Williams: The Pirates Might Be Stuck Hoping For a Rebound From Francisco Cervelli

The Pirates made the decision over the weekend to buy out Chris Stewart’s deal, opting to pay $250,000 rather than the full $1.5 M that he would have otherwise made. Stewart has dealt with injury issues in his career, and those continued in 2017, along with a decline in his production. So while $1.5 M is cheap for a backup catcher, it’s not the best investment for a guy with Stewart’s question marks.

That’s especially the case when they have Elias Diaz out of options and making the league minimum. At the very least, Diaz can be a backup and do the same job that Stewart was doing, for about a third of the price.

But what do the Pirates do with their starting role?

I broke down the issue they have behind the plate in my catcher recap at the end of the year. Francisco Cervelli also has injury issues, and that makes him a guy who can only be relied upon to play half the year, and put up around a 1.0 WAR. He might be able to do more than that, but the Pirates shouldn’t be counting on him to do more.

Cervelli is making $22 M over the next two years. The Pirates could opt to keep him and hope for good results. Or they could try to trade him and go for another option. That last plan might be difficult when you look at the available catchers on the market. Here is the list of free agents, per MLBTR:

Alex Avila (31)
Welington Castillo (31)
A.J. Ellis (37)
Nick Hundley (34)
Chris Iannetta (35)
Jose Lobaton (33)
Jonathan Lucroy (32)
Miguel Montero (34)
Rene Rivera (34)
Carlos Ruiz (39)
Geovany Soto (35)
Chris Stewart (36)

Looking at that list, the following players have been starter quality (2.0+ fWAR) in the last two years: Avila, Castillo, Iannetta, and Lucroy.

Avila had a 2.5 fWAR this past year, and a 2.2 fWAR in 2014. He was an 0.3 fWAR in 2015 and a 1.1 in 2016.

Castillo had a 2.7 fWAR in 2017, and a 2.5 in 2014. He also declined a bit in 2015-16, although not as much, with a 1.2 fWAR in 2015 and a 1.6 in 2016.

Iannetta had a 2.2 fWAR in 2017, and a 3.0 fWAR in 2014. He followed the trend with down years in 2015-16, with an 0.4 and 0.9 in those years.

Lucroy had a 4.6 fWAR in 2016, and dropped to 1.2 in 2017. He had a 6.2 in 2014 and a 1.1 in 2015.

Let’s look beyond the weird trend of players having down years in 2015-16, and look at the expected free agent prices. There aren’t many predictions, although MLBTR has anticipated numbers on three of those players.

Lucroy is projected for two years and $24 M. Avila is projected for two years and $16 M. Castillo is projected for two years and $14 M. There was no projection for Iannetta, although the projections ended at around two-year, $10 M deals, so we can expect that he’s projected for less than Avila and Castillo.

That MLBTR recap notes that not many teams are looking for catchers this offseason. It would already be difficult to trade Cervelli and his two years, $22 M remaining with the cheaper options on the board. But with a weaker catching market, it’s going to be nearly impossible.

No matter what, I think the Pirates are going to be paying Cervelli’s deal. They might be able to pay down part of his deal to move him, but probably to the point where signing an alternative would put them in the same price range. And if it made sense for the Pirates to take that route with Cervelli, it would make sense for any trading team to just go with the alternative option.

The Pirates might be stuck with Cervelli for at least the 2018 season, hoping for a bounce back year. That’s not impossible, as we’ve seen with that trend from the above catchers, where they each had two down years in between two solid years. If Cervelli can stay healthy in 2018 and be productive, then the Pirates could opt to trade him at the end of the season when he has more value. Or they could roll the dice again with him in 2019, depending on their situation at the time.

