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More to Bucs’ Catching Situation Than You Think


In the past few days I ?ve been reading the tea leaves on MLBTR for insights on the Pirates upcoming offseason. This is the time that teams clear unwanted players off their 40 man roster, pick up others and get prepared for the onset of free agency while setting their rosters in preparation for the Rule 5 draft.

One of my goals is to see if the Pirates sign a catcher who could serve as the ready-made backup catcher in AAA this year (Joe Hudson?). The Pirates currently have four catchers on their 40 man roster with Francisco Cervelli, Elias Diaz, Jacob Stallings and Ryan Lavarnway, none of which can be optioned to the minors. Everyone thinks the Pirates will go with Cervelli and Diaz for 2019 but I ?m not so sure. Let ?s talk about what happened in 2018 and what could be the plan for 2019 and beyond.

First, why all the speculation over catcher? Well, catcher is one of the last position players of consistent value. First base and corner OFs are becoming less relevant with platoons. Second base, third base, and shortstop defense are becoming less important due to shifting of defenses. With strikeouts outnumbering hits for the first time ever, all defensive players are less relevant than even three years ago with the exception of catchers.

In 2018 the Pirates had the following breakdown at catcher:

Stallings – 14 games 41 PAs

Diaz – 82 games 277 PAs

Cervelli 94 games 374 PAs

Lavarnway – 0 games 6 PH PAs

This was pretty much ideal, especially since none are bad on defense. Stallings actually grades out as the best framer. Diaz and Cervelli were bad at framing with Cervelli being near worst in league via multiple metrics. Stallings and Lavarnway were probably a coach’s dream handling the young pitchers in AAA.

Cervelli is owed $11M for 2019 and then is a Free Agent. He ?ll play 2019 at 32.

Diaz is pre-arb in 2019 and hits arbitration after the season. He ?ll play 2019 at 28.

Stalling is pre-arb in 2019 and hits arbitration after 2020. He ?ll play 2019 at 29.

Lavarnway is arb eligible for the first time this offseason. He ?ll play 2019 at 31.

Let ?s look at all these guys and see what the plan could be for 2019.

Elias Diaz

Start with the easiest and work harder. Elias Diaz is the one sure thing for the Pirates with regard to catching in 2019. Diaz will either be the starter and earn more than his 277 PAs in 2019 or he ?ll be a backup to Cervelli.

Games PA BB% K% ISO Off Def WAR
2017 Pirates 64 200 5.5% 19.0% 0.090 -15.0 5.5 -0.3
2018 Pirates 82 277 7.6% 14.4% 0.167 5.3 5.6 2.0

Just extrapolating Diaz over to 400+ PAs shows that he could equal or surpass Cervelli as a starter with a little luck.

Ryan Lavarnway

Has been on my radar since he was a 24 year old that hit 30 HRs in 2011 over AA, AAA and the Red Sox. His power vanished the next few years and he battled injuries and moved around. I assumed a power hitting catcher in the Red Sox system was not good defensively (and might not be too bright) but I ?d be wrong. Lavarnway is a Yale grad, was the Team Israel starting catcher and is very respected.

In most offseason years Lavarnway would be given a handshake and wished good luck. I know the Pirates would love to have him as the backup, but he ?s currently behind Diaz AND Stallings for that position. But there are actually two ways the Pirates could have him in AAA next year as their ready reserve. The most straight forward is a $1M+ minor league contract with a Spring Training invite. The second and most gentlemanly would be to actually take him to Arbitration. He ?d probably get the same $1M salary, but would be given a 40 man spot and he ?d go to Spring Training the official Major League way. After Spring Training the Pirates could try and pull the old Vin Mazzaro trick and have him go unclaimed due to his higher salary and no options or could just trade him to another team where he could be the backup.

Jacob Stallings

Stallings is not much of a concern to many Pirate fans, but I believe that the Pirates care more about leadership, character and clubhouse chemistry than most give them credit for. I think the Pirates REALLY want to keep Stallings. He could be an ideal backup and would be set up for that if the Pirates didn ?t have two other catchers with higher upside.

The thought is that he ?ll go with the Pirates to Spring Training and possibly the 3rd catcher on the roster if there are no injuries. No injuries is often a stretch with catchers. This seems plausible, but I hate the 3rd catcher having no upside, which Stallings doesn ?t. If the Pirates carry three catchers on the 25 man, I ?d go a different route. It sounds weird that I prefer Stallings as a backup catcher to a 3rd catcher but I ?ll explain later.

