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2018 Pirates positional preview: Catcher

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St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates
Cervelli rocking those flip-up shades.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It’s 70 degrees in Pittsburgh today. The sky is blue, the birds are chirping, and, if one is able to ignore that 70-degree February days should be an unnatural occurrence along the rustbelt, it feels like spring.

The Pirates are also gearing up for springtime, with their first Spring Training game scheduled to take place this Friday afternoon. By the end of March, we will all be begging for the month-long slog of spring baseball to mercifully end. But the first few games of the season are fun. There are real players on TV playing real-ish baseball. It's a reminder that winter is ending and warm summer nights at the ballpark are right around the corner.

To celebrate today’s bit of Indian summer and the start of the Spring Training season, I am going to start the season preview train here at Bucs Dugout and provide positional outlooks for the 2018 season.

The incumbent starter will garner much of the attention, as I will recap his previous year, comment on his projections for 2018 (provided by the incomparable Baseball Prospectus), observe his spring training form, and make my own projections, one optimistic and one not-so-much. Backups will also be covered, albeit in less detail.

So, without further ado, here is the Bucs Dugout preview of the Pirates 2018 catchers.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Starter: Francisco Cervelli

2017 Statline: .249/.342/.370, 0.9 WAR

2018 Projection: .256/.345/.322. 1.8 WAR

2015 was a glorious season for Francisco Cervelli. Cast away by the New York Yankees, the oft-injured catcher arrived in Pittsburgh to fill the impossibly large shoes of Russell Martin. And he did so quite well.

Cervelli appeared in a career-high 130 games, slashed .295/.370/.401, and provided defense that was similar to Martin’s stellar output. His impressive ’15 campaign, combined with the Pirates lack of organizational depth at the catcher position, helped persuade Neal Huntington to offer him a three-year, $31 million extension early in the 2016 season.

It’s a good thing that Cervelli broke out and earned his first significant major league contract because the injury bug that continually bit him with the Yankees reared its ugly head again and claimed a large portion of the Buccos backstop's 2016 and 2017 seasons.

A broken hamate bone in his left hand hampered limited him to 101 games in 2016. Last season was even worse for Cervelli, who missed most of June with complications from a concussion and spent much of August on the disabled list with inflammation in his left wrist and left quad.

Cervelli, who said last season that he couldn’t remember how many concussions he has endured, only managed to appear in 81 games last season and had his worst season as a Pirate both at the plate and behind it.

Even in baseball’s new homer-happy environment, Cervelli’s bat was unintimidating. Pitchers frequently challenged the patient Pirates catcher, hindering his ability to draw walks even as he refuses to expand the strike zone. In 2015, Cervelli owned the lower part of the strike zone. But in 2017, pitchers continually pounded the low outside corner and Cervelli was unable to keep up.

Here are two zone charts provided by Baseball Savant. The top one is from Cervelli's 2015 season and the bottom is from Cervelli's 2017 season.

More alarming than his decline at the plate, however, is his inability to live up to his previous defensive prowess. In addition to being below average offensively, Cervelli was also a below average defender according to Baseball Prospectus’s metrics.

Francisco Cervelli Defensive Stats

YEAR P. COUNT FRM RUNS BLK RUNS THRW RUNS TOT RUNS
YEAR P. COUNT FRM RUNS BLK RUNS THRW RUNS TOT RUNS
2015 17330 17.3 -1.3 -2.6 13.4
2016 13232 10.6 -1.9 -2.4 6.2
2017 10368 -5 0.5 -0.8 -5.4
Baseball Prospectus

Whether it is umpires adjusting to his illusionary pitch framing or just the multitude of injuries catching up, the once sure-handed Cervelli has fallen precipitously over the past two seasons. Baseball Prospectus does project his framing stats to improve in 2018, however, assuming he can avoid the injury bug.

Best shape of his life? He says he is.

Cervelli told the Post-Gazette that he spent the offseason training in Capoeira, the Brazilian art of dance-fighting, and other martial arts to improve his mobility behind the plate and to stay on the field. The Pirates backstop, who will turn 32 in March, said that he feels like he’s in his twenties again.

“I want to be able to do so many things behind the plate,” Cervelli told the PG. “I got a lot of bad habits the last two years because of injuries, to change mechanics and things. I’m new.”

With so many new faces in the Pirates pitching staff, it would certainly behoove them to have the steadying presence of Cervelli behind the plate.

Best-case scenario: Cervelli stays off of the disabled list and essentially repeats his 2015 season, hitting for high average and bolstering the newly reconfigured pitching staff with his above-average pitch framing skills.

Realistic outlook: Performance drop-offs for undersized, glove-only catchers are steep and premature. As Pittsburgh's highest-paid player in 2018, he will receive every opportunity to once again establish himself as a good defensive catcher. Unfortunately, with his injury history (especially the concussions), it will be difficult for Cervelli to buck his downward trend.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates
Diaz celebrates scoring a run.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Backup: Elias Diaz

It’s been a tumultuous offseason for Diaz, whose mother was kidnapped from her home in Venezuela. Fortunately, that situation was resolved fairly quickly and Diaz can get back to thinking about baseball.

2018 will be an important year for Diaz, who will likely assume the backup catcher role now that Chris Stewart has taken his talents to Atlanta. At one point, Diaz was slated to be the Bucs’ catcher of the future. Known for his rocket right arm and solid glove, Diaz’s stock exploded in 2014-15 when he took serious strides at the plate, first in Altoona and then in Indianapolis.

Unfortunately, an arm injury forced Diaz to undergo elbow surgery in 2016, which somewhat hampered his illustrious throwing ability, and his bat more-or-less fell flat. Aside from one great month in June, where he hit .310/.339/.431 in 92 plate appearances as Cervelli’s temporary replacement, Diaz’s free-swinging, no-power profile hardly seems ready for a regular spot in a big league lineup.

Catchers develop late, so there is still a bit of hope for a breakout. The 27-year old seems like a shoe-in for a spot on the Pirates Opening Day roster and will likely get plenty of opportunities to prove himself, especially if Cervelli is unable to stay healthy. But Diaz is running of chances to make it in the major leagues.

Organizational depth:

Jacob Stallings – The son of Pitt basketball coach Kevin Stallings, Jacob has been added and removed from the Pirates 40-man roster several times in the past two years. The 28-year old organizational catcher is good behind the plate, probably better than either Cervelli or Diaz, and is a good bet to spend a couple weeks in the majors if one of those two go down.

Ryan Lavarnway – Once a power-hitting prospect for the Boston Red Sox, Lavarnway’s offensive stroke has never translated to the major league level. He’s 30 now, so any chance of a career renaissance appears unlikely. But with the Pirates dearth of organizational catching depth, he might get a cup of coffee in the majors if the need arises.