Last night, the Pirates began their four game series against the Braves and walked away with a win. This morning, it was announced that the Braves have fired long time manger, Fredi Gonzalez, and have replaced him with their Triple A manager, Brian Snitker. Not to be outdone by the Braves, Pittsburgh made sure to steal the headlines with the announcement of a three year extension to starting catcher, Francisco Cervelli. Fans across the ‘Burgh, especially all of the ladies, can now let out a sigh of relief knowing that their cather will be in the everyday lineup through 2019.
Cervelli was a defensive minded catcher who came up through the Yankees organization, who saw very limited action once he reached the majors as a 22 year old in 2008. His tenure with the Yankees lasted seven years, and he amassed only 688 at bats in 250 total games. During that time, he was finding his offense which lead him to a .278 average. Even though his peripherals looked solid, he seemed to always be blocked at that position. The Yankees had a great string of catchers such as Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, Brian McCann, Jose Molina, and our very own Chris Stewart. Cervelli’s opportunity would come on November 12, 2014, when the Pirates acquired him in exchange for relief pitcher, Justin Wilson.
Cervelli saw his first action as an everyday catcher in 2015 while having to step into the big shoes that Russell Martin left behind. Earlier that offseason, Martin would walk away in free agency by signing a five year, $82 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. Cervelli did not let that weigh over his head. All he did was bat .295/.370/.401/.771, and total a 3.2 WAR. He went on record saying that it was a challenge taking over for Russell Martin. He decided to stay true to himself and with the support of the fans he was able to maintain success.
This season was scheduled to be Cervelli’s last season with the Bucco’s as he is in his last year of arbitration and would become a free agent. The Pirates were able to lock up Chris Stewart this offseason on a 2 year $3 million deal with a $1.5 club option for 2018. This was important due to the uncertainty around Cervelli, and the progress prospect catcher, Elias Diaz, would make in time for next season. With the announcement of the Cervelli extension, Pittsburgh won’t have to worry about their young prospects’ development.
The deal is nothing short of fantastic. Cervelli is just 30 years old and will be locked up through 2019 when he will be 33 years old. The importance of this is the fact that it brings stability to an uncertain position for years to come while not overpaying into a players down years. It is very likely that Cervelli will still be a quality catcher in the last year of his contract. I say this because there is a fellow ex-Pirate who is already underperforming his contract that you will find many comparisons made throughout this article. That player is Russell Martin.
As mentioned, Martin signed a 5 year $85 million deal with the Blue Jays, while he was a 32 year old catcher with lots of innings under his belt. While his WAR was similar to Cervelli’s last season (3.3), Martin has really tailed off this year in virtually every statistic. His offensive woes begin with his .165 batting average. He has only accumulated 17 hits on the season while seeing just one go for extra bases. Even his on base percentage is at a mere .235. All of this equates to an astonishing 16 ERA+, which hardly earns you a spot on the bench even for a backup catcher.
Putting the offense to the side, Martin has always been a great defensive catcher in the league. Unfortunately, that is also taking a hit this season. Last season he ranked 1st in total defense and 11th in defensive runs saved. Fast forward to this season, and he currently sits at 14th in total defense and 12th in defensive runs saved. An even greater drop off is his caught stealing percentage. He caught baserunners at a 44% rate last season while falling all the way to a 24% rate this year. A tougher pill to swallow is knowing he is also earning $15 million this year while putting up those numbers. As we are seeing the decline of Rusell Martin before our eyes, the Blue Jays still have to pay him this kind of dough all the way through 2019 as well.
On the other catchers mask, Francisco Cervelli is actually trending upward in his statistics. Though his power has taken a drop this season, his on base percentage has risen from a .370 to a .386. More impressively, his defense has greatly improved. In regards to Martin, Cervelli ranked 7th in total defense and 12th in defensive runs saved in 2015 while just throwing out 22% of base stealers. In 2016, Cervelli has jumped to 2nd in total defense, 5th in defensive runs saved, and is now throwing out 33% of the base stealers.
With his offensive numbers generally hovering around the same and his defense trending upwards, this extension is a no brainer win for the Pirates. Francisco Cervelli happens to be three years younger than Martin, and getting his extension at an earlier age than his counterpart did. With the strain that all catchers put on their bodies, it’s easy to understand why they tend to decline earlier than most other players. He will be averaging $5 million less than Martin per season through the end of their respected contracts, and most likely performing at a much greater rate.
What is even more to appreciate is the love and passion that Cervelli brings to the team. There is no question why he is one of the fan favorites. He never lets an opportunity pass to speak from his heart and let you know what it is exactly that he is feeling. Whether he’s staring down an umpire on a bad strike three call, hugging an umpire who took a wild pitch off of the face mask, jawing at an opposing player, or celebrating a big time hit with every member of the clubhouse, Frankie has become one of the team leaders and is respected by everybody around the league. His value goes much deeper than what his offensive and defensive numbers provide. The camaraderie and stability he displays for this team pitching staff along with his great pitch framing is what makes this player so special. As he stated in his press conference, “I feel this is my house. It’s a place I want to be for, I hope, the rest of my career.”
The other side to this deal is what will become of either Elias Diaz or Reese McGuire. Both are known for their defensive skills. McGuire is by far the more superior defensive catcher, but he is still just 20 years old and his bat is nowhere in line with where it needs to be. Diaz is 25 years of age and more offensively sound, but injuries have derailed him this season and hindered his development. With the two catchers in Pittsburgh able to be on the team until 2019, this takes away pressure on these two prospects to hurry their development. It also gives the Pirates flexibility and possible trade chips in these two players. With Cervelli now off of the Free Agent market next season, its pretty thin pickings for teams in need of a catcher. Elias Diaz could prove to be a nice commodity for a team looking to get young at the positioning gain a controllable player.
Furthermore, this signing completed the extensions needed to have all 8 position players locked up until at least 2017. John Jaso will be able to enter free agency once again that year, which should be perfect for switch hitting, Josh Bell, to take over full time duties at first. 2018, will be a scarier year as that is the year Andrew McCutchen and Jordy Mercer may be able to walk away into free agency unless an extension can be worked out before. I promise not to make this article about the possibility of Cutch leaving, so I will stop at that. Regardless, with the battery locked up longterm, and the pitching prospects on the come up, the future is looking extremely bright here on the North Shore.
I don’t think we could end this article without saying how much General Manager, Neal Huntington, deserves a ton of credit. He has locked up all of these players to extreme team friendly deals as he ensured to build from within the organization to provide a winning atmosphere. With the payroll constraints he has to face, he’s put together the second most winningest team in baseball since 2013 while being in the bottom third of team payrolls. People around the area seem to think because they do not spend big money that the team is cheap. However, I think the biggest take away is knowing they learned how to spend very wisely. No dollar goes wasted in this organization, and they seem to find great value in many places almost every other organization misses.
Today marks a great day in the ‘Burgh for all of the players and fans. As Frankie also stated in his press conference today, “If you come to work at a place where you are happy every day, I think that’s the place you should be.” Well, Frankie, we are all happy you are here as well, and glad that you will be working at PNC for another three years. Mi Amore!