The Pittsburgh Pirates have an intriguing offseason ahead of them, one that will involve free agent signings, potentially big trades, and maybe some extensions as well. While someone like Gregory Polanco could garner much of the extension talk, one other player that should be considered an extension candidate is Francisco Cervelli.
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Cervelli had a breakout campaign last year, transitioning from a career injury-prone backup catcher to a healthy starter for the first time in his eight-year career. He was second among NL catchers in WAR at 3.1, and he led all Pirate batters in batting average at .295. But from the catcher position, many progressive GMs like Neal Huntington view offense as a plus, placing emphasis on pitch framing, defense, and the ability to throw out runners. Cervelli excelled at the first two and wasn’t terrible at throwing out runners, even leading all of baseball in in pitch framing as measured by Stat Corner. Cervelli developed into a legitimate starter for the Pirates in 2015 to say the least.
The best part about Cervelli’s value was that he made less than $1 million last season, and MLB Trade Rumors projects him to gain only a slight raise to $2.5 million for 2016. His value in 2015 alone will cover the money he’ll earn in 2015 and in 2016. Unfortunately, the upcoming season is his final year of arbitration eligibility, after which he’ll head to free agency.
Thus, it’s understandable that the Pirates might be looking to extending Cervelli, knowing the importance of a catcher with good intangbiles. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports mentioned the Pirates’ interest in extending Cervelli recently in his Inside Baseball piece:
"They have fielded offers on all seven of their players who have a year to go before free agency, so that also includes Neil Walker as well as Melancon and Pedro Alvarez … They have thought about locking up Francisco Cervelli, who emerged as a star."
There are obvious pros to locking up Cervelli. He was a great all-around catcher in 2015, both offensively and defensively. He brings a fire and an energy to the team that is unmatched. He also won’t cost as much as guys like Russell Martin and Brian McCann did. After all, he still has only had one full season of proven success across eight years in the majors, which could lower the value of his future contract.
There are cons though as well. He’ll be 30 before Opening Day, and he has tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the past. That he’s only played in more than 100 games in a season once (this past year) is of concern as well. The Pirates also have Elias Diaz and Tony Sanchez (they may have given up on the latter at this point, however) in the wings, and Reese McGuire after them. Diaz and McGuire both profile as excellent defensive catchers, and McGuire in particular has the potential to develop into a star.
Extending Cervelli could be a good idea if it’s a short-term deal. His body probably isn’t as worn down as the average 30-year-old catcher’s is, considering he’s only played the equivalent of about three full seasons for a starting catcher across eight total big league seasons. We all know how important a good catcher is in today’s game, and we also know how much good catcher’s can fetch on the open market; the Pirates aren’t going to pay someone Martin- or McCann-type money.
If the Pirates want to keep Cervelli beyond 2016, they’re not going to let him hit free agency. And if they do choose to extend Cervelli on a short-term deal, I’m all for it. He’s the type of player this clubhouse needs and thrives around, and his value to the Pirates in 2015 cannot be understated.
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