2017 Recaps: The Pirates Don’t Have an Easy Decision Behind the Plate Going Forward

It’s common for a small market team like the Pirates to take on risks. They do so by adding reclamation pitching projects, or by relying on prospects, or by adding injury prone guys and hoping for the best possible health.

Sometimes those risks work out, giving the team a lot of value, and showing why a small market team would practice this method. Sometimes they don’t really get value, but the plan doesn’t totally backfire on them. And sometimes they get the worst possible combination of events that could happen with a risky approach.

The Pirates took on a risk when they signed Francisco Cervelli to an extension in early 2016. At the time, Elias Diaz was down with an elbow injury, and they didn’t have any internal catching options lined up to take over after the 2016 season. Cervelli was risky because he had a history of being injury prone, and very limited experience as a starter. But he showed his upside with a 3.7 fWAR in 2015 when he was healthy and productive as a starter.

The downside to the risk showed up in 2016. After the extension, Cervelli returned to his injury prone ways. He had only 393 plate appearances in 2016, but was still productive with a 1.6 fWAR. It’s not the best situation, but not the worst either.

The 2017 season showed the worst.

Cervelli’s injury issues this year limited him to just 81 games, with 304 plate appearances. He was worth 0.9 fWAR during the season, which isn’t horrible when you consider that a win on the open market is worth $8-9 M and he was making $9 M. The problem was that the team needed value from Cervelli, and they ended up getting break-even production while needing backups for half of their games.

The backups didn’t help the situation. Chris Stewart, known for being injury prone himself, was limited to 144 plate appearances and struggled to the tune of a -0.6 fWAR. The combination of injuries led to increased playing time for Elias Diaz, who didn’t make a successful jump to the big leagues, and had a -0.3 fWAR in 200 plate appearances.

The combination of Diaz and Stewart made the Cervelli issue worse. The Pirates were getting about fair value for Cervelli’s contract, and could have gotten some real value if he stayed healthy. Instead, he was injured for half the season, leading to below-replacement value behind the plate, which wiped out the value he provided.

It may not work out like this every year, but the 2017 season showed one of the worst things that can happen when you rely on two injury prone catchers and one unproven prospect behind the plate.

The Future

The Pirates will have an interesting decision to make behind the plate in 2018. They have Cervelli under control for two more years at a total of $22 M. He needs to put up just a little over 1 WAR each year to be worth that, although that ignores the issue that the Pirates need to get more than break-even value from him.

At this point, I don’t think you can count on more than 300-350 plate appearances from Cervelli. Anything beyond that would just be a bonus. And if the Pirates wanted to take a risk, they could hope for better health than he has shown in the last year, or at least hope for the health and production that he had in 2016.

The problem is that they don’t have an alternative right now. Diaz doesn’t look ready for the majors. I wouldn’t bank on Cervelli being more than a 1 WAR player, and I wouldn’t bank on Diaz being better than replacement level right now.

I’m not totally writing Diaz off though. He is older than most who get the prospect label, turning 27 next month. He hasn’t shown his skills yet in the big leagues, whether in the form of framing runs, or maximizing his arm against stolen bases. We’re only starting to get to understand advanced catching defensive metrics, and we don’t really have data on how long the adjustment period is from Triple-A to the majors for some skills, or whether learning a new pitching staff can lead to a slower start.

I think it’s fair to say that no conclusions should be drawn about Diaz due to the limited amount of time he has been in the majors. It’s the same approach I’d take if a top prospect came up and didn’t light the world on fire in his first half season in the majors. You want to see a larger sample size than this before making any final statements.

Diaz has had the look of a backup catcher who can provide strong defense, or maybe an average starter who is defensive minded and can hit enough to justify starting. The bat is another thing that hasn’t shown up consistently, although the tools are there. Whether they finally show up will play a big role in determining his future role in the majors.

The key thing here is that Diaz isn’t ready now, and we don’t know when or if he will be ready in the future. I’d count on him as a backup catcher at this point, or at least split time with another backup. And that complicates the future of the catching situation.

Do the Pirates continue to spend money on Cervelli, hoping for the best possible health in order to get value from the catching position? Or do they go with a cheaper option in Diaz, while adding another backup type, and relying on Jacob Stallings for depth in the minors? The cheaper route has a lower upside, and you’re probably hoping for half a win combined at best. But if you can maximize the savings from Cervelli elsewhere, then that might make up for the lack of upside behind the plate.

