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Pirates’ Catching Should Be a Top Priority in 2020

On November 18th, 2019, the Pittsburgh Pirates introduced Ben Cherington as their new general manager.  Cherington smiled, fielded questions, and spoke with optimism about this opportunity and the challenges ahead.  Coming off the heels of a very disappointing 2019 season with a 69-93 record, Cherington’s first challenge will be bolstering the roster.  The roster itself went through a dreadful second half. After being two and a half games out of first place at the All-Star break, they lost 24 of 28 after.  That collapse fueled the dismissals of manager Clint Hurdle, general manager Neal Huntington, and team president Frank Coonelly.  But headed into the 2020 season, questions will have to be answered – including the Pirates’ catching situation.

Catching Evaluation

One of the most important issues to resolve is at catcher.  The production of the Pirates’ catching fell completely off the mark in 2019 after being a real strength in 2018.  Here are some important numbers from the 2 primary catchers in 2018:

Francisco Cervelli – 104 GP, 404 PA, .259/.378/.431, 12 HR, 39 R, 124 wRC+,

93 GS, 793.2 IN, 38.9% CS, -6 DRS, -7.3 FRM

     2.6 fWAR

Elias Diaz – 82 GP, 277 PA, .286/.339/.452, 10 HR, 33 R, 114 wRC+

70 GS, 549.1 IN, 27.5% CS, -2 DRS, -2.1 FRM

1.8 fWAR

While these two may not have been the best catchers in baseball in 2018, they were solid contributors.  There was a great feeling about the position heading into 2019 and those feelings were met with severe disappointment:

Francisco Cervelli – 34 G, 123 PA, .193/.279/.248, 1 HR,
11R, 46 wRC+

32 GS, 252.1 IN, 28.6% CS, 2 DRS, 0.1 FRM

-0.2 fWAR

Elias Diaz – 101 G, 332 PA, .241/.26/.307, 2 HR, 31 R, 61 wRC+

75 GS, 706.2 IN, 26.3% CS, -2.3 DRS, -13.1 FRM (!)

-1.5 fWAR

Jacob Stallings -71 G, 210 PA, .262/.325/.382, 6 HR, 26 R, 82 wRC+

53 GS, 463.1 IN, 40% CS, 13 DRS, 6.0 FRM

1.3 fWAR

Both the usual statistical measures and advanced metrics point to a significant downturn.  However, Jacob Stalling’s output in limited action in 2019 was a nice surprise and, considering his work to improve both his power and his skills behind the plate, there may be something to start with already in-house to fix this situation. 

Cervelli and Diaz also dealt with very serious medical issues in 2019.  Cervelli was felled with more concussion issues and may have reached a point where he shouldn’t catch again.  Diaz missed most of spring training with a viral infection. Once cleared and rehabbed, however, he may not have been able to recoup the lost time to be right in 2019.

Internal Notes to Think About

With new faces added to the staff, the team will be able to look at the organizational structure with fresh eyes. Most importantly, the major league roster will be evaluated. Some questions that need to be answered before pitchers and catchers report regarding the Pirates’ catching include:

  1. Does Cherington plan on contending in 2020 or does he see a full rebuild as necessary?
  2. Is it reasonable to suggest that Diaz can rebound from an abysmal 2019?
  3. Are Jacob Stallings 2019 improvements sustainable or are they just small sample size ‘noise’?
  4. Are there better options out there for the club to pursue?

To the first question posed, it is fair to say that regardless of the plans in 2020 an upgrade of some type is possible.  If contention in 2020 is the goal, then a bigger splash addition is necessary.  Should he decide rebuilding is the best method, then signing a low-cost catcher who could help some of the young pitching with good defense and leadership would be a great addition.

In terms of the second question, one may not be confident in Diaz to rebound from 2019.  He is a hard-working guy and has always held himself accountable. However, the numbers show that he is not what this current club needs.  His career FRM (framed runs saved) is -24.5, which is just unacceptable in an era where hitters rely on the Three True Outcomes so much.  Strike calls are more important than ever. Unsuccessful framing numbers shows he is not getting enough closely-called strikes for his pitchers.