It would make sense on paper for them to part ways with him and find a more reliable option. Or, if they are rebuilding, to go with Elias Diaz and maybe another younger catching option that they could bring in. But with the demand for catching being low, and a few interesting options already on the market, it seems like the reality will be that the Pirates will be stuck with Cervelli going forward.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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dr dng

I agree with Al that Cervelli with Diaz is a good way to start.
I’d just give Cervelli some REST to keep him healthy. Don’t
just use Diaz as the Sunday catcher. Let him catch 3 or 4 games out of 10. Keep them both playing, happy, healthy, and getting regular at bats. If/when one of them get hurt, you have
a young catcher at Indy who seems to be improving his
offensive and defensive play.

Bruce G

Cervelli is a strong catcher when healthy. I never paid much attention to framing until this year and to me there was a noticeable dropoff from Cervelli to the other catchers. It looks to me like Diaz has a lot of development to do in terms of framing.

There were times I thought Diaz could be a good hitter. Other times he looked lost. Is it a matter of experience? I think the tools are there and its worth letting it play out.

I think in terms of health, it’s a roll of the dice with Cervelli. If he stays healthy, then the Pirates would be in good shape. That’s the state of the Pirates as a whole:

1. Can Cervelli stay healthy?
2. Will Kang be back? Will he regain his hitting stroke?
3. Will Polanco develop into a high caliber OF?
4. Can Marte play at an all-star level?
5. Will Cole pitch like a top of the rotation starter?
6. Will Glasnow figure things out?

If all of these things happen, the Pirates will have a good season. If half of them happen, the Pirates would win 81-85 games. In 2017, none of those things happened.

The other concern to me is that I would be the Cubs and Cardinals will be better. Plus, the Brewers are on the rise. NH and company have a lot of work to do.

jaygray007

unpopular opinion: get that man a platoon partner.

i’ve been fantasizing about a Grandal-Cervelli platoon for the past week.

I’d have absolutely no regret about paying that duo 17 million dollars next year for what’s likely to be > 3 WAR

but i’m also the low man on Elias Diaz.

napolasky

If Elias Diaz turns into that platoon partner everybody will say the move to loose Stewart and keep Diaz was brilliant. I am really rooting for that.

jaygray007

Diaz suddenly and put of nowhere becoming good would certainly be ideal.

I just don’t buy that he is any good, personally.

Darkstone42

I think Ianetta might be well into his decline, and there’s reason to suspect the same of Lucroy. Castillo and Avila could both be good enough to provide significant upgrades, but unless the team can get actual value back in a trade of Cervelli or Diaz, I don’t know if they’re big enough upgrades to bother. It’s worth noting also that neither of those guys have been capable of especially large workloads in their careers, either, which is the major drawback to Cervelli anyway. If I’m not mistake, Avila only gets as many games as he does because he occasionally plays first base or DH, too.

I like Cervelli. He’s above-average to quite good when he’s healthy. Diaz will be a capable backup. I just don’t know that, by trade or free agency, there’s a sure enough upgrade out there to bother trying anything but that tandem.

John W

In all seriousness, this situation is just one of many which makes these 4 year extensions baffling.

Please explain again why they were deserved.

This team is a mess and it’s not simply explained because we are small market.

tmcgowan

I’ll take a stab. Lets play a hypothetical. Who do you want to replace NH calling the shots? Atlanta has consistently fielded a team with $100m payroll since…what…Y2K, and they have top choices of Alex Anthopoulos, Dan O’Dowd, Josh Byrnes and Ben Cherington. Those are the big names available, otherwise you will be going with an unknown.

In the event of a new decision maker, we aren’t in a position to add salary, so you want to sell off. Do you want to hire Alex Anthopoulos? Maybe as he has some wins and misses at trades (wins – donaldson for lawrie, misses, halladay for drabek and d’arnaud)

Dan O’Dowd ran the Rockies into the ground – (Mike Hampton says hi!)

Cherington is an interesting name, but inherited a solid team to win the 2013 world series and made a slew of puzzling moves.

I’m not sure that any of them could necessarily be running the Pirates better than NH.

Bottom line – I think we are frustrated more at the circumstances in which the Pittsburgh Pirates seem to be constrained more so than any individual who could be running the team. Until we fix those constraints, we probably won’t be happy with any management team

John W

So this being a 90 win team next year looks highly unlikely to you?
Glad you have come to see the light.

