Williams: The Pirates Have a Difficult Decision to Make Behind the Plate This Offseason

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.

  • Jacob Stallings comes out of nowhere in spring training to take the starting role. cervelli is traded to the Indians, whom he represents in the all-star game, Diaz catches 50 games, hits .240 with a 600 OPS.

    Seriously….

    I see an even split between Cervelli and Diaz. Cervelli will be the #1 catcher, but injuries will limit him. Stallings will be the taxi guy when either of those two are hurt. But I think next year is his last option, so not sure what happens in ’19.

  • Really good recap, Tim, but I’ll push back on the central question posed. There’s zero reason this should be a binary decision between Cervelli and Diaz.

    Before anything, Huntington needs to – wait for it – decide what direction to take this organization. For real this time. No decision as fine-grained as a single specific position can be made without first establishing achievable goals on an accountable timeline.

    Once that’s done, he must figure out if Cervelli could actually be dealt and how much salary or prospect value would need included. $/WAR clearly does not scale linearly across all teams. Kurt Suzuki just took a $3.5m extension coming off a 2.3 WAR season not because his agent is an idiot or he loves playing for the Braves so much that he’s willing to forego tens of millions of dollars, but because he knows the market won’t reward him linearly for his work. Cervelli may neither be good enough to attract the attention of a large payroll contender in need of a first-division starter nor cheap enough to attract a team like, well, the Pirates.

    Back to the central question posed, I’ll present an optimistic take. This should be seen by Huntington as a prime opportunity. All around the diamond he’s faced with the conundrum of having a competent if not underwhelming player or prospect within a year of the show needing an opportunity to prove himself. This is the trap of mediocrity; not good enough to win, but not bad enough to be easily upgraded.

    The catcher position is the complete opposite. Wide open, both at the big league level and certainly in the minors. The position is ripe for opportunity to experiment, much the same way as they were forced before acquiring Russell Martin and then Francisco Cervelli.

    The Pirates catcher of the future almost surely is not currently in the Pirates organization, and that should allow an inspired General Manager to get creative and find talent. That’s the job. This is the opportunity to earn your paycheck.

    • Welp, you asked for creativity…

      Real talk, half of me wonders if John Jaso would consider going back behind the plate and be okay at it.

      I don’t see how else he’d have a shot at an MLB job anywhere otherwise. Nobody is signing him to be a 1b, and nobody signs anybody to just be a pinch hitter anymore, and he was bad at OF.

      Suddenly, they trade Diaz (or try to sneak him through waivers?), and have a catcher platoon with a guy who hits (career) .268 / .363 / .428 vs righties and a guy who hits (career) .303 / .391 / .407 vs lefties. And cervelli could take some starts vs righties too since he still pops a .348 obp vs righties.

      it’s all a matter of what jaso’s defense would look like and if he’d do it.

      It’s not ideal, but i mean… it’d be worth a shot at like $3 million

      Granted, i’m sure you were thinking more in the “Trade for someone good in AAA with another team” type of creativity, but oh well haha.

      also, i want Jon Lucroy

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    September 24, 2017 10:13 am

    I don’t think its a difficult decision at all….Cervelli has had one really good season – 2015. Other than that, he has been injury prone, his offense has not been that impressive, and his arm is average at best. Factor in the payroll component, I think the decision is an easy one. Over the course of a full season, Diaz will be a much stronger defensive catcher and his bat will play enough and will likely match or exceed Cervelli. I don’t know what Cervelli would fetch in a trade, due to his injury history. But, catchers are always in demand. Package him with Mercer or Freese, and they may bring back 1-2 good position player bats….

  • Catching is the most physically demanding position on the field. I don’t see a problem with keeping both and playing cervelli 60% and Diaz 40%. This would produce positive WAR value over the $9M cost. I think this is a forward thinking way to the catching position.

  • Michael Sanders
    September 24, 2017 12:54 am

    Clint Hurdle can be a backup catcher next year. I bet he still has a little more gas in the tank.

  • can anyone make the case that Elias Diaz is a better hitter than what he has shown? I legitimately want to hear it.

    his AAA OPSs went from acceptable to awful to bad over the last 3 years. His current batting line is pretty much exactly what Steamer and Zips projections say it should be.

    what are you guys seeing that i’m not? Why do you think he’s ever going to hit?

    i guess he had that .365 BABIP year in AA in 2014?

    • I mean, sure. Nobody should be surprised to see him add a couple walks, shave a couple strikeouts with adjustment to the league. Wouldn’t be shocking to see him run an 80 wRC+ or so at maturity.

      What I assume you mean is whether or not anyone can make a case for Diaz being a *different* hitter than what he’s shown, and to that, the answer is absolutely not. This is Elias Diaz as a hitter. Low OBP, low power, above-average contact. Doesn’t have the batspeed for appreciably more power, and hasn’t shown the discipline needed to push his OBP above average for years.

      • thanks for weighing in. seems that we agree that there isnt much upside there.

        i guess i just figure… if you have to dump salary to shore up something else on the team, at least do it at a spot where you have a guy that just popped a .900 OPS and good defense in AAA. throw harrison and Mercer money at a shortstop. at least Moroff represents some level of upside. and hell, so does Cervelli.

