Around the Horn: Bucs' backstops returning healthy

Cervelli, Stewart will provide stability while prospect Diaz develops

Around the Horn: Bucs' backstops returning healthy

With Spring Training less than a month away, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' 2017 roster. This is the first of an eight-part series checking in on their current and future options at each position, starting with their catchers.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' biggest question behind the plate is not who, but how -- as in, how often can they send out a healthy Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart?

For the third straight season, Pittsburgh will lean on the catching tandem of Cervelli and Stewart. Each catcher took a step back last year after a strong 2015 season, but injuries were of greater concern than performance. Cervelli started 94 games behind the plate, while Stewart was limited to 26 starts.

The rest of the work was distributed to midseason pickups Eric Fryer (23 starts) and Erik Kratz (15 starts) along with projected Triple-A Indianapolis backup Jacob Stallings (three starts). Elias Diaz, the Pirates' top catching prospect, battled through an injury-plagued season and only made one start in the Majors.

Diaz's first career RBI

The good news for the Pirates: They're all expected to be healthy for the start of Spring Training.

Cervelli is a particularly valuable player at full strength. That's why the Pirates signed him to a three-year, $31 million contract extension that kicks in this season. His power all but vanished last year -- he hit one homer and 14 doubles while slugging .322 -- but he still batted .264 with a .377 on-base percentage, second-best on the club behind Matt Joyce.

Cervelli, who turns 31 in March, has an even bigger impact defensively. He is highly respected by Pirates pitchers for his game-calling, pitch-blocking and framing. Put simply, Pittsburgh's pitching staff is better off with him behind the plate.

"He makes every pitch look really good, even your bad pitches," right-hander Jameson Taillon said. "That's a big confidence-builder."

Stewart's defense is also well-regarded. Stewart, who will be 35 this season, played in 34 games in 2016 before various leg injuries took their toll. But he reported a clean bill of health at PirateFest last month, an encouraging sign for the veteran backup. He batted .214 this past year after posting a .292 average and .340 OBP from 2014-15, and a return to that form would help bolster the Bucs' Opening Day bench.

Stewart's RBI single

Behind Cervelli and Stewart is Diaz, who endured an even more frustrating season on and off the disabled list. Diaz, 26, remains the Pirates' best option if either Cervelli or Stewart goes down. With Cervelli under contract the next three years, however, there is no reason to rush back Diaz after he missed so much time.

Those are the only three catchers on the Pirates' 40-man roster. Pittsburgh traded Reese McGuire, an elite defensive prospect with a less-certain bat, to Toronto in the Francisco Liriano deal. The Bucs don't employ another potential high-end prospect like Diaz or McGuire, but they have some quality defensive options beyond their top three with Stallings and 30-year-old Jackson Williams coming to Spring Training as non-roster invitees.

Rounding out the group are Jin-De Jhang, a potential high-average hitter who's still working to improve defensively, and 2015 Draft pick Christian Kelley. Neither 23-year-old backstop is likely to crack the Majors this year -- Jhang figures to start in Double-A Altoona, with Kelley in Class A Advanced Bradenton -- but both will gain valuable experience in big league camp.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.