Flashing clutch hitting and power, Elias Díaz has earned his rightful place as the Rockies long-term catcher.
In 2021, brought a much-needed boost to the lineup with a career-high 18 homers, including two walk-off blasts. The most memorable came on July 1 when he hit a three-run homer to beat the Cardinals in Nolan Arenado’s first game back with fans at Coors Field. Díaz will go down in fan history for coming up clutch to beat the Cardinals again on the 4th of July, this time with a single (to give him three total walk-off hits on the year) to bring home Joshua Fuentes and a victory before the fireworks.
Díaz, who is entering his sixth full season in the big leagues, finished the season hitting .246/.310/.465 with 44 RBI, 52 runs, 18 doubles, and 30 walks and 60 strikeouts. His performance warranted a three-year, $14.5 million deal in November, making the 31-year-old the long-term starter for Colorado... at least as we await the debut of highly anticipated prospect Drew Romo (No. 8 PuRP entering 2021), who is still only 20 with one year of Low-A ball under his belt.
After trials with younger catchers like Tony Wolters and Wilin Rosario, as well as veterans like Nick Hundley and Chris Iannetta (for his second stint with the team), the Rockies could be looking at the most stability they’ve had behind the dish before Iannetta’s first go with the team from 2006-2011. For a team trying to re-establish itself in the post-Story-and-Arenado era, it helps to have Díaz calling the shots behind the plate.
When the Rockies inked Díaz to a minor league deal on Jan. 6, 2020, it was a low-risk deal to offer some possible offense to compliment Wolters’ defensive game. Díaz played in 26 games in 2020 as the backup before taking over the starting spot in 2021. Díaz’s homers were not only the most by a Rockies catcher since Rosario’s 21 in 2013, but were also the fourth-most on the team in 2021 behind only C.J. Cron, Trevor Story, and Ryan McMahon. Rosario had offensive upside, but was unplayable on defense. Wolters was good on defense and worked great with pitchers, but had zero offense.
Díaz can do both.
He works well with the Rockies staff, particularly Germán Márquez. After Díaz caught Márquez’s one-hitter against the Pirates on June 29, Márquez said that he likes pitching to Díaz: “We have really good communication. And he knows me pretty well from last year, and he’s pretty smart.”
Díaz hit career highs in most categories in 2021, including games played and plate appearances. Now the Venezuelan just needs to do it again.
After an open competition in spring training in 2021, Dom Nuñez enters 2022 as the backup. The Rockies 2013 sixth-round draft pick made his way to the majors and saw his first action in 2019 with 43 plate appearances. The 2021 season gave him his first full year in the majors and it was a bit of a disappointment. Maybe losing the 2020 MiLB season to the pandemic contributed, but Nuñez struck out too much and seemed to regress at the plate. The 27-year-old from Elk Grove, California has power potential as he hit 10 homers, three triples, and 12 doubles in 228 at-bats, but he finished the year hitting .189/.293/.399 with 91 strikeouts and 34 walks. After hitting four homers in April, his power and average dipped. He rebounded in August when he slashed .308/.438/.615 in 26 at-bats. He could still be a solid backup if he can cut down on the strikeouts.
In terms of system products, Brian Serven (T-No. 49 PuRP), who was drafted by the Rockies in 2016 in the fifth round, could be the next man up behind the dish. Serven, 26, hit .250/.308/.504 in 276 PAs for the Isotopes in 2021. However, the Rockies also signed two catchers to minor league deals in February to help add more cushion here in case of injuries or continued Nuñez struggles.
Leading in experience is Carlos Pérez, who’s played parts of four seasons in the big leagues for the Angles, Braves, and Rangers, but none since 2018. The Rockies signed the 31-year-old after he had an impressive Triple-A season in the Oakland A’s organization, hitting 31 homers and slashing .269/.337/.572. He can also throw out runners and holds his own on defense. Jonathan Morales joined the Rockies after spending six years in Atlanta’s farm system. The 27-year-old is strong on the defensive side, but struggles with the bat, hitting .145/.160/.217 with 29 strikeouts in 49 games at Triple-A last season.
On the farm
In the near-term future, Willie MacIver (No. 28 PuRP), the Rockies ninth-round pick in 2018, who converted to catcher from third base to add more depth for the Rockies, is the catcher to focus on while Romo, the 35th overall pick in the 2020 draft, continues to develop. MacIver turned heads with an explosive first half in 2021. MacIver hit .286/.395/.542 with 10 homers in starting the year with High-A Spokane before being promoted to Double-A Hartford late June. He hit three homers in one game and earned a spot in the Futures Game at Coors Field during the All-Star Game festivities. He fizzled out in the second half, despite earning a short stint in Triple-A and being assigned to the Arizona Fall League. He’s expected to start the season in Double-A.
That said, Drew Romo is clearly the future for the Rockies. In his first year in professional baseball, Romo slashed .314/.345/.439 with 48 runs scored, 17 doubles, two triples, six homers, 47 RBI, 19 walks, 50 strikeouts, and 23 stolen bases in 29 tries with Low-A Fresno. He also won Hitter of the Year. Romo is expected to start the season in High-A Spokane.
In case of disaster
With the Rockies bringing in two minor league catchers, this shouldn’t happen as there are plenty of options. Of course, the Rockies do love to bring back former players and Drew Butera is still a free agent. Since Kris Bryant is so versatile, he might be preferable if we really are talking disaster. Fingers crossed, but I guess we’ll see what happens!