By Zack Zeigler
The starting catcher role is one that has been answered for the Pirates for the next couple of seasons when they inked Francisco Cervelli to a three- year $31-million contract extension earlier last season. However, with as physically demanding as the catching position is, the question for 2017 is who will be the guy backing up Cervelli when he needs a night off.
The Pirates essentially have three options going into 2017 with each having both good and bad elements. Chris Stewart, Elias Diaz and Jacob Stallings are the top three candidates to help back up Cervelli in 2017. Each catcher saw time in 2016 and produced for the team in one way or another and will look to crack the Pirates opening day roster come April.
The first option the Pirates have is veteran backstop Chris Stewart. When the Pirates signed Stewart to a two-year contract extension last offseason, it was with the notion that he would be able to back up Pirates catchers for the next couple of seasons. However, after an injury plagued 2016 season that saw him only catch 34 games, his lowest total since 2010, Stewart will be looking to hit the comeback road in 2017.
Stewart underwent knee surgery by Dr. James Andrews at the end of the season to repair an ailing left knee that forced him on the 60 day disabled list ending his season. At 34 years old, knee surgery is going to be a rough thing for Stewart to come back from.
The recovery time for his surgery is six to eight weeks putting Stewart at worst a return date sometime in April which puts him in the running for the main back up catcher.
Stewart’s offensive numbers have skyrocketed since he joined the Pirates prior to the 2014 season.
In that season, Stewart hit a career high .294 with 10 RBI as the Pirates back up catcher. His offensive numbers dropped a little bit during the 2015 season where he hit .289 but drove in 15 RBI throughout the course of the season.
Stewart is not a guy who will provide pop off the bench as he hit his first Pirates home run in three years during the 2016 season in a game against the Cincinnati Reds, but he can be a serviceable MLB hitter.
Stewart’s calling card throughout his major league career has been defense. He has a career .989 fielding percentage, committing 19 errors in 2798.2 career innings of work. Stewart also served as the personal catcher for Gerrit Cole during his 19-8 all-star 2015 campaign.
With Stewart behind the plate that season, Cole went 14-4 and kept his fiery spirit in check.
His numbers won’t jump out at you, but he does the job he is needed for and does what he can to produce for the team.
The big question with Stewart for 2017 is can he be healthy for an entire season?
He will be 35 years old entering the 2017 season coming off an extensive knee surgery. Only time will tell how his knee will be able to hold up and if we will see him behind the dish for the Pirates in the 2017 season.
If Stewart is not ready to go, the Pirates do have two younger options that could step in behind the plate in Elias Diaz and Jacob Stallings. Neither have much experience at the major league level, and it would be a chance to get their feet wet in the MLB.
The problem here is that you are taking away valuable playing time to a young prospect who you are hoping to take over the role one day.
Diaz only caught one game at the major league level in 2016 before being place on the 60 day disabled list ending his season. Diaz went 0-for-4 in that game and did not commit an error behind the plate. However, that is a very small sample size, so let’s take a look at the Triple-A numbers for Diaz.
Between Double A and Triple A in 2016 Diaz hit .290 with one home run and 16 RBI in 34 games played. Diaz was picked up by the Pirates as an undrafted free agent in the 2008 season and quickly rose through the Pirates system making it as high as the number nine prospect in the Pirates organization, and many regarded him as the catcher of the future for the Pirates.
However, defense has not been Diaz’s strong suit throughout his minor league career. He has a career .983 fielding percentage, committing 64 errors in just more than 4000 minor league innings caught.
These numbers are going to have to improve if Diaz wants to succeed in a position that is ruled by defense.
The other young option, Stallings, caught in five major league games this season and offensively did pretty well, hitting .400 (six hits in 15 at-bats) with two RBI. Those numbers, however, are no where close to his Triple A numbers in 2016, in which he hit .214 with six home runs and 28 RBI in 80 games for the Indianapolis Indians.
Stallings had one good offensive year when he hit .275 in 2015 with the Altoona Curve at the Double-A level, but other than that his average has not gone above .240 in any other year.
However, where Diaz fails in defense, Stallings excels. In four years in the Pirates minor league system, Stallings has committed only 20 errors for a fielding percentage of .992. Stallings does a good job of blocking balls in the dirt, as well, as he only allowed two pass balls in over 650 innings caught last season.
So, the Pirates have a choice to make going into 2017. Go with the ailing veteran catcher trying to come back from knee surgery or go with an inexperienced catcher who is trying to make it at the major league level.