When Elias Díaz joined the Rockies last season he hoped that five seasons with the Pirates, learning from and waiting behind veteran Francisco Cervelli, had prepared him for his opportunity. But the Rockies asked him to wait a little longer.
Finally, the wait is over. After a strong finish to 2020, Díaz enters ’21 as the Rockies’ most experienced catcher, which gives him his first shot to become a regular.
“I’ve been working for a year for this opportunity,” said Díaz, 30, who finally received consistent playing time during the final month of last season and hit .235 with the Rockies’ only two homers from the catching position. “Finally, I got the opportunity. Now I’m going to do my best.”
The Rockies are projected to partner Díaz with rookie Dom Nuñez, who saw brief action in 2019 and spent 2020 at the alternate training site. The Rockies may lack an established veteran, but they believe in Díaz’s growing familiarity with the pitchers and his right-handed bat, as well as Nuñez’s left-handed-hitting potential and the comfort he has gained in four years in Major League camp. José Briceño, who had limited action with the Angels in ‘18 and ‘20, will compete as a non-roster invitee.
In 2019, the Pirates hoped to increase Díaz’s playing time, but a viral infection in his stomach sidelined him for much of the first month. He managed a career-high 101 appearances, including 75 starts, but didn’t get the game experience to complete his development. The Pirates non-tendered him at season’s end.
Last Spring Training, the Rockies felt Díaz needed a more relaxed, upward motion with his glove when receiving low pitches. They also felt he could smooth out a backward stab at the start of his throws on steal attempts. That meant extra work with bench coach and former Major League catcher Mike Redmond, rather than game action.
Add to that a strong start by the pitchers with Tony Wolters (now with the Pirates) and Drew Butera (now with the Rangers), and there was no playing time for Diaz early.
“It was, like, catch a bullpen every day, talk to the guys every day, ask questions during the game … ‘What’s the sequence,’” Díaz said. “Those little things help you help the pitcher.”
Redmond said Díaz’s attitude made it “fun to get to work with him” until he became comfortable with the more relaxed movements, which should bring consistency in receiving and throwing accuracy.
“When you get to the big leagues, everybody wants to play, especially after a year that didn’t go the way he wanted it to,” Redmond said. “I give him all the credit for being patient and open, take the information, work on it and stay with it.
“These were simple adjustments, really trying to take what he does and make it easier and better.”
Díaz’s regular playing time in September telegraphed the Rockies’ plans to non-tender Wolters and not re-sign Butera. Díaz appeared in 26 games total. In his 15 starts, he batted .268 and posted a .727 OPS.
“As the short, 60-game season went on, we felt as though his presence back there was needed with the bat,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “We saw some things that led us to believe the bat could play, and his work with Mike Redmond through Spring Training 1 and Spring Training 2 started to show.”