  • People always talk about a player being 1 or 2 or whatever WAR (wins above replacement). Replacement, I believe, refers a generic AAAA or AAA player who has reached his maximum in the minors and is major league ready but no great shakes.. Often a team does not have a “0” WAR player at a specific position in their system, so a 1 WAR player may be 3 WAR above the best that you may obtain without paying a premium outside your system. When you think of replacing Mercer or Cervelli you may find that a “replacement level” player at a premium position is hard to find.

  • If only nh had developed a starting caliber catcher during his 10 years on the job.

  • Has Diaz really had enough consistent playing time to evaluate how well he is likely to hit? Doesn’t seem that way.

    • i mean… shouldnt his nearly-700 PA in AAA give us a pretty good idea how well he is likely to hit…?

      i’ll save you the time and by saying that it ain’t pretty. i’m not saying that Diaz will be a bad hitter forever. I’m just saying that there is no evidence to suggest that he is a good hitter.

  • My first question is does Stallings have one more option
    left so we can have him available at Indy as our #3.

    • Yes. There’s this site called Pirates Prospects that has player pages on everyone in the Pirates’ system that include how many option years they have remaining – you should check it out!

  • My first thought is that I favor a 50/50 time split between Cervelli and Diaz. But IF they could unload Cervelli’s contract and invest the $10M / yr in a power hitting 3B (assuming Kang can’t obtain a visa) then I would pull the trigger. The Bucs desperately need to add power to the lineup, Freese doesn’t have enough at his age at 3B. I don’t think I would keep Stewart though, I would go younger with Diaz / Stallings.

  • Does Stewart offer that much more than Stallings would… especially considering Stewart’s age and recent injury history?
    I would think a Diaz/Stallings tandem is conceivable. What do you think?

    • I would be comfortable with Diaz/Stallings if Cervelli is moved. I think Stallings is underrated.

      • But then your backup catcher if Diaz or Stallings gets hurt is someone like Jin-de Jhang or Jackson Williams.

        • Yes neither of them is ready for MLB on a regular basis (could probably fill in for a couple of games), they’d have to bring someone in (an Eric Fryer type) if they were unlucky with injuries.

        • Reality is that once teams get to 3rd and 4th string catchers they’re either talking about using them for extremely small durations or they’re going outside the org for help if longer-term service is required. Nobody is three or four deep with catchers you *want* to be giving extended playing time, and as such, it’s not wise to plan a roster around that notion.

          The Pirates could find a comparable catcher to Chris Stewart in a week for no more than an org guy going in return.

    • Stewart has a 466 OPS. He needs to be gone.

      • His pitch framing is is about 200 OPS points above Cervelli and Diaz so it’s basically a push

  • Diaz not a sure thing. Glasnow not a sure thing. Meadows not a sure thing. Getting to sound like a common refrain. Maybe the Pirates had the most overrated farm system in baseball.

    • noone is ever a sure thing, sorry

    • Michael Sankovich
      September 23, 2017 1:53 pm

      and you didn’t even mention Newman, Kramer, Craig, Tucker………lookin at the post McCutchen era, with the possible exception of Bell (let’s hope he builds on his good rookie season as a full time player), there doesn’t appear to be a single star position player on the current roster or high A and above minor leagues.

    • Correct. And precisely the reason nh should have never been given another 4 years. Going to be real interesting to see how nh(or anyone) tries to spin his drafts as being good.

  • Pirates offensively can’t afford to take a step back at any position. As such, trading Cervelli for payroll flexibility makes no sense to me, if it comes at the cost of an offensive downgrade.

    I am in favor of going into 2018 w both on roster w Cervelli as primary Catcher, but hoping Diaz plays well enough to earn more playing time as season progresses.

    There are better ways to create payroll flexibility, such as trading Nova to make room for Brault.

    • If that money saved is used to upgrade offensive by more than 1 WAR elsewhere, its a smart move.

    • Bridgevillebuck
      September 23, 2017 3:13 pm

      Seems like a vicious cycle. Trade Liriano plus prospects for finacial flexibility to sign Nova…Trade Nova plus prospects(??) to sign another dubious player that we hope will rebound….trade this new dubious player plus prospects for another…

    • I really don’t think this is as difficult as people think: Cervelli and Diaz. Diaz is a good prospect who has been derailed because of injuries. He is just abouto to have 200 career At-bats in the Majors and he will turn 27. I wish the Pirates would trust their farm system a little more. I am also pretty comfortable with Luplow being the 4th outfielder. Let these guys play.

  • i dont understand how anyone could think going into 2018 with Diaz as the starter could be a good idea.

    in AAA since 2015, his OPSs are .712, .587, and .637. How in the world does this sound like someone we want as a starter in MLB next year unless he was a truly transcendent defender? Granted, that .587 year was really short b/c injury.

    The argument should be about whether they should keep Cervelli, or if they should dump Cervelli while getting someone better or equal to replace him.

    Getting rid of Cervelli and going with Diaz to start would be insane.

