Let’s get this out of the way now. Elias Diaz is not a better catcher than Francisco Cervelli.
Not now at least.
I don’t know where the notion started that Diaz is the better option behind the dish or even the Pittsburgh Pirates future, but for the next couple of seasons, Cervelli is the better option.
And that is also a problem.
After a productive 2015 season, his first with the Pirates, Cervelli has caught only 182 combined games the past couple of seasons due to various injuries.
Cervelli and injuries go hand in hand as he’s only caught more than 101 games once in his MLB career.
After slashing .295/.370/.401 in 2015, the Bucs rushed to give Cervelli a three-year, $31 million contract extension to keep him with the Pirates through 2019.
Needless to say the Pirates haven’t gotten their money’s worth from that deal, but while plenty of Pirates fans, believe that Diaz is the answer behind the plate, that’s not exactly the case.
With Chris Stewart out of the picture in 2018, Cervelli will once again be the starter and Diaz moves into the backup role.
While that’s fine on paper, will the duo provide enough value from the position?
The common opinion amongst most Pirates fans is that Diaz gives the team a lot better bat at the position.
But is that the case?
In nine combined minor league seasons, Diaz posted a combined line of .259/.321/.360 with 27 total homers. That’s not legit prospect worthy in the least. He’s also had a habit for pounding the ball into the ground at a ridiculous pace.
Once he got the call to the big club last season, Diaz slashed a paltry .223/.265/.314 with a homer and 19 RBI. Granted it was a small sample size of 188 at bats, but there isn’t a whole lot about his pedigree that would suggest he will be a capable MLB hitter.
He did get off to a nice start in June, slashing .310/.339/.431 in 58 at bats, but that’s the most success Diaz saw all season. He only saw nine MLB at bats in July and then only posted a .214/.267/.250 line in August.
The most telling thing is that once Diaz got the majority of the playing time in September, he responded with a .185/.224/.272 line in 81 at bats.
I will agree that he has some more upside than Cervelli, but it’s not like Diaz is a young guy learning on the fly. He will be 27 when next season starts.
Cervelli doesn’t exactly light the world on fire with the stick, slashing .249/.342/.370 last season in 265 at bats. But his ability to get on base at a much higher clip is a plus. Much of that is he posts a 10.5 percent walk rate compared to just 5.5 percent for Diaz.
He also does a little bit more with ball in play as Cervelli posted a .311 BABIP compared to .273 for Diaz.
Both hit the ball on the ground over 53 percent of the time. Both have about the same limited ability in terms of hitting for power, but Cervelli gives you a professional at bat almost every time up. The results aren’t always there, but he’s clearly the better option of the two when healthy.
Here’s the Pirates biggest problem.
They don’t have an adequate defensive catcher.
There was plenty of talk coming up through the system that Diaz was MLB-ready defensively a couple of years ago.
That’s not even close to being the case.
Granted it was his first extended look in the majors, but Diaz struggled big time in terms of handling the pitching staff, pitch framing, and blocking the plate. Diaz ended up with a 0.7 dWAR (Defensive Wins above Replacement) on the season.
The bad part about that is Cervelli struggled worse, with a 0.2 dWAR.
Neither caught the staff well, with Diaz having a catchers ERA of 4.24 and Cervelli 4.27.
Cervelli led the division in passed balls with seven, while Diaz chipped in three of his own.
Where Diaz has a big edge is throwing base stealers out.
Diaz struggled controlling the run game, throwing out just 29 percent (8 of 27) of attempted runners, which is well below the league average.
That number looks great though compared to Cervelli, who gunned down just 11 of 55 (20 percent) runners.
This is an area the Pirates catchers are going to have to make a huge improvement. A lot of those numbers can be attributed to the pitchers, but the Pirates catchers have plenty of faults in terms of throwing out runners.
If the Pirates want to cut payroll before the season, and you know they do, Cervelli’s contract is one they likely would try to get off the books.
There won’t be a huge return and they would seriously have to look to bring in another catcher as they could be in trouble with Diaz as the primary catcher in 2018.
Bringing in a third catcher is something the front office should likely do anyway. Between Cervelli’s injury history and Diaz’s early struggles, it makes sense to add a competent back stop to the mix.
There isn’t much catcher depth in the system for next season and they don’t want Jacob Stallings starting meaningful games in the summer.
One way or another the Bucs are going to need a great improvement from the catchers spot to contend in 2018.
Whether it be a healthy Cervelli, an improved Diaz or a move to bring in a catcher, things have to get better.