For the second straight year, Francisco Cervelli suffered through an injury-plagued season for the Pirates, with four separate trips to the DL. And for the second straight year, the position suffered greatly for it. The Pirates did not have a viable answer at backup catcher with the bat, save for a few games by Elias Diaz early on that got everyone hyped to ship Cervelli out of town. But Diaz, predictably, came back to Earth in a hurry. His final line of .223/.265/.314 (52 wRC+) is about what I would expect from him, but it was positively Mike Trout-ian compared to Chris Stewart this year. Stewart was very good defensively, but his anemic batting line of .183/.241/.221 (22 wRC+) would make even Jeff Mathis blush.
Francisco Cervelli is the starter heading into 2018, both on his past merits and his 3 year/$31M contract in his back pocket, for which he’ll get $10.5M next year. However, the Pirates really need to address finding him a more reliable backup than either Stewart or Diaz. Many people think Elias Diaz is the catcher of the future, but I’m sad to inform them that he is not. Diaz is not a young up-and-comer at this point. He’s 27, so the mortar is fairly well set on him. It’s clear to me that the Pirates don’t have a great deal of faith in him, either, as his lack of playing time during key stretches this year speaks volumes.
Juan Nicasio was ostensibly moved to the Phillies to give younger players more experience in key situations in September, to paraphrase GM Neal Huntington. OK, that b.s., but let’s roll with that for a minute. If that’s the case, why was Chris Stewart getting the lion’s share of starts in August when the season was clearly lost? Earlier in the year, when Cervelli was dealing with his concussion and hand injury, Stewart again got the majority of the time over Diaz. The Pirates have said indirectly that they don’t like the way Elias Diaz calls a game. His pitch framing numbers, as per Statcorner, are atrocious at -12.1 runs below average.
So if the Pirates part ways with Chris Stewart (he’d get a $200K buyout instead of his $1.5M team option) and decide that Elias Diaz isn’t in their future plans, there’s an option out there that may be a good fit. Chris Iannetta has always been an underrated catcher, in my opinion. He’s never been a top-tier star in the Buster Posey class, but for the majority of his career he’s had an above-average bat and solid defensively. After two sub-standard years in 2015 and 2016 with the Angels and Mariners, respectively, Iannetta rebounded strongly in 2017 with the Diamondbacks. His line of .254/.354/.511 (120 wRC+) with 17 homers was robust and he provided neutral numbers on his pitch framing at 0.0 runs.
The Diamondbacks, as per this Arizona Republic article, are going to be in a payroll crunch this offseason, thanks to $60M of existing commitments (hey, Zack Greinke and his $34M salary) and a potential $50M of arbitration salaries. Their 2014 payroll of $112M is their franchise high and the Diamondbacks have some historical financial issues that they’re still dealing with, so it’s very unlikely that they’ll be able to retain all of their free agents like Iannetta. Iannetta will be 35 in April and was playing on just a 1 year/$1.7M deal last season, so he’ll be looking to get one more multi-year deal in his career. Considering that heading into 2017, then-34 year old Nick Hundley signed a 1 year/$2M deal coming off a season with relatively similar numbers, I’d say that offering a guaranteed 2nd year to Iannetta on a 2 year/$4M deal could seal it.
Chris Iannetta has been remarkably consistent in his walk and strikeout rates, in good years and bad, as he has never walked less than 11.2% of his plate appearances. His strikeout rate will be above 25%, but I could live with that if his power remains good for a catcher with around 15 home runs. Iannetta isn’t looking to be a full-time starter at this stage of his career, but he could handle a large workload if called upon in the case of another Francisco Cervelli injury. Ideally, Iannetta would catch around 60-70 games next year to give Cervelli adequate rest, but if he had to catch half the season it wouldn’t be the end of world.
By giving Iannetta a two year deal, it would sync up with the two years remaining on Cervelli’s deal and provide him with a reliable partner to don the tools of ignorance. It would also give the Pirates two years to try and find a more long-term solution behind the dish.