The Winter Meetings are starting soon and some teams have already made moves for the upcoming season. Reportedly, the Pirates are listening to offers on their starting catcher.
Small market teams rely on constant roster turnover when building their club, primarily when it comes to players either on expiring contracts or with two years left on the deal. For the Pirates, the list of expiring contracts consists of catcher Francisco Cervelli, pitcher Ivan Nova, and outfielder Corey Dickerson, with Dickerson being in his last year of arbitration.
With outfielder Gregory Polanco out to start the season, Dickerson will certainly be back as the starting left fielder with Lonnie Chisenhall in right. Trading Dickerson would reopen the hole the club recently filled, and a deal wouldn’t make sense with the outfield depth possessed by the team nor their past history in the free agent market. Nova could be upgraded upon, but he’s a reliable backend starter who will toss innings. With Mitch Keller likely ready to make his debut in 2019, the club will likely listen to offers, and the final spot in the rotation could come down to Nova and Nick Kingham, who is out of options.
Which leaves Francisco Cervelli as a player the team will continue to listen on, and that’s been confirmed by a report earlier this week. Mike Zunino has already been traded to the Tampa Bay Rays and Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals. The Braves recently signed Brian McCann to pair with Tyler Flowers.
The Marlins still have J.T. Realmuto to trade free agent market includes Yasmani Grandal, the two top catchers according to Baseball Prospectus’ WARP measurement, with Grandal being the best defensive catcher last season with 16.3 fielding runs above average once adjusted for a catchers blocking, framing, and throwing. The second best free agent would be Wilson Ramos, and on the trade market that leaves Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli.
Grandal would cost a team just money and a draft pick with a qualifying offer being attached, though he would be longer term. Realmuto has two years of club control left and is one of the best catchers in baseball, but he’ll come with a high price tag.
Martin and Cervelli, the Pirates last two starting backstops, both will be one year commitments at $20 million and $11.5 million respectively. Martin has remained a strong defender at the plate, but he’s fallen to a below average offensive player the last three years by Baseball Prospectus’ true average (TAv) measure, he’ll also be 36 years old.
Cervelli, on the other hand, has seen his defensive numbers drop and has had a continued battle with health the last couple seasons. He did alter his swing and added some power this past season, but how much that’ll continue in 2019 remains a large question. He’ll be 33 this coming season, presenting a cheaper and younger option than Martin on the trade market.
With one year remaining Cervelli will have limited value in a trade, but what exactly is that value? Cervelli is coming off a year in which he was worth 3.3 wins according to Fangraphs WAR measurement, but teams don’t pay for the back of the baseball card they pay for what you project to do going forward. Using STEAMER’s 2019 projection and $8.5 million for a win, Cervelli’s worth would be around $10 million:
|Francisco Cervelli Trade Value|
|2019||2.6||$ 8,500,000.00||$ 11,500,000.00||$ 10,600,000.00|
Cervelli isn’t worth a ton in a trade, looking at either a 45 hitter or a 45 or 50 pitcher would be what the Pirates would receive in a prospect package. That translates to a bench player/platoon player or a backend starting pitcher. The Pirates project at around 82 wins, with 48 wins being the base of a replacement level team (0.0 WAR) and the Pirates project at 34 fWAR. That’s six wins shy of the 88 wins needed to tilt the playoff odds to greater than 50 percent.
Trading away around a projected three wins with only Elias Diaz (projected 0.7 fWAR in 38 games) and Jacob Stallings (0.1 fWAR in eight games) would create a need at catcher where the Pirates would have to dip into the free agent pool. Given their team needs, a major league player in return would have to be a middle infielder, mainly a shortstop.
Looking for a team who needs both a catcher and has a surplus in the middle infield limits the clubs to Oakland, whose current catchers are Josh Phegley and Beau Taylor, and Arizona, whose catchers are Alex Avila and John Ryan Murphy.
The Athletics currently have Marcus Semien at short, with Franklin Barreto ready, Jorge Mateo knocking on the door, and the club will likely have interest in bringing back Jed Lowrie. Cervelli could represent a one year stop gap to allow prospect Sean Murphy to keep developing.
Semien is a free agent after the 2020 season and is projected to make $6.6 million in arbitration this season. At a projected 2.4 fWAR season, Semien is worth around $15 million this season. and likely will be worth around $24 million over the course of the next two seasons using a five percent growth rate in the dollars per war measure and a weighted average of fWAR and the .25/.37/.54 rule for arbitration:
|Marcus Semien Trade Value|
|2019||2.5||$ 8,500,000.00||$ 6,600,000.00||$ 14,650,000.00|
|2018||2.5||$ 8,925,000.00||$ 13,398,210.00||$ 8,914,290.00|
The Pirates would have to kick in an additional $14 million in trade value to make this worth the swap, which a 45 bat gets close. A Cervelli and Kevin Newman trade for Semien deal would line up in terms of trade value. The Pirates could then use the savings of roughly $5 million to look at adding Ramos to pair with Diaz behind the plate.
The Diamondbacks have middle infield options in Eduardo Escobar, who they signed to a deal as the season ended, Ketel Marte, who they agreed to a five-year deal worth $24 million last season, and Nick Ahmed. Marte would make sense for the Pirates, but his value is likely too high for the Pirates to trade Cervelli and prospects for given his team friendly deal. That leaves Ahmed as an option, but he’s projected at just 1.1 fWAR, the same projection as Kevin Newman, and Ahmed has a similar profile to Erik Gonzalez.
If the Pirates were to trade Cervelli, Oakland would make the most sense given their middle infield depth and need at catcher. They line up well for a Newman and Cervelli for Semien swap in terms of trade value. The options are slim, and due to Cervelli only having around $10 million in value, there’s better odds that he’ll be the starting catcher in 2019 than not.
*Numbers from Fangraphs