Francisco Cervelli

When I told my 12 y/o son I was writing an article about Cervelli today he said, ?What? Did he get another concussion

That ?s the problem with Cervelli. He ?s great when healthy, but he ?s a catcher and injury prone. That makes him hard to rely on. Here ?s his breakdown of games over the last several seasons:

Games PA BB% K% ISO Off Def WAR
2013 Yankees 17 61 13.1% 14.8% 0.231 3.0 2.2 0.8
2014 Yankees 49 162 6.8% 25.3% 0.130 3.7 2.6 1.2
2015 Pirates 130 510 9.0% 18.4% 0.106 9.4 9.3 3.7
2016 Pirates 101 393 14.2% 18.3% 0.058 -1.6 4.5 1.6
2017 Pirates 81 304 10.5% 21.4% 0.121 -3.7 3.5 1.0
2018 Pirates 104 404 12.6% 20.8% 0.172 10.5 9.3 3.3

There has been talk about Cervelli playing more 1B in 2019 and that would make sense if they were carrying three catchers ?. especially against LHP. Diaz is very good hitting LHP and would start at catcher, while Cervelli would play first base due to his numbers against LHPs:

Vs RHP 1802 0.266 0.352 0.374
Vs LHP 594 0.293 0.390 0.408
Vs RHP 301 0.264 0.375 0.436
Vs LHP 103 0.244 0.388 0.415

Trading Cervelli

What would I do with Cervelli? I ?d probably trade him at the Winter Meetings.

This is Andrew McCutchen 2.0 He ?s super popular but is a free agent after the season and the odds of being retained are low. I believe that Cervelli has more trade value now than McCutchen did last offseason, but it could go away with another concussion, broken hamate bone or just 162 games from now.

Cervelli has A LOT of trade value due to being a ?cheap ? one year option that is good at offense and defense. He ?s also a crowd pleaser like McCutchen. More importantly there are a couple big market teams in the need for a catcher that would love to have a good catcher and the one premium catcher on the free agent market, Yasmani Grandal, just imploded in the post season.

A Cervelli trade would open up more PAs for Diaz as the catcher and Osuna at 1B. A top prospect in AA or AAA would quell the diatribes, which could also be quelled by some more monster homers from Diaz.

A 3rd catcher I could get behind

The Rule 5 draft is a winter ritual that has become a way to dream on players joining your system. In the last few years the teams have gone from protecting the most valuable prospects to the prospects that are most likely to get picked. A pitcher that could be stashed in the ML bullpen is much easier to hide than a 1B with no position flexibility.

I believe the one of the easiest players to keep on your major league roster is a catcher. If the Pirates would want to carry a 3rd catcher, I ?d advocate drafting one in the Rule 5 and allowing that catcher to be an insurance policy. Let ?s be honest — the backup catcher rarely plays anyways, so an injury to the starter could allow the backup to be the starter and the 3rd string Rule 5 catcher to be the backup.

This would serve not only as a buffer for injury (Diaz or Stallings would obviously start if there is an injury) but would allow the Pirates to steal a 21 year old catching stud like Jason Lopez or Donny Sands, both of the Yankees, who they can send to AA or AAA in 2020. There ?s also a likely chance of the Rule 5 pick getting injured (they are catchers) so injury rehabs would be acceptable.

Michael is a Pirates contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. Michael is former submarine officer and Naval Academy grad. He now runs a small consulting firm and does veteran related job fairs. He is a SABR member and regularly attends Altoona Curve games to scout the Pirate prospects.

4 Comments on More to Bucs’ Catching Situation Than You Think

  1. I agree that trading Cervelli may be the best option–at some point, and probably sooner than later, the choice of whether or not Cervelli can continue to catch will be taken out of the ballclub’s hands by the doctors. At this point, he would have more value to an AL club, where he could DH, play some first, and catch once a week or so–essentially, making him the version of John Jaso that could catch and still actually play worth a damn. If the 2019 Pirates were going to go all-in instead of just dipping their toe into the deep end of the pool (and I’m not sure which approach is the correct one), then I can see holding on to Cervelli, but I think he has enough trade value where I’m comfortable moving on from him.

  2. Bob Stover // November 1, 2018 at 12:20 PM //

    I like your thinking for its logic, and hate that you suggest that we send a great guy like Cervelli elsewhere. On the other hand, he’d have a chance at a World Series ring somewhere else on a big budget team. Ironically, the Yankees might like to have him back over the injury prone Sanchez, and he could DH there against left handed pitching.

  3. RetireNutting // November 1, 2018 at 9:24 PM //

    Why not just trade Cervelli for Florial, Seigler, and one of the Yankees rule 5 catchers, then?

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