With Spring Training less than a month away, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' 2016 roster. This is the first of a six-part series checking in on their current and future options at each position, starting with their catchers.
PITTSBURGH -- When Russell Martin became a free agent a little more than a year ago, the Pirates faced an uncertain future behind the plate. Fans at PNC Park screamed for general manager Neal Huntington to "re-sign Russ," only to watch Martin sign a five-year deal with Toronto.
Now the Pirates' present and future at catcher is anything but uncertain. They will enter the season with a pair of reliable backstops in the Majors and two of the Minors' brightest catching prospects, all of them well-regarded for their defensive abilities at one of the game's most difficult positions.
The group is led by Francisco Cervelli, who will return as the Pirates' starting catcher after a breakout year. Cervelli posted a .295/.370/.401 slash line with seven home runs and 43 RBIs in his first season as an everyday catcher.
Cervelli also was the best pitch-framer in the Majors, according to some advanced metrics, and pitchers consistently praised his game-calling and willingness to block pitches in the dirt. Cervelli struggled to control the running game, however, allowing 101 stolen bases while throwing out 29 baserunners.
Cervelli's key to success is simple: Stay healthy. His numbers in 2015 were not far out of line with his career averages; it was just a matter of him staying on the field by avoiding the injuries and freak accidents that sidelined him in previous years.
Of course, that is easier said than done. Cervelli took a beating behind the plate last year, and he will turn 30 in March.
"Your body's got to be a little different," Cervelli said at PirateFest. "I've got in my brain the things that I need, so I'm working."
Behind Cervelli, the Pirates have a solid insurance policy in Chris Stewart, who recently signed a two-year contract with a club option for 2018. Stewart frequently worked with Pirates ace Gerrit Cole last year, giving Cervelli the certainty of a game off every five days, and he's frequently lauded for his leadership and game-calling behind the plate.
Offensively, Stewart has become a consistent singles hitter during his two years with the Pirates. After batting .214 from 2006-13, Stewart has hit .292 in 326 plate appearances for Pittsburgh, albeit with only 13 extra-base hits, all doubles.
Stewart's contract extension guarantees he will remain a Pirate through at least the 2017 season, but he may be splitting time with another catcher by then. Cervelli is slated to become a free agent at the end of the year, at which point he and the Orioles' Matt Wieters would be the top catchers available.
That could open the door for Elias Diaz, baseball's No. 6 catching prospect, according to MLBPipeline. Diaz, 25, appeared in two games for the Pirates last September, but he spent most of the year splitting time with Tony Sanchez for Triple-A Indianapolis. The Pirates recently released Sanchez, the fourth overall pick in the 2009 Draft, setting up Diaz to receive the majority of their Triple-A starts.
In October, Diaz won the Captain's Catcher Award as the Minors' best defensive backstop. Like Cervelli, Diaz is adept at framing pitches. He's also known for his quick feet behind the plate. But his best tool is his strong throwing arm, which caught everyone's eye in Spring Training a year ago.
While Diaz will start in Triple-A, Reese McGuire is expected to be the regular catcher for Double-A Altoona. A first-round pick in the 2014 Draft, the 20-year-old McGuire is ranked by MLBPipeline as the Minors' fourth-best catching prospect.
McGuire played 98 games for Class A Advanced Bradenton last year, batting .254 with a .595 OPS. But scouts rave about his defense behind the plate -- MLBPipeline recently named him to the "All-Defense Prospect Team" -- and he showed his offensive potential in a brief Arizona Fall League stint, batting .294 (15-for-51) with a .791 OPS.
McGuire will report to big league camp as a non-roster invitee next month, when he'll work more closely with the Pirates' pitchers, catchers and coaches. And when he stands there alongside Cervelli, Stewart and Diaz, the Pirates will get a look at their present and future behind the plate.
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.