Jacob Stallings was a real bright spot in 2019.  He had a mini-breakout after Cervelli hit the injured list.  Broadcasters and some local media noted that Stallings worked hard to improve his framing and power numbers and it showed as he finally hit some homers in the majors and put up a very solid FRM of 6.0 in his 463.1 innings behind the plate.  But what aspects of his game are truly sustainable, though?  Is the launch angle the reason we finally saw some pop, or was it the 2019 super ball?  Is 463.1 innings caught enough to say that 6.0 FRM is real?  I tend to be bullish, but given such a SSS I think a platoon partner is more prudent than a traditional backup catcher.

Free Agent Options

So what options are there outside of the current Pirates’ catching situation?  There are several veteran free agent catchers out there who played well in 2019.  However, they are also all on the wrong side of 30 at such a demanding position.  In the interest of sparing fans the whole list of free agent catchers. here are two tiers of viable options based on production and age:

Tier “One”:  Robinson Chirinos, Jason Castro, Alex Avila

Tier Two:  Travis d’Arnaud, Russell Martin, Stephen Vogt, Martin Maldonado (d’Arnaud and Vogt signed deals already this offseason)

It is important to note that the original “Tier One” was originally one name long for obvious reasons.  Yasmani Grandal was the cream of the crop free agent at the position before signing a big deal with the White Sox. For this exercise, the new top tier has three very nice options for a club like the Pirates.  All these players played well in 2019, have some offensive life in their bats, and are good framers.  They are older, however, and Castro comes with some injury concerns.  It is also worth noting that neither would be too terribly expensive, and neither would require a lengthy contract.  There is also the fact that you could contend with either of these guys on your team and if you did not contend, they would hold some mild value in trade assuming health.

Tier Two has some boom-or-bust value, or mostly guys worth signing if you are looking to get through 2020 and help your young pitchers towards being a competitive staff in the future.  Travis d’Arnaud is the youngest of all the catchers listed in these tiers at 31 and has pedigree as being a former top prospect.  Injuries have derailed much of his career and he is past his physical prime, but he does have some intrigue in his bat.  His framing numbers are not good, but the offensive boom may be enough to overlook that.  Martin, Vogt, and Maldonado are three guys who serve a lot of purpose as mentors and leaders with more bust than boom potential, though Vogt recently signed a contract with Arizona.  A reunion with Russell Martin reunion could be a nostalgic, feel-good story.

Trade Candidates

There are a few trade candidates out there as well that could be intriguing to add to the current Pirates’ catching group, depending on the feelings of contention in 2020.  Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini for the Cubs are both solid contributors and Chicago needs to shake the roster up and maybe remove guaranteed money from payroll.  Inter-divisional trades are generally uncommon and would require a return the Pirates may not be willing to match.  Austin Hedges in San Diego is an excellent receiver, framer and owns a strong arm. However, he also possesses a much weaker bat than most.  Still, his impeccable defense and Francisco Mejia’s presence makes him a possible trade target. 

In terms of lesser-known trade candidates, Boston has two catchers with major league experience in Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon.  Leon had a terrible offensive season in 2019, but he would be a one-year commitment to try and fix his bat while getting solid if not spectacular defensive value.  Vazquez had a nice year in 2019 and is under commitment for a few more years at an affordable rate.  Boston may be reluctant to move Vazquez but, with new GM Chaim Bloom at the helm, (and a massive luxury tax problem) perhaps now would be a great time to get creative.  Salvador Perez would also be a nice target if 2020 is a contention year, but Royals will probably never trade the most beloved player since George Brett.

Conclusion

Ben Cherington accepted the position as GM of the Pirates fully aware there were challenges ahead of him.  He is certainly becoming aware that the Pirates’ catching in the upper minors is void of any top-level solutions.  He may see Diaz as fixable and Stallings as sustainable, or he may decide that one or both are not part of the future.  Despite an uncertain future, what is clear is that with so many young pitchers on the staff in 2020 there must be serious consideration for upgrading at catcher.

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