    If you need to shed salary, do it at positions where there are actually players who have performed well in AAA. Dump JayHay and let Moroff, who was a star in AAA, do his thing. Dump Freese if Kang comes back. Dump Mercer and let Sean Rod take care of it until Newman or Tucker or Pablo Reyes show theyre ready. Trade Cutch and let Frazier play in LF, Marte to CF, Polanco/Luplow platton in RF.

    Dump Cervelli and take a shot on a Jon Lucroy, assuming his cost wouldnt be too high coming off a bad year? i’ll applaud.

    Trade Diaz for an interesting AA fireballer, and sign Jon Lucroy and have an actual strong behind-the-plate situation, even if it comes at the expense of replacing JHay with Moroff? I’ll applaud.

    Dump Cervelli and go with Diaz and Stewart? That’d be ridiculous when they have so much depth at basically literally every other position.

    • It’s a matter of saying……..if Cervelli is giving you 1 war, if Diaz can be equal to replacement (and i think he can) offensively, then really 2-3 wins defensively is realistic, and you save 9 million towards a player to make your team better elsewhere. Worse case scenario you still have a good defensive catcher, and its not like cervelli is piazza here.

      • I guess my point was that there are several positions where i would dump the starter in exchange for savings for another position before I do Cervelli.

        As in…. why dump Mercer and Cervelli and add an 18 million dollar shortstop and go with Diaz when you can dump Mercer and Harrison for an 18 million dollar SS and go with Cervelli/Diaz and Moroff, who has a lot more promise than Diaz. This leaves you with the upside that Cervy stays healthy, and with a bigger trade return from Harrison, and a more promising player in the lineup, in Moroff.

        Of course you could deal Cervelli and use his money on a great Setup man, *in addition to* the Harrison plan, I guess.

        • How about this idea. Start the season
          with Cervelli & Diaz and if we are out of
          it trade Cervelli at the deadline next summer.
          Move Stallings to Pittsburgh then.

        • I think that 2 WAR is Diaz’s floor playing 120 games honestly. I’ll give you that Cervelli’s floor is higher. I really don’t understand your scenario though….I was just saying to dump Cervelli, I said nothing about Mercer or Harrison. I wouldn’t dump Harrison, and I don’t think you can get a good replacement for Mercer externally

          • i really wish i shared your optimism on Diaz. I dont understand it, but i respect it.

            • I think it’s more realizing how “not good” cervelli truly is. You could cut off Diaz’s finger and he’d still be a better thrower than cervelli. It would be nice to have a catcher that actually respects the umpires and the other team again.

              • Diaz certainly has a cannon, and is fun to watch in that respect.

                • As a catcher, give me a good blocker and someone that stops the running game. Everything past that can be taught. Calling a good game and framing are not physical gifts. They only require attention to detail and a good work ethic.

      • Diaz is a horrible framer. His framing alone is 1 win below replacement. Offense stinks. But this team is cash starved so nh might make this move.

        • Framing is a garbage stat John. I can buy into a lot of advanced metrics, but framing is as good as the pitcher that is pitching it. Always has been, always will be. a catchers job is to call a good game, literally catch the ball, block the ball, and throw runners out trying to steal. To hell with framing.

    • Jay Hay is a sparkplug in the dugout. Hate to see him go for that reason.

      • Sure, but having Diaz be a starting catcher is the the opposite of a sparkplug.

        not that they necessarily have to choose “Harrison or Cervelli” but i think they very well might have to. My liking of Moroff and my not-liking of Diaz breaks the tie for me.

        • I think Moroff has a future as well. But I am not as bothered by Diaz’s present performance as you are. I think he is just a little slow adjusting to the “speed of the game”. Might bet is he will. Hitting won’t come in 2018, probably 2019 for him.

  • Lets get serious here. Neither is the answer but you have to go with Diaz by default. Cervelli will always find a way not to play. Move Cervelli if possible and free up the cash to spend elsewhere. While on the subject, if the Pirates think that this team as presently constructed will turn it around next year and win 90+ games is just insane. The Pirates need to trade Cole and Cutch and try to get a quality 3b in return with 3/4 controllable years along with a power hitting outfielder. Kang is a long shot to return with his record in Korea. Polanco has not produced as PP write ups indicated he would (he can adjust from at bat to at bat) besides not hitting up to expectations he is not a good outfielder and a horrible base runner. With that said, I would keep him and hope for improvement. It is time to bite the bullet and make either Fraizer who can not field or Moroff the second baseman next year, Hurdle be dammed. Let JHay platoon with Freese at 3b if they can not acquire a 3b man. Replace Cole with either Brault, Kingham or Glasnow. Hopefully this will set the team on the course of being a contender again. I am to dam old to go through another 20 years of losing. I had hoped to see another Pirate championship in my lifetime but at 65 I am starting to doubt it.

  • What about pitch framing ? Cervelli used to be great but has dropped and I thought Diaz was weaker with Framing ?

    • Diaz is one of worst framers in MLB this year. Maybe it gets better, maybe it doesn’t.

      • Keep hearing they may go with video on Balls/strikes which would seemingly make pitch framing obsolete. Sorta like self driving cars eliminating PI lawyers.

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