News has started to percolate out that “catcher of the future until the other catcher of the future is ready” Elias Diaz is being shut down with persistent elbow soreness. Although not as prevalent, catchers get Tommy John surgery, too. Case in point is Christian Vasquez of the Boston Red Sox, who underwent TJ surgery last April and missed the entire 2015 season. He is just now working his way back into form for the Red Sox. Closer to the organization, Pirates’ minor leaguer Kevin Krause had the same surgery performed and missed all of the 2015 season, as well.
As of this writing, nothing has been formally announced, but all indications are strongly trending towards Elias Diaz needing to go under the knife. If that’s the case, his 2016 season will be done and the recovery will extend into 2017. This isn’t good for the Pirates for a wide variety of reasons. The first is that the 25-year old Diaz will not be ready for a taste of the Majors until at least next year, when he will be an untested 26-year old. He received a September call-up last season, but only had a grand total of 2 at-bats in 2 games, so I guess the Pirates just wanted him to get acclimated to the dugout, clubhouse, and which pile of gum was Clint Hurdle’s, so don’t touch that pile.
Francisco Cervelli is set to become a free agent after this year. With the scarcity of quality free agents in general and with catchers, specifically, Cervelli will be in high demand. That will leave the Pirates with only Chris Stewart as a ready-made option to catch, thanks to his micro-extension that will pay him $1.4M in 2017 (with a $1.5M club option in 2018). Stewart is a steady backup that won’t embarrass you with the bat (85 wRC+ in 2015) or the glove (24% caught stealing, 1 passed ball in 2015), but he’s not a starter. And to be fair, even if Diaz comes back, he is a complete question mark at this point. The Pirates, if they choose to not make a play for Cervelli, will have to pursue some other 1 year stopgap option to pair with Stewart as Diaz works his way back to health.
The kicker to all of this is that Cervelli wants to stay here. He even named his own price, as if he was buying hotel tickets online, at 3 years/$39M. Steve speculated on a Cervelli extension, prior to the start of the 2016 season, that would have been a 3 year/$32M deal from 2017-19. So Cervelli’s true contract is probably somewhere between 3/$32M and 3/$39M. One obstacle to this potential extension is that the 2017 season would represent Cervelli’s age-31 season, which means that a three year deal would take the Pirates over their personal rubicon of the age-32 decision point. They have (most likely) done scads of research on this topic, probably more than we even did on our aging study, so I have to yield to their decision-making. It’s probably even scarier when looking at the catcher position past age-32.
But I would think about making an exception in this case. The free agent market for catchers is threadbare. Could the Pirates really go to the well known as the Yankees for yet another catcher (Russ Martin, Chris Stewart)? It’s too bad John Ryan Murphy was traded to the Twins this offseason, as he would have been the logical Yankee catcher to obtain next. The catcher position, in general, is fairly down around MLB, so teams are more apt to hang on to them nowadays.
Last year, Cervelli delivered a 119 wRC+ (19% more offense than league average) and a 3.8 WAR campaign, displaying excellent receiving and game-calling skills. During this recent run of winning seasons and playoff appearances, the Pirates have had the luxury of a quality two-way catcher. It would be disappointing to have to take a step back and revert back to a no-hit, 8th spot in lineup type of catcher.
I’d like to think that the Pirates are in wait-and-see mode with Cervelli, just to ensure that last year was not a complete fluke. With the resounding start to his season (.370 avg/.486 obp/.481 slg, 161 wRC+), it appears as if Cervelli is primed to continue his strong play. As they process this information about Elias Diaz, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear about a mid-season extension somewhere in the 3 yr/$36M range for Francisco Cervelli. That will ensure that he’ll be here for the 2017 season (which may represent the last hurrah for this edition of the Pirates) and help transition the Pirates to whatever “catcher of the future” is being hyped up next.