that’s about the cost of a win above replacement on the open market, so his deal is almost fair value.
The problem the Pirates have here is that Cervelli will make $22 M over the next two years, and even if he produces fair value, they’re in a situation where they need more than fair value.
I’ve taken a quick look at the 2018 payroll situation for the Pirates, and even if you assume they will increase their payroll to $110 M (which is $10 M more than they’ve been at the last two seasons), they still will likely need to be flexible and shed some salary.
Cervelli’s injury history would indicate that he probably shouldn’t be counted on for more than 300 plate appearances. You’re probably getting at least 2 WAR over the next two years from him, but that’s a very expensive 2 WAR for a team that needs to maximize their cost per win.
It would be great if the Pirates had a replacement for Cervelli right now, making this decision easy. They could trade him, shed the $22 M over the next two years, spend that money elsewhere, and lose nothing behind the plate. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.
The other side of the debate presents Elias Diaz. He has long been seen as a catcher of the future candidate. When Cervelli was first added, Diaz was passing Tony Sanchez as the top catching prospect in the organization. However, because of Cervelli’s addition, and because of some injuries of his own in 2016, Diaz hasn’t had a shot in the majors.
That changed this month. Diaz was healthy and with Cervelli out, the Pirates have turned to the younger catcher for more playing time. The problem is that Diaz isn’t showing that he can steal the job away from Cervelli.
Diaz has always been a strong defensive catcher. The metrics haven’t backed that up in his early time in the majors, whether it’s from blocking or framing. Earlier this week, Clint Hurdle said that Diaz had shown some improvements on the defensive side this month, getting comfortable in many facets of the game in the majors.
I’m not going to get into the Hurdle comments too much. They seemed a bit over the top, saying that Diaz has been the best story in September. Let’s just take his comments as true for a second, and assume that Diaz has shown improvements. That would put his defense where it was expected to be in the majors.
The problem here, and something Hurdle didn’t bring up, was the offense has struggled. Diaz has always shown good offensive tools, but it doesn’t always translate to the stat line. That changed in 2013-2014, when he started hitting more in Bradenton and Altoona. He hasn’t carried that offense over to Indianapolis, and definitely hasn’t carried the offense over to the majors.
Currently, Diaz has a .242/.280/.345 line in 175 plate appearances. He has a .271 wOBA and a 64 wRC+. Even if you go with arbitrary endpoints, and see the recent results in September, it’s not good. The best you could get is a one week sample lately where Diaz has an OPS over .900 in his last 20 plate appearances. But that’s hardly what you’d want to base a decision upon.
I don’t think it’s a big stretch to assume Diaz will be fine defensively in the majors. He’s been a strong defender in the minors, and in ways that show up beyond the stats. I’ve talked with pitchers, both on the record and off the record, who have praised his ability behind the plate. Many of those pitchers were making their comments unprovoked, with no specific questions about Diaz.
The problem is that a strong defensive catcher with no offense is good for a backup, but not what you want as a starter.
The Pirates have a gamble either way. If they go with Cervelli, they could be paying market price for a win above replacement, which isn’t what this team needs as they look for value to propel them back to contenders. The payoff with Cervelli is that he might find a way to stay healthy and put up a 2015 season, or at least stay productive when he is healthy and have a 2016 result that would provide some value.
Diaz provides a more obvious gamble. His offense is anything but a sure thing right now. I have faith that he can hit enough in the majors eventually, improving on what we’ve seen so far. But the Pirates need that production now, and not in the future. You could gamble on his offense improving, but that puts the Pirates at a risk of getting replacement level production from their catcher.
If the Pirates went with Cervelli, they could have Diaz as a backup, and get rid of Chris Stewart, which would provide some savings. If they went with Diaz, they could keep Stewart, and then use the Cervelli money to help other areas of the team. That might make up for the lack of production behind the plate. Neither is an ideal situation, with obvious risks and potential benefits on either side.
Diaz has another week to show what he can do, although that’s not going to be enough time to answer any of the questions above. The only thing that is certain is that the Pirates will have a difficult decision to make this offseason between Cervelli and Diaz.