Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
The Official Site of the Pittsburgh Pirates
news

Pirates News

Pirates relying on Cervelli to stay healthy in '18

Veteran has starting catching job locked down, but he has had injury issues since '16
MLB.com @adamdberry

With Spring Training approaching, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' roster. This is the first part of a series checking in on their current and future options at each position. First up: catcher.

Big question: What will the Pirates get out of Francisco Cervelli?

With Spring Training approaching, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' roster. This is the first part of a series checking in on their current and future options at each position. First up: catcher.

Big question: What will the Pirates get out of Francisco Cervelli?

Pittsburgh couldn't have asked for more from Cervelli in 2015, when he slashed .295/.370/.401 while playing excellent defense in 130 games. Since then, he's been limited by injuries while hitting .257 with a .705 OPS in 182 games. He played only 81 games last year.

In the second season of his three-year, $31 million extension, Cervelli's $10.5 million salary will make him the Pirates' highest-paid player in 2018. Whether they want to contend or eventually trade him, as they did Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, the Bucs need Cervelli to bounce back -- and the key, as ever, is good health.

Video: PIT@COL: Cervelli gets lead runner on bunt attempt

The starter: Cervelli

Cervelli probably deserved better than his .258/.351/.404 line in his first 46 games (41 starts) last season, considering his .351 expected wOBA to that point, according to Statcast™. He sustained a concussion in Baltimore on June 6, and even when he was on the field the last four months of the season, his performance wasn't the same. He also missed time in mid August due to left wrist/hand inflammation, and a quadriceps injury ended his season on Aug. 25.

The questions about Cervelli's workload will persist. How many games should they realistically expect him to start? As much as he loathes sitting out, would more preventative rest help him? There's no doubt Cervelli, who turns 32 on March 6, will come into camp motivated, and the Pirates are counting on him to lead their young pitching staff from behind the plate.

Video: MIL@PIT: Cervelli evens the score with an RBI single

Backing up: Elias Diaz

Diaz, now 27 years old, finally got his first extended taste of the Majors last season after making his debut in 2015. He's out of Minor League options, so the backup job is his. Manager Clint Hurdle said he has "every confidence" in Diaz's ability to start every day, if necessary.

Diaz has a strong arm and a good reputation defensively. The Pirates felt his game calling improved with experience, citing as evidence the three shutouts he caught in September. Defense is Pittsburgh's priority behind the plate, but a better bat wouldn't hurt, especially if he has to play regularly. Last season, he put up a .223/.265/.314 line with one home run in 200 plate appearances.

Video: MIL@PIT: Diaz cuts down Braun from his knees

Depth: Jacob Stallings, Ryan Lavarnway, Jin-De Jhang, Jackson Williams

Stallings is the only other catcher on the Pirates' 40-man roster, so he's the default "next man up." Pitchers laud the 28-year-old's defense, and he quietly hit .301 in Triple-A Indianapolis last season.

Lavarnway, Jhang and Williams will be in big league Spring Training as non-roster invitees. Lavarnway, 30, was considered a top prospect six years ago, but he's a .201 hitter in the Majors. He figures to back up Stallings in Indianapolis. Jhang spent last year in Double-A Altoona, while Williams bounced between Altoona and Indianapolis as a backup.

Video: PIT@WSH: Stallings drills an RBI double down the line

In the pipeline

There isn't a catcher among the Pirates' Top 30 Prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, so nobody is knocking down the door anytime soon. If it's not Diaz, Cervelli's eventual replacement may have to come from outside the organization.

The Bucs like Christian Kelley's defense -- he'll be back in big league camp this spring -- but the 24-year-old hit just .243 with a .635 OPS for Class A Advanced Bradenton. They also selected a pair of catchers early in last year's Draft: fourth-rounder Jason Delay and fifth-rounder Deon Stafford.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Francisco Cervelli, Elias Diaz