It may have taken nine years to happen, and it may be very temporary, but for the time being, Elias Diaz is the starting catcher for the Pirates.
With Chris Stewart recovering from a hamstring injury and Francisco Cervelli being placed on the seven day concussion disabled list Wednesday, Diaz is finally getting an honest look in the majors. The circumstances could obviously be better, but it’s the opportunity he’s wanted and deserves.
“In my minor league career, I’ve been an everyday catcher, so here in the big leagues, that’s what I want to do,” Diaz said Thursday. “It’s no different to me.”
This chance should have come sooner, especially since the 2016 Pirates started the likes of Erik Kratz, Eric Fryer and the recently re-promoted Jacob Stallings when Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart went down with injuries. The problem was Diaz was not upright either, making two trips to the 60-day DL for his elbow and leg. He ended up playing only 35 games, one of which was his first big league start.
Diaz has been in Indianapolis and among the Pirates’ top prospects for four years now. He’s had varying levels of offensive success with the bat in that time, but his glove turned him from a projected organizational depth guy to a major leaguer. So far, he’s been the opposite of what’s been billed: posting a .938 OPS but making a pair of errors in eight games played.
The offensive tear will eventually simmer down. The glove will sort itself out. When that happens, the Pirates will have to decide if Diaz should be a part of the franchise’s plans. That future could either be as a backup or a starter. A week’s worth of starts won’t be enough, but it’s a good first test.
Stewart has one year of team control remaining in the form of a $1.5 million club option. Glove first catchers tend to fill in better as backups than starters. It seems like a good floor for his talent and skills. He’s worked with a lot of the current pitching staff when they were in AAA. It’s a job he could probably handle today.
But what if he could be more than a backup?
Cervelli is having an okay year. His wRC+ is a perfectly acceptable 101. He’s saved one run defensively. He’s stolen 0.4 runs from his framing, according to Baseball Prospectus. It’s been a very average year, and at $9 million for a guy who gave up a year of free agency, that’s about the going rate.
It is still a far cry from his 2015, where he had a 119 wRC+ and saved 17.3 runs with his framing. The Pirates are not going to succeed with their current payroll if they give $9 million to an average player. Catchers are in demand, and if Cervelli does not improve at the plate or behind it, maybe he should be shopped around while his value is still moderately high. That is, of course, if Diaz is up to the challenge of replacing him.
And here’s a great time to find out if he is.
Stewart resumed baseball activities Tuesday, so he might beat Cervelli back to the field. If that’s the case, Diaz should still start over him, even if he gets optioned when both incumbents return. Let the 26 year old work through whatever he needs to at the major league level. He basically won the Bucs a game with his six RBI night in New York June 2. He’s playing with house money now.
So let him start.