  • Personally, I really started tuning out the end of the season, when, with Cervelli injured Hurdle kept running Kris Stewart and his 3 RBI and OPS less than the average Sumo Wrestler’s weight out there every night, again and again and again, instead of playing Diaz and getting him some valuable playing time.

  • I appreciate the into to this article.

    Cervelli was a risky extension, yes, but his risk is exactly what allowed him to be priced as he was. The second part is key. This club had just seen Russ Martin get four years and more than sixty million bucks for his decline years. It was completely reasonable to take a chance of Cervelli for half of that.

    I do, however, believe their future approach must be more aggressive than what was suggested, with or without Cervelli. I think that any organizational approach to this winter other than an improbable full, lengthy rebuild means that they have to accept that their catcher of the future is not currently within the org. Barring a massive win-now winter, Cervelli will not be the starting catcher on the next Pirate playoff team. Elias Diaz hasn’t shown the tools nor ability to be a first division catcher in the future. There’s nobody in the system after Diaz that should be taken seriously in that regard, either.

    This means that there’s opportunity for creativity. None of the current options should preclude them from targeting a guy with the upside, and likely risk, to be the next Martin or Cervelli. They’re stuck at many positions in the mediocrity trap, where improvement will be difficult but current production isn’t enough to put them over the top. That’s not the case at catcher. They can and should make real improvement.

  • Cervelli is a chronic injury risk and on the wrong side of 30. I would also pay little attention to his fWAR of 0.9 as not being horrible because fWAR with catchers is harder to quantify than it is with other position players.

    From FanGraphs:

    Because there is no UZR data for catchers, the fielding component for catcher fWAR is calculated using two parts: the Stolen Base Runs Saved (rSB) metric from the Fielding Bible, and Runs saved from Passed Pitches (RPP). This accounts for a large portion of a catcher’s value, although pitch framing is not yet included in WAR. For this reason, catcher WAR is probably the least precise of all of the positions.

  • Given that most players, even those who are ready for the majors, don’t perform in first 200 PA, how can you conclude Diaz “doesn’t look ready” for the majors?

    He showed struggles typical of most players when first promoted to the majors.

  • First who would want Cervelli being injury prone and being owed 22 million? Remember they could have had Weiters in the draft but him being a Boras client they went for Moskos the cheaper option instead, who was pure garbage. So what did management learn from that mistake, they learned to compound them by trading for and then resigning Cervelli. Pirate management thinks they know something or are better than other teams in evaluating players but they are sorely lacking in that area.

    • The management team that drafted Weiters was entirely different than the one that signed Cervelli.

      • *Moskos

        …but, yeah…this system has drafted Alvarez, Cole, and Appel…and, I’d guess, probably another Boras client or two.

        • How has that worked out? You seemed to have missed my point. It was management is not that good.

          • You seemed to have missed the point that these were two different management teams.

            But how have those picks worked out? Meh…jury is still out. Cole’s not a top of the rotation guy, but he’s definitely good enough to be in the top half of the rotation. Alvarez flamed out. Appel became Meadows and the jury is still out there.

            So, all-in-all, the Pirates are 1/3 with those picks with a chance to be 2/3. If two thirds of your first round picks are panning out, you’re doing alright at the drafting thing.

            • I really struggle to appreciate the mental gymnastics that go into conflating the Appel pick with the Meadows pick.

              The Pirates chose Mark Appel because they wanted Mark Appel. They wanted Mark Appel because they thought he’d be good at baseball. Turns out, he is not good at baseball. It was a bad pick, period.

              They’re *only* saving grace is that they were not able to convince him to sign, which allowed them a second chance not to screw up.

              • I would love to be able to have a one-on-one with NH about that pick. He was definitely top three material that season…and fell to the eighth spot for signability reasons.

                I am genuinely curious whether the Pirates thought there was a chance to sign him.

                • I really don’t think it’s much more complicated than grabbing the top guy left on their board. For that, I absolutely respect them for taking the chance. If he was the top guy on their board, it was the right choice to make.

                  It’s the evaluation itself that’s worthy of calling into question, to me.

                  The selections of Mark Appel and Austin Meadows logically deserve to be evaluated individually.

                  • I don’t think much fault could be found with the evaluation. If I recall correctly, he was, pretty much, the #3 guy on everyone’s board behind Buxton and Correa…but teams were scared off from drafting him because Boras made it clear Appel would only sign for #1 slot money.

