Thursday, November 13, 2014

Francisco Cervelli - His Story and the Sidebars

Well, looks like the Bucs, although talking a good game, have positioned themselves to move on without Russ Martin by trading Justin Wilson to the Yankees for Francisco Cervelli, who should slide into Pittsburgh's #1 catching spot.

Cervelli, 28, is a Venezuelan who has shown a good glove and decent bat, albeit without a lot of power, and is in his second year of arbitration, earning $700K last year and expected to fall into the $1M range this season. His career slash is .278/.348/.381 with a .301 BA last season, but he comes with a caveat - he hasn't played much for a guy who made his MLB debut in 2008, with just 785 PA in 250 games. Not only has he been the caddy of Martin and then Brian McCann in New York, but he's pretty much an accident waiting to happen.

Francisco Cervelli (photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday)
In 2008, he broke his wrist in a home plate collision that sparked a brawl, then later sprained his knee. He broke his foot in 2011 and was given a concussion when he was beaned after his return. In 2013, he broke his hand and then lost 50 games after being swept up in the Biogenesis PED scandal. Last year, he had hammy problems and migraines. Ergo, he's the poster boy for small sample size.

If the Bucs can pump him with some extra-strength calcium, though, he fits the bill behind the dish. Cervelli is said to have the intangibles - a good rapport with the pitchers, a knack for handling a staff and a good idea on how to set up hitters - along with several defensive plusses. He's an excellent pitch framer and does a good job of blocking balls, two traits the new-age Bucs look for behind the plate. His only drawback is that he has problems with happy feet; Francisco has just a 22% toss-out rate, although his arm strength is sufficient and he's fairly accurate. So we'll see if that's a function of slow pitchers or a slow set-up and release.

His hitting should be OK, too. His .408 BABIP of last season is unsustainable, but he should bat in the .260 range and draw an occasional walk. He does have a 3.7 WAR for his career, and that's not bad with just 250 games under his belt.

If the FO can get 100 games out of Cervelli (and that may be a stretch; 93 in 2010 is his season high) with Chris Stewart as the back up, the leather will be pretty strong and the batting won't be a black hole. That takes care of one position that was problematic. The Pirates, maybe surprised that a potential trade target like Hank Conger moved so quickly, became proactive in swinging a quick deal and avoiding a very thin FA catching market. That does led to the inevitable question, though - what of Tony Sanchez?

Tony Sanchez (photo by Justin Aller/Getty Images)
He's in the Dominican winter league to catch, but it's a fairly telling sign that the Pirates are looking ahead to the arrival of Elias Diaz sometime in 2016 rather than prepping Sanchez. His throw-out rate and lapses behind the dish overshadow his generally strong defensive performance. His hitting is erratic, and he also comes with a lengthy injury history.

Tony has one more option and will almost certainly begin the year at Indy. It may be a make-or-break season, if not with the Bucco organization then as trade bait, with Cervelli under team control through 2016 and Dias rising with a bullet. Expect to see more of him at 1B in 2015 as the team works to make him a more versatile package.

Another thing that the deal does by firming up the catching spot, with the assumption that Martin is as good as gone, is to free up some money that can go to landing a marketplace player. Now the Bucs have a little more leverage if they want to bring Frankie Liriano back into the fold or replace him with a Brandon McCarthy type. Ditto if they decide to blow up the first base platoon. The FO is handling Martin's looming loss a lot more effectively than they did with last year's AJ saga.

It did cost them Wilson, a talented but erratic arm, and they face the risk of him turning it around ala Bryan Morris. But dealing a bridge guy for a potential starter is a no-brainer. It also shows that the Bucs believe that Big John Holdzkem has leapfrogged Wilson, leaving Bobby LaFramboise (on the 40 man roster) or Andy Oliver (not) as organizational replacement lefties, with the probable addition of a southpaw or two signed to a spring invite. And it has to be remembered that Clint Hurdle is not by nature a match-up guy, for better or worse, so the L/R balance in the pen isn't quite so much a big deal in Pittsburgh as it would be in other cities.

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