Around the Horn: Cervelli leads Bucs behind plate

Veteran in final year of contract; Diaz, Stallings offer proven depth

January 14th, 2019

With Spring Training approaching, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' roster. This is the third part of a series checking in on their current and future options at each position. Next up: catcher.
Big question: How many games will play?
In previous years, this would primarily be a question about Cervelli's health. It still is, to a certain extent, as he's coming off another season disrupted by concussions.
But the question now is whether (or when) the Pirates will trade Cervelli. Pittsburgh isn't necessarily trying to move its starting catcher, but he is available entering the final season of his three-year contract. There aren't many logical suitors remaining, however, after the Dodgers filled their need behind the plate with a former Pirates catcher, , and not Pittsburgh's current catcher.
Cervelli will earn $11.5 million this year, making him the Bucs' highest-paid player. He improved across the board last season after overhauling his diet and exercise routine, but the Pirates have another viable option behind the plate in . If they're both on the roster and performing at a high level, how will manager Clint Hurdle split the playing time?

The starter: Cervelli
Cervelli played only 104 games last year, but it was his most productive season since his Pirates debut in 2015. At 32 years old, Cervelli slashed .259/.378/.431 with a 125 wRC+, a career-high 12 homers and 57 RBIs. Despite his injuries, he was Pittsburgh's third-most valuable player according to Fangraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement.
Cervelli threw out 23 baserunners for a markedly improved 39 percent caught-stealing rate. His pitch-framing numbers have declined over the past few years, but pitchers still laud him for his game-calling and leadership behind the plate. Chris Archer said he bounced back in September by simply trusting Cervelli. To use a more specific example, Joe Musgrove credited Cervelli for his guidance -- and homemade arepas -- on Sept. 4.
The Pirates could keep both catchers in the lineup by occasionally using Cervelli as Josh Bell's backup at first base. But the key, as always, will be health. Cervelli has been on the disabled list four times over the past two years due to concussion symptoms, and he missed additional time in 2017 due to left wrist inflammation and a strained left quad.

The backup: Diaz
This might be more of a 1-1A situation than a true starter-backup pairing. Hurdle spoke highly of Diaz at the Winter Meetings, and there was indeed plenty to like about Diaz's 2018 season.
Diaz, now 28 years old, slashed .286/.339/.452 with 10 homers and 34 RBIs in 277 plate appearances over 82 games. He continued to show a strong arm behind the plate, his game-calling improved, and he displayed durability by starting 14 straight games from June 22-July 7.
Cervelli and Diaz gave the Pirates arguably the Majors' most productive catching duo last year. No team -- not even the Marlins, with J.T. Realmuto -- accumulated more WAR from their catchers than the Pirates (5.3), according to Fangraphs. There's a lot of value in that tandem.

The next man up:
Stallings is the only other catcher on Pittsburgh's 40-man roster, and he's out of Minor League options. So the Pirates must put him on their Opening Day roster or risk losing him on waivers, creating an interesting dilemma this spring.
Stallings, 29, looks like he's ready to be a Major League backup. Pitchers praise his preparation and work behind the plate. He hit .285 with a .749 OPS in Triple-A last year after batting .301 with a .789 OPS for Indianapolis in 2017. And it's prudent for the Pirates to have a capable third catcher on hand, especially considering Cervelli's recent injury history.
Unless the Pirates trade Cervelli and move forward with a Diaz-Stallings pairing, they will have to weigh the possibility of losing Stallings to another team against the drawbacks of carrying three catchers on their 25-man roster.

Depth: Steven Baron,
Baron will likely spend the season in Triple-A after signing as a Minor League free agent. The 28-year-old, a first-round Draft pick in 2009, hit just .213 with a .512 OPS for Triple-A Memphis last season. He's an experienced backstop, however, and the Pirates needed another upper-level option after losing early this offseason.
Kelley, 25, will be in big league camp for the third straight year. He played 90 games for Double-A Altoona last year, slashing .235/.308/.367 with eight homers and 38 RBIs. The Pirates like his defensive ability, and he should get a chance to work with the Triple-A pitching staff this season.

In the pipeline: Arden Pabst, Jason Delay, Deon Stafford
Pabst and Delay will be in big league Spring Training next month, while Stafford is the only catcher currently ranked among the Pirates' top 30 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline.
Pabst, a 12th-round pick in 2016, hit well in Class A Advanced Bradenton with a .281 average and .832 OPS. He struggled, however, after a mid-July promotion to Double-A. Delay, a fourth-round pick in 2017, could join Pabst in Altoona this year after hitting .247 with a .627 OPS in 67 games for Bradenton last season.
Stafford, Pittsburgh's No. 29 prospect, posted an identical .749 OPS each of his first two professional seasons after being selected in the fifth round of the 2017 Draft. The 22-year-old seems to be bound for Bradenton this season after making his pro debut for Class A Short-Season West Virginia then spending last year in the South Atlantic League.
Around the Horn:Bullpen strongest at the back end | Pirates counting on rotation