But then again, it’s still hard to reconcile how one could argue the composition of a team deserves to be blown up (after the GM has been on the job almost a decade) yet at same time argue that very same GM is more than deserving of a 4 year extension.

John W

No, I’ve grown quite weary with this organization and gm. Doubt I will be posting here in a year – fringe benefit for you Tim 🙂

Kevin

It will be a fringe benefit for all of us. Your OCD has gone beyond tiresome.

John W

The Pirates Might Be Stuck

I think the rest of it is extraneous. As long as NH continues to be NH and we are living with Bob’s budget I’d say we are stuck.

Randy W

Agreed. Can’t think of any reason another team would take on that entire contract.

jimmyz

Purely hypothetical circumstance but let’s say the Dodgers trade Yasmani Grandal this winter and Austin Barnes has a serious injury in Spring Training. I think they would absolutely look to trade for a starting catcher as opposed to putting their World Series aspirations in the hands of a rookie or unproven catcher already in their farm system. So it’s not impossible, though highly unlikely.

Randy W

Historically, good defensive catchers are a valuable and scare commodity. After Cervelli’s first season, it seemed the Bucs got a steal – excellent value on the dollar. Then the injuries showed up, putting the team in a tough situation. I think good catching is important enough to merit them extending him and taking the risk, because the drop-off from Cervelli to the next catcher is pretty big (this, of course, could change of Diaz or Stallings shows improvement). What I’m saying is, the hope Cervelli stays on the field enough to justify his salary is worth the risk against one of the young guys coming close to his production right now.

EWS34

If I remember correctly, Cervelli was healthiest in the last year of control. Once he signed the deal he then had injury issues again. Follow the $.

Randy W

I believe you are correct, sir. I transitioned poorly from his first season, to the injuries!

AlOliver16

I’m fine with Cervelli and Diaz lined up as next year’s catchers. I think WAR is lacking for evaluating catchers.

Cervelli has positive strengths that don’t show up in WAR formulas. The catcher needs to control the flow and the energy of the pitcher and the defense. He needs to adjust in game to hitter’s approaches. I think Cervelli has those traits.

Diaz looks like he has a good approach to hitting, but I wouldn’t call him a better hitter than Cervelli at this point. Diaz also looks good as a catcher on blocking balls and controlling a running game. If he could learn the intangible things from Cervelli, he should be a serviceable catcher in the future.

I’m also starting to wonder if the pitch framing numbers that we have access to are accurate in evaluating that skill. It seems like a pitcher’s command would have a big effect on those numbers. It also seems like umpires might adjust over time to those catchers that are considered to be stealing strikes.

EWS34

I would think umpires know who is rating higher for pitch framing, at least some. Good call out Al.

Darkstone42

That would explain why several historically excellent framers had down years in that category last season, including Lucroy, and why framing is a skill which, while it should age well, doesn’t especially by the numbers (though this is, for some reason I cannot place, a much bigger effect in tall catchers).

mouse

My thought was they would be trading two of Cutch, Cervelli, and Harrison, to free up budget space. It sounds like Cervelli won’t be one of the two traded, if my guess is right. If they keep him, they should cut his starting time a bit. Catching is a difficult position at best – playing fewer games each week would be help him stay healthy.

TNBucs

Yes, I think rest is the key for Cervelli. Maybe if he’s limited to no more than four games per week (or two games per series), he’ll stay healthier and more productive. The key, then, is whether they believe Diaz is ready to play 1/3 of the time.

michael schalke

I don’t see why Diaz couldn’t give you decent value catching a couple days a week.

leefoo

He CAN bounce back IF he can stay healthy. That is a BIG ‘if’, though. We’d better hope Diaz can hit better than he’s shown, but that is doubtful.

jimmyz

Health is the only real question with Cervelli his whole career. He has pretty much always been productive and valuable when he plays. Not saying he’s put up superstar production or anything but certainly deserving of a starting role on a team whenever he’s able to put the gear on and take the field.

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