Editorial: The Pittsburgh Pirates Pirates have made their recent living with veteran presences at catcher, but what prospects are the organization grooming to eventually take the reins from current catcher Francisco Cervelli?
Ever since the Pittsburgh Pirates returned to hosting a winning culture with their playoff berth in 2013, the team has been relatively fortunate to have two reliable, versatile, and durable veteran backstops to handle their complex pitching staff. Russell Martin is now a Toronto Blue Jay, but his time in Pittsburgh was not wasted by any means. In addition to building a blueprint of the successful Pirates rotation along with Pitching Coach Ray Searage, Martin served as a veteran leader on and off the field.
Martin slashed .256/.362/.401 with 26 home runs and a .764 OPS in two seasons as Pittsburgh’s catcher. In addition, he fielded a starting rotation that helped Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez revamp their careers, in addition to making A.J. Burnett look ten years younger on the mound as he entered the twilight of his career.
Martin left for big bucks in his native country following the 2014 season. So the Pittsburgh Pirates were on the hunt for a similar player who could inherit this complex staff that was built in Pittsburgh, now with Gerrit Cole blooming as a bona fide ace. Francisco Cervelli signed following the 2014 season. This was after spending the previous seven years with the Yankees, and he filled in and then some for Martin, at a cheaper rate.
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As a Pirate, Cervelli is slashing .282/.373/.368 with eight home runs, 76 RBI, and 31 doubles. He was never known as a power hitter, but his numbers have increased significantly since exchanging Pinstripes for black and gold (Cervelli hit 10 HR and drove in 92 runs with NYY in 7 seasons).
Not that there is anything wrong with Cervelli as the Pirates’ current catcher, but it’s always reassuring to have a top catching prospect within the system. The Pirates dealt Reese McGuire, who was tabbed as the club’s top catching prospect entering last season, to Toronto, so that leaves us with Elias Diaz.
Diaz, 26, has been in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization since 2009. He spent most of his 2016 season in AAA Indianapolis, but he did stop through Pittsburgh for a cup of coffee where he went 0-4 with a RBI In his lone game played. With McGuire out of the picture, Diaz has every opportunity to assume the starting catcher’s role one day. In his seven seasons in the Pirates system, Diaz is slashing .258/.323/.362 and has held a rather impressive 1.9 K/BB ratio. Diaz is not a swing and miss guy and he does hit baseballs hard and through the air (1.04 GO/AO ratio in his MiLB career).
Beyond the Future
Elias Diaz is a very viable catching prospect, without question, but what options are the Pittsburgh Pirates organization examining behind him? The answers may lie in High-A Bradenton or AA Altoona with Christian Kelley and Kevin Krause. Kelley was an 11th round pick of the Pirates in 2015 out of Cal Poly Pomona who spent most of 2016 in Low-A West Virginia. He did appear in nine games for Bradenton, where he went 11-31 with two doubles and five RBI. Kelley assumed the starting role in Bradenton following the departure of Taylor Gushue in August.
Krause was a ninth-round selection of the Pirates in 2014 out of SUNY Stony Brook. Krause has spent two seasons in Short-Season Low-A and underwent Tommy John Surgery after playing in just 39 games in 2014. As a result, Krause missed the entirety of the 2015 season. His 2016 “rebound season” went fairly well, as he slashed .273/.400/.369 with three home runs, 20 RBI, and six doubles. He also improved his walk rate in 2016 compared to the previous 2014 season, as he drew 35 walks while striking out 26 times. This would explain his high on-base percentage while maintaining a decent batting average.
The Future is Bright
In totality, the Pirates have been fortunate with catching depth and prospects since the franchise turned itself back into a winner in 2013. The organization has a little more time to prepare Elias Diaz before he takes over for Francisco Cervelli, but even after Diaz’s inception as the full-time backstop in Pittsburgh, the Pirates organization has a minimal Plan B and C behind him.
Early speculations are that Krause would be the project catcher. He will likely take quite a deal of time to be ready. This is mainly because of his injury history. Also, Kelley could be the fast mover with a potential to become Diaz’s backup one day. Let’s not forget about Norristown, PA native and 23-year-old Chris Harvey, who hit .301 in 36 games with the Short Season, Low-A West Virginia Black Bears while splitting time with Krause in 2016. The Pirates are till further loaded at the position, even beyond Krause and Kelley.
This all allows for a smooth transition for Elias Diaz, and it allows for a longer process for Kelley, Krause, and even Harvey to develop over time. Regardless, and even after losing Reese McGuire, it seems that the Pirates are comfortably set behind the plate for years to come.
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Corey Crisan is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Rum Bunter on the FanSided family of networks. Follow him on twitter @cdcrisan.