PITTSBURGH -- When the Pirates declined to exercise veteran Chris Stewart's option for next season, they all but officially named Elias Diaz their backup catcher. In doing so, they also showed they believe Diaz can handle an everyday role in the Majors.Diaz is out of Minor League options, so he's
PITTSBURGH -- When the Pirates declined to exercise veteran Chris Stewart's option for next season, they all but officially named Elias Diaz their backup catcher. In doing so, they also showed they believe Diaz can handle an everyday role in the Majors.
Diaz is out of Minor League options, so he's a lock to make Pittsburgh's Opening Day roster as Francisco Cervelli's backup. Injuries limited Cervelli to 182 games over the past two years, however, and only 75 starts behind the plate last season. If Cervelli misses time next year, the job falls to Diaz.
Is he ready?
"I do have a lot of confidence," manager Clint Hurdle said last week. "I have every confidence in him being able to be a guy, if need be, to be an everyday big league catcher."
After a brief Major League debut in 2015, Diaz finally shed his rookie status this year. But he is 27 years old -- only two months younger than Gerrit Cole, to put that in context -- with 67 games and 206 plate appearances of Major League experience. The last three years, he was either blocked by Cervelli and Stewart or injured at the same time they were.
Injuries gave Diaz an extended opportunity last season, and he delivered mixed results. He hit .223/.265/.314 with one home run and 19 RBIs in 200 plate appearances, but he showed his strong arm behind the plate and learned the finer points of game-calling through diligence and daily meetings with Cervelli, Stewart, Pittsburgh's pitching coaches and bench coach Tom Prince.
In September, Diaz caught three shutouts -- one started by Jameson Taillon, the second by Steven Brault and the third by Chad Kuhl, three of the many young pitchers the Bucs will rely on next season. Even as he hit .185 the last month of the season, Diaz didn't let the slump affect his defense.
"I believe he can be an everyday catcher. I believe that the bat's going to play," Hurdle said. "One of the things that gave me encouragement this year was the challenge of stepping in for Cervelli, when Cervelli was unplugged and down, and our commitment to him at the time. It was his time. [Diaz] needed to be the next guy up."
That experience, Hurdle said, will be invaluable as Diaz becomes the true "next guy up" in 2018. He has worked with the entire staff, starters and relievers, and been forced to navigate tough lineups on consecutive days. He developed working relationships with his pitchers, one of Cervelli's greatest strengths, and learned how to handle different personalities and styles.
"We think he could step in and be a good Major League catcher," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Our hope is that Cervelli is going to be able to catch as many games as he can catch."
Cervelli's production declined as he played through injuries last season, slashing .249/.342/.370 with five home runs and 31 RBIs. The Pirates' hope is that Cervelli returns to full health and peak performance in the second season of his three-year, $31 million extension.
But if he goes down, the Pirates believe Diaz will step up.
"Room for growth and development," Huntington said. "But [we] like what [Diaz] can do behind home plate, like what he can do in the batter's box."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.