Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli is open to a long-term contract with the club, reports Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. While the notion of a player being open to locking in millions of guaranteed dollars isn’t always headline news, Cervelli’s willingness to sign long-term is more notable, as he’s one season away from hitting free agency, where he’d join Matt Wieters as one of the top catchers on the open market.
Sawchik reports that Cervelli’s asking price is roughly three years and $39MM — a sum that would’ve seemed considerably more lofty a year ago, prior to Cervelli’s breakout 2015 campaign. Last season marked the first time in his career that Cervelli remained healthy for a whole season and served as a team’s everyday backstop, and the results were excellent. Cervelli’s age-29 season yielded a .295/.370/.401 batting line with a career-high seven home runs. The numbers are particularly impressive when juxtaposed with the mere .238/.302/.376 batting line that Major League catchers averaged in 2015 and with his standout receiving skills. While Cervelli struggled to some extent in limiting the running game (22 percent caught-stealing rate), Cervelli trailed only Yasmani Grandal in terms of pitch-framing value, per Baseball Prospectus. Meanwhile, StatCorner.com ranked him as the game’s top pitch-framer.
The $39MM figure (which would begin in 2017, as Cervelli is already signed at $3.5MM in 2016) would be significant for the Pirates, who have long dealt with payroll constraints, but we’ve seen the catching market place a premium on defense in recent years, as evidenced by Russell Martin’s $82MM contract with the Blue Jays and, conversely, by the fact that Wilin Rosario opted for a deal in the Korea Baseball Organization upon hitting the open market, despite carrying a significantly more powerful bat than the average catcher.
As Sawchik notes, the team is faced with a decision regarding Cervelli. Pittsburgh has two of the game’s top-rated catching prospects in the form of Reese McGuire (the No. 4 catching prospect in baseball, per Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com) and Elias Diaz (No. 6 on that same list). Baseball America rated the duo as the Pirates’ No. 6 (McGuire) and No. 10 (Diaz) prospects back in November, and both are nearing Major League readiness. McGuire figures to open the season at the Double-A level, and Diaz received a taste of the Majors last September after slashing .271/.330/.382 as a 24-year-old at the Triple-A level.
The Pirates could conceivably let Cervelli walk after the season — perhaps making him a qualifying offer with a strong enough performance — and then hand the reins over to one of the promising up-and-comers. On the other hand, prospects are no sure thing, and Cervelli looked every bit the part of a high quality starting catcher last season. Were he extended, the club could also utilize Diaz and/or McGuire as highly appealing trade chips in order to address other deficiencies throughout the roster as they arise. Either catcher could also serve as Cervelli’s backup, though the club did just ink fellow defensive standout Chris Stewart to a two-year deal with a third-year option.
Payroll considerations figure to heavily impact the Pirates’ ultimate course of action. While the club will shed a fair bit of payroll next offseason when Mark Melancon reaches free agency, the team will likely need to add to its bullpen to replace Melancon, and beyond that, ace Gerrit Cole will reach arbitration eligibility following the 2016 season. The three years of a theoretical Cervelli extension would coincide with Cole’s three arbitration seasons and with two of the same seasons for right fielder Gregory Polanco, further complicating matters for Pittsburgh. The Pirates will also need to make a call on newcomer Jon Niese’s $10MM and $11MM club options for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. And looking even further down the road, the future of franchise face Andrew McCutchen has to be considered, although McCutchen is controlled through 2018 as it as, at which point he’ll be 32, so that issue isn’t as immediate a concern for the Bucs.