Since being acquired in a trade with the New York Yankees in the winter prior to the 2015 season, catcher Francisco Cervelli has become one of the most popular players on the Pirates. I mean, who doesn’t love Francisco? Not only is he a reliable hitter and defender, but he has charmed fans with his love advice between innings at PNC Park. Isn’t that smoking jacket he’s wearing just the coolest?
One thing that fans do not love about Cervelli is his history with injuries. Since debuting in 2008 with the Yankees, he has spent parts of almost every season on the disabled list with a variety of injuries. Cervelli broke his wrist in a home plate collision, broke his hand after getting struck by the ball and suffered numerous concussions in his seven seasons in New York. He never played over a 100 games in a season while with the Yankees, the most being 93 games in 2010. It was already hard enough for Cervelli to see the field when he was in pinstripes. At the start of his major league career, Jorge Posada was still cemented as the top catcher on the team. After Posada, Cervelli then had to contend with standouts Russell Martin and Brian McCann for playing time. Even when he would outplay his counterparts, injuries would once again flare up.
His injury history was one of the main reasons the Yankees shipped Cervelli to Pittsburgh in exchange for reliever Justin Wilson. At the time, the Pirates were in desperate need of a catcher after the previously-mentioned Martin was signed away by the Toronto Blue Jays for a big money contract of 5 years for $82 million. Now for the first time in his career, the top catcher’s spot was Cervelli’s. He responded with a career year in 2015, helping to lead the Pirates back to the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Cervelli played in a career-high 130 games, setting career marks in hits (133), doubles (17), home runs (7) and RBIs (43). The Pirates would reward the Venezuelan catcher with a 3 year extension worth $31 million in May of 2016 that prevented him from hitting the free agent market this past offseason.
But Cervelli would be once again be slowed by injuries in 2016. After signing his new contract in May, the 31-year-old catcher went down with a hand injury that put him on the disabled list until late July. In his absence, the Pirates were forced to play musical chairs at the position. The team made a trade with Los Angeles Angels for Erik Kratz, who was playing at AAA Salt Lake City. The veteran catcher had begun the season making the Houston Astros out of Spring Training, but batted .069 in 29 at-bats as the backup catcher. It was much of the same in Pittsburgh, batting .107 in 56 at-bats before being released by the team July 23. Chris Stewart would rotate with Kratz for the first month with the Pirates. However, just like Cervelli, Stew went down with injuries to his knee, putting him on the disabled list until early September. Again, the Pirates were forced to acquire another catcher, this time being a guy they were already pretty familiar with, Eric Fryer. Fryer made his major league debut with Pittsburgh back in 2011, playing in 16 games over the course of 2 seasons. He had bounced around the league before settling in St. Louis, but he was waived in early July, allowing the Pirates to claim him off waivers. Though he fared better than Kratz, Fryer hit .218 and drove in 8 runs in 92 plate appearances.
Even after he returned from injury, Cervelli was not the same player as he was in 2015. His stats regressed sharply in 2016 with his batting average dropping 31 points from .295 in 2015. Cervelli only hit one home run last season while his slugging percentage hit a career-low .322. His broken hand sapped all the strength and ability to drive the ball into gaps. One positive from last season was his on-base percentage, tying a career-best .377 mark in 2013, a year he only played 16 games. He also set a career-high in walks with 56, 10 more than his previous high in 2015. And despite missing more than of month of action, Cervelli still played in the second most games of his career, appearing in 101 games for the Pirates last season. His decline in production from 2015 played a role in the team’s setback from a 98 win season.
Coming into 2017, the big question with Cervelli is whether or not