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With Francisco Cervelli back, what happens to Elias Diaz?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Pittsburgh Pirates
Elias Diaz is out of a starting job.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A week after getting his bell rung in Baltimore when a foul tip hit his facemask, Francisco Cervelli returned to the lineup on Wednesday night after finishing his stint on the 7-day Concussion Disabled List.

The Pirates catcher seemed to be himself. Cervelli thwarted Ramiel Tapia’s attempted steal with a rocket throw from his knees, he roped a single in the seventh inning to start what could have been a Pirates rally (he ended up stranded at third), and showed a bit of his Italian temper after he was hit by a pitch and jawed with Rockies catcher Tony Wolters.

This is all positive news. Pittsburgh sports fans don’t need to be lectured on how unpredictable and devastating concussions can be, so it’s reassuring when a player returns to health in a minimal amount of time.

And the situation is not new to Cervelli, who has had concussions before. Several, in fact, although the Pirates backstop doesn’t remember exactly how many.

“I don’t get scared about that stuff,” Cervelli said. “You see the boxers? They get hit 300 times in a fight and they do it twice a year. They’re good, so I’m not nervous.”

Somebody should tell him that boxers are able to absorb more punishment because they can see the shot coming, tense up their neck muscles, and deaden the impact. And comparing one’s own cranial health to that of a boxer’s is probably bad news to begin with.

Regardless of his logic, Cervelli said that he’s been without concussion symptoms for days and has been medically cleared to perform by the team, the league, and the MLBPA. (There are stricter guidelines toward assessing concussions than there are for other injuries).

Now the Pirates catcher can get back to baseball. Which is good, because he was starting to get antsy.

“The worst thing is being on the bench,” Cervelli said. “It’s the one thing that I hate the most. I don’t know how to play that role.”

Unfortunately, with Cervelli reclaiming the starting job, that loathsome bench role will now belong to Elias Diaz, who hasn’t played like a guy who should be losing his job.

Diaz is hitting a colossal .400 (12-for-30) in the month of June and has taken real positive strides defensively, recently leading Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon, and Gerrit Cole to consecutive good starts.

“I think that he’s done a professional job,” Hurdle said. “The pre-game preparation has paid off … All of that is slowly building his confidence.”

Hurdle said that Diaz, who has spent most of the past two seasons in Triple-A Indianapolis, has seen too many of his peers jump up to the major leagues and didn’t want to miss his shot. And it’s fair to say that, to this point, he has taken every advantage that he could both at the plate and behind it.

For a young catcher, earning the respect of the pitching staff is of the utmost importance. When Hurdle was converted into a catcher and brought to the big leagues with the Mets, he was met with the realization that big time pitchers like Dwight Gooden, John Tudor, and Ron Darling would be relying on him to call the pitches.

“I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, how about you throw what you want to throw?’ and they’d say, ‘you can’t catch it what you don’t know what’s coming,’” Hurdle said.

Following his start on Sunday, Nova noted that Diaz had started to show that kind of confidence and familiarity with the pitching staff. To add to his growth as a leader on the field, Diaz has blocked balls, shown off his arm, and earned the admiration of his peers. To see his development halted right as it has really seemed to pick up steam is a bit of a shame.

Which begs the question: Should Cervelli, upon returning from injury, be worried about his starting job? After all, Cervelli has not been able to match the success he had when he hit .295/.370/.432 in 2015. He has hit just .260/.366/.345 in the 148 games since then (excluding Wednesday’s 1-for-3 outing).

For now, Cervelli’s starting job appears to be his to lose. The 31-year old has experience working with this staff. You know all of that confidence building that Diaz has been doing? Cervelli already has that in spades. And it’s not like the Pirates are going to be eager to bench a guy who is in the first year of a 3-year, $31 million contract.

But when Hurdle was asked what Cervelli’s reinstatement meant for Diaz, Hurdle just winked and said, “Only time will tell.”

This appears to be a budding story in the Pirates clubhouse. Right now, Cervelli is the best option. But what if the banged-up Bucco hits the disabled list again? What if he goes cold at the plate? What if, at the trade deadline, the Pirates simply decide that Cervelli is not ~$29 million better than Diaz?

Finding a way to give proper playing time to both Cervelli and Diaz may prove to be a problem. But at least it’s a good problem to have.