Elias Diaz Injury Update, And How It Affects The Future Of Catcher For The Pirates

Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Rob Biertempfel reported yesterday that Pirate catching prospect Elias Diaz, who is currently on the disabled list, has structural damage in his elbow. Diaz will get a second opinion, but this injury may require Tommy John Surgery. Needless to say, Tommy John Surgery would have a detrimental affect on the development of Elias Diaz.

Now, here is how this news impacts current Pirate catcher Francisco Cervelli.  If Elias Diaz were to undergo Tommy John Surgery, then he will not be capable of playing in games for at least a calendar year. Cervelli is slated to become a free agent at the end of the season, and a big reason why the Pirates have not extended Cervelli is because they are very high on Diaz and are prepared to hand the starting catching duties over to him in 2017.

For multiple reasons, I believe that this is a foolish way for the Pirates to go about things. First of all, Elias Diaz has yet to prove if he can make it in the Major Leagues or not and Francisco Cervelli has. Every prospect, no matter how highly touted, is an unknown in the Majors until they prove otherwise and for that reason I have never been a fan of handing a prospect with no or limited Major League time a starting job to begin a season.

Secondly, while Diaz’s defense is spectacular his offense has not always matched during his Minor League career. In 2014 Diaz won the Eastern League batting title as a member of the AA Altoona Curve when he hit .328 to go with a .369 wOBA and a 128 wRC+. Diaz started 2014 at high A Bradenton and hit .280 with a .380 wOBA and a wRC_ of 127. However, that 2014 season was an outlier for Diaz and not the norm.

Diaz got called up to AAA Indianapolis at the end of the 2014 season and slashed just .152/.243/.182/.425 with a .213 wOBA and a wRC+ of 21. In his first full season at AAA in 2015 he slashed .271/.330/.382/.712 with a .329 wOBA and a 106 wRC+. So while his numbers at AAA last year were not bad, they were not great either. Simply put, they were average.

Prior to his 2014 season Diaz was just a .236 hitter, with a .293 on base percentage in 1,355 plate appearances. So as I said above, that 2014 season for Diaz was not the norm but rather an outlier. For this reason, I have serious doubts about Diaz’s offense translating to the Major Leagues.

Diaz will turn 26 in November, which is old for prospect age. When you combine Diaz’s age, his up and down offensive numbers throughout the Minor Leagues, and his elbow injury it is time for the Pirates to extend catcher Francisco Cervelli.

Even without the Diaz injury, the Pirates should have been looking to extend Cervelli. Now in his second season as a Pirate, Francisco Cervelli has been one of the five best catchers in all of baseball since arriving in Pittsburgh. During his time as a Pirate Francisco Cervelli has a .300/.376/.408/.784 slash line, to go with a wOBA of .346 and a wRC+ of 122. All of these numbers are above league average, especially for a catcher. Also, his 3.8 WAR last year ranked second among all Major League catchers behind just Buster Posey of the Giants.

Apr 5, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli (29) runs the bases on his way to scoring a run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 5, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli (29) runs the bases on his way to scoring a run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Before anyone tries to pull the ‘Nutting is cheap the Pirates will not pay to keep Cervelli’ card, let me debunk that. While, yes, the Pirates are not big spenders in free agency they have proven they will lock up their guys. Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Francisco Liriano, Josh Harrison, Chris Stewart, and Gregory Polanco are all examples of this. The Pirates also made multiple efforts to lock up Neil Walker before trading him, so save your breathe.

Speaking of players the Pirates have locked up, they did so with backup catcher Chris Stewart this offseason. Stewart signed a new contract good through the 2017 season, with an option for 2018. This gives the Pirates at least one quality catching option for next season, but Stewart is best served in a backup role and not as a starter.

There is also another pair of catching prospects that could factor into things now in Jacob Stallings and Reese McGuire. Stallings is now slated with the catching duties at AAA Indianapolis with Diaz out with injury, and he is a player that has watched his stock rise in recent months. Stallings is a plus defender, but struggles offensively with a lifetime .686 Minor League OPS. So, he is not a guy you want starting a large chunk of your Major League games.

That leaves us with Reese McGuire. The Pirates 2013 first round pick is a plus defender, and quite honestly is defense is already close to being Major League ready. However, his offense is not.

McGuire will be the catcher for AA Altoona this season, and will look to improve his offense. Last year at high A Bradenton McGuire slashed .254/.301/.294/.595 with a wOBA of .285 and a wRC+ of 82. This came after he slashed .262/.307/.334/.641 with a .298 wOBA and a wRC+ of 80 at low A West Virginia in 2014.

Unless McGuire makes some quantum leap offensively this year, and gets a good chunk of time at AAA in the process, he will not be an option to be the Pirate catcher in 2017. This also adds to the need to extend Francisco Cervelli.

Elias Diaz’s elbow injury has thrown a wrench in the Pirates plans at catcher moving forward. The plan was for Diaz to be the starting catcher for AAA Indianapolis all season long while being groomed to be the starting catcher for the Pirates in 2017. Even if Elias Diaz does not need Tommy John Surgery, his development will still be thrown way off due to the time he will miss this season. So it is time to look to plan B for catcher in 2017.

Francisco Cervelli has proven to be a productive, reliable backstop for the Pirates and that is something the Pirates need. The need for this is only magnified by the Elias Diaz injury news. With Elias Diaz’s future looking a lot murkier than it did a few weeks ago, it is time that the Pirates extend Francisco Cervelli.