                    Heck the next season he went #1 overall to uber-drafting Astros…who selected him over Kris Bryant. (Speaking of an embarrassment of riches…could you imagine the left side of that infield being Correa and Bryant? Instead the Astros are stuck with that bum, Bregman…oh, wait, he’s pretty damned good, as well). So, no, I don’t see that as a questionable pick at all. He just happened to be a bust.

                    But, to your big point…yes, the picks of Appel and Meadows were two totally separate selections. But, without the pick of Appel, the Pirates probably don’t get Meadows. Though Huntington always claimed: “We drafted Appel to sign him,” and the Pirates did go over slot, I am curious to know how strong the sentiment was from the outset of the process of: “f*** it if he doesn’t sign, we’ll just get another top-10 pick next season.”

      • Sorry but I think you wanted to say didn’t draft Weithers

  • I guess I’m missing something…

    My guess is that Cervelli has little to no trade value. Not that the Pirates would have to pull a Liriano-type deal to get him off the books, but I don’t know if they could trade him without sending any money along in the transaction. This could change at next year’s trade deadline if he could manage to stay healthy for an entire half-season…but, for now, the Pirates are pretty much stuck with him.

    So, Cervelli’s the starter and that makes Diaz the backup…Diaz will get his PAs…and some of Cervelli’s as well.

    Fun Fact about the Pirates needing to get value from their signings…aside from Cervelli, the Pirates got value from the other seven regular starters and the big five starters…and still managed just 75 wins.

    The Pirates don’t need to just try to nickle and dime their way to being a good team, they need impact players..

    • Speaking of the Liriano deal the catching situation would be improved if Reese McGuire was starting the year at Indy next year. He had the injury plagued 2017 which would have made him fit right in in the Pirates’ system but threw out 34% and started to show power in the small sample. I just have a feeling we will all regret that deal forever. McGuire will be 23 next March and his career .719 OPS at AA as a 21-22 year old and his career 39% throw out rate looks pretty good to me.

  • my concerns about Diaz go a lot further than his lack of MLB success….

    the guy hasn’t even had AAA success or a good minor league season since AA in 2014. unless you count his 2015 with a .712 OPS as success.

    I don’t see how he has any shot at even being a good backup unless he becomes a pitch framing god. Which he doesnt look like he is.

    At this point i’d much rather them just spend a few million on a Martin Maldonado or equivalent, whether they keep Cervelli or not. Make that pitch framing genius into Glasnow’s personal catcher.

    I think it’s a lot more likely that they keep Cervelli, dump Harrison and Mercer, hope for 2 WAR from Moroff at 2b, and find a 16 million dollar SS (Harrison money plus Mercer money). Moroff, Frazier, Newman, etc all at least have a shot at being average players. Diaz just doesnt have the same shot. Moroff actually has a star level season at AAA and super slick defense. Two important things that Diaz lacks, except for the occasional impressive throw on stolen bases. If they’re going to depend on a rookie in the lineup to replace someone, at least make it the guy who has a shot at being average.

    • Yeah it takes some serious optimism to expect much out of Diaz’s bat at this point; not that it would impossible, just that the guy who we saw in Pittsburgh was exactly the hitter that should’ve been expected. A slightly less successful version of AAA Elias Diaz. Decent contact, poor OBP skills, marginal power.

      • yep. and that’d be fine if he was an awesome defender and framer. but the problem is that it takes some serious optimism to expect much out of his framing and defense as well.

        I really think it’s time to start considering the possibility that Stallings is better and/or that they should spend a few million dollars on backup catching this offseason.

        i guess it’s possible that Diaz breaks out and becomes a real backup C. It’s just that all the evidence available to me is saying that he won’t, and i’d rather they just buy a more sure thing.

  • They also need to free up some salary money in order to do anything over the off-season. Cervelli (I think) you show as the second highest projected salary for next year. I think the question is, who do you prefer between Cervelli and Harrison – one likely has to go, along with Cutch, to give the salary room they need.

    • The salary room they need to do what? Sign a bunch reclamation projects on cheap deals?

  • They’d love Diaz to be the backup and Stewart to be a player/coach with Stallings and Jhang in AAA. A Cervelli injury screws all that up.

    Cervellis framing was bad this year too.

    • When a player goes from good framing previous tears to bad I have to think the things that determine that are not really to accurate. I think framing is overrated and can be affected by a crummy umpire of which there are many. That said there are some guys (Dumont for example ) who clearly had trouble catching the ball properly. So I think the is something to it just not enough to pay extra

      • I think what is actually happening is that more guys are getting good at it, which makes good into average, average into bad, etc.

        I did some work on framing stats in 2016 and they correlated very well from year to year.

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