BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates feel that catcher Francisco Cervelli has come into the 2018 season in a different place mentally and physically in order to stay healthy throughout the season.
It’s no secret that Cervelli has dealt with his fair share of health issues throughout his career. He had the reputation of being injury prone before he came to the Pirates from the New York Yankees and he’s done little to dispel that notion in his time in Pittsburgh.
Cervelli played a career-high 130 games in 2015, his first season with the Pirates. Since then, he played 101 games in 2016 and just 81 games in 2017. As can be typical for a catcher, Cervelli has been afflicted by a laundry list of issues.
Just last season, he missed time with left quad inflammation, left wrist inflammation, left hand pain, a groin injury, at least one concussion, three illnesses, and a nagging right foot injury.
“Unfortunately, he’s had a lot injuries,” Pirates director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk said. “That’s not secret. That’s public knowledge. But he’s re-committed his mindset to how he’s going to respond to those injuries. Because he’s going to get dinged. He wears that catching position well. There’s going to be foul tips, there’s going to be collisions.”
Cervelli committing to his fitness this offseason can only be a positive thing. But there’s more than one way to prevent injuries. One of them would be full or partial move to a different position. But Cervelli’s bat (.712 OPS last year) doesn’t exactly scream to be included in the lineup if he’s not catching.
Furthermore, he’s a good catcher. He gets rave reviews from his pitching staff and over the course of his career, the advanced catching stats have been kind to him, though 2017 was a down year.
So a move seems out. But the Pirates can certainly pick and choose his playing time in order to try to keep him fresh and healthy. In previous years, with a defense-only backup like Chris Stewart, that hasn’t been a very attractive option.
Now, with Elias Diaz serving as Cervelli’s primary backup, it’s a different story. As Tim Williams wrote, the Pirates need to find out what they have in Diaz this season. Is he a potential MLB starter? A solid backup? Something else? That’s still very much up in the air.
ZiPS has Cervelli projected for 1.0 WAR, for the most part because it only has him playing 96 games. That’s only 56 percent of the season. If the Pirates can get Cervelli to around 66 percent of the season by playing Diaz once a series, that would both improve Cervelli’s outlook and give the Pirates a body of work with which to evaluate Diaz.
“They’ve had those conversations,” Tomczyk said. “That’s ebb and flow. That’s dictated by the season.”
There’s another factor at play, as well. The Pirates have Cervelli under contract through 2019. He’s due $11.5 million next season. Jonathan Lucroy just signed a one-year deal for $6.5 million and he’s projected for 1.7 WAR by ZiPS this year. Clearly, Cervelli is making above his market value if he’s playing half the games.
If the Pirates can keep Cervelli healthy and he has a good year and Diaz looks like he’s emerging as a starting option, they could maybe put themselves in position to make a move.