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The Other Side: How Elias Diaz Went From DFA to All-Star Game MVP

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a periodic series that spotlights Pittsburgh Pirates-oriented news and notes from their opponents.

One of Ben Cherington’s first moves as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ general manager seemed insignificant.

Cherington decided not to tender a contract to Elias Diaz following the 2019 season, allowing the catcher to become a free agent. While Diaz was once a prospect, he played in 250 games with the Pirates over five seasons from 2015-19 and hit .250/.301/.355 with 13 home runs.

So, it didn’t seem like a bad move. However, Diaz has become a mainstay since signing with the Colorado Rockies about a month after being let go by the Pirates.

“He’s been an integral part of our group at a premium position,” Rockies manager Bud Black said when his team recently visited PNC Park.

Fast forward five-plus years and the Pirates could use Diaz. The 33-year-old is hitting .299/.342/.423 with three home runs in 38 games.

Last season, Diaz homered 14 times and went deep at the All-Star Game in Seattle. His two-run homer lifted the National League to a 3-2 victory over the American League, earning him MVP honors.

Pirates catchers have a .192/.293/.327 slash line in 47 games this season with five home runs.

So how has Diaz gone from the scrap heap to All-Star Game MVP? The factors include opportunity, maturation and plenty of defensive work with Rockies bench coach Mike Redmond, a major-league catcher for 13 seasons from 1998-2010.

“I think when we got him, the first thing we had to do was build his confidence,” Black said. “I’m not sure exactly what happened (in Pittsburgh) but I think with Ellie, like a lot of players, they need a lot of support and confidence, and we gave that to him right away. We knew he was a talent with the bat and his arm, his ability to block and throw, there were a lot of things to like about him.

“He’s been a guy who’s been durable, he’s an animal with his work ethic and in going to the post. As a catcher, I look at the games played, the innings caught, and he’s held up and he’s been productive with the bat. He’s had a couple of valleys, but for the most part, he’s been steadily improving in a number of offensive areas ever since he got here.”

The Rockies’ No. 2 catcher is another ex-Pirate, Jacob Stallings. He is hitting .296/.381/.444 with two homers in 19 games.

“He’s been really good in a part-time role and that’s very hard when you’re not getting regular at-bats,” Black said. “But he’s hitting well, he’s helping our offense and he’s catching well, which is the most important thing for us.”

Cole Tucker is Still Kicking

Bryan Reynolds and Cole Tucker both made their major-league debuts with the Pirates on April 20, 2019. Tucker’s arrival was a much bigger story because he had been the Pirates’ first-round draft pick in 2014.

However, Reynolds has gone on to be a mainstay with the Pirates, who signed him an eight-year, $106-million contract – the largest in franchise history – last year. Meanwhile, Tucker was lost on a waiver claim during the 2022 season to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Though Tucker has spent parts of the last six seasons in the major leagues, he has played in just 170 games and hit .219/.271/.325 with five home runs.

However, the infielder/outfielder is attempting to gain a foothold in the big leagues with the Los Angeles Angels. He has played in 11 games since being called up from Triple-A Salt Lake on April 29 and is slashing .267/.343/.433 while making six starts at third base, two as the designated hitter and one in left field.

The 27-year-old went to spring training with the Seattle Mariners this year on a minor-league contract. When the Mariners did not have space on their Triple-A roster for Tucker, they offered him a coaching position in their farm system, but he declined.

“I appreciated that the Mariners wanted to make a job for me, but I wasn’t ready to quit playing,” Tucker said earlier this month when the Angels visited Pittsburgh.

Angels manager Ron Washington has been impressed with Tucker. However, Washington also stresses that Tucker is on a short rope.

“He brings some value to any club because he’s got speed and the ability to hit the ball,” Washington said. “He can play any position out there on the field. But it’s time for him to quit being a journeyman and find some spot where he can be productive. It doesn’t have to be as an everyday player, just be productive when you play.

“Too many times we give these young kids a mulligan and say, ‘he’s not playing much so that’s why he’s not producing.’ No, no, no. In the big leagues, every opportunity you get, you’ve got to take advantage. If you can’t, somebody else will come along and get that same opportunity and take advantage.”

Shota Down The Pirates

Chicago Cubs left-hander Shota Imanaga has been a sensation in his first season in the major leagues, going 5-0 with a 0.84 ERA in nine starts after playing eight seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball in his native Japan.

The Pirates reportedly had significant interest in Imanaga during the offseason. While Imanaga confirmed the Pirates were one of the teams who contacted him, he respectfully declined to give any details on their pursuit when asked last weekend by Pittsburgh Baseball Now when the Cubs visited PNC Park.

The Cubs signed Imanaga to a four-year, $63-million contract with a club option for 2028. While it’s unknown how much the Pirates offered, they had to wish they had outbid the Cubs on Saturday.

Imanaga shut out the Pirates for seven innings on four hits while striking out seven and walking one in Chicago. The Cubs won 1-0 but the 30-year-old did not factor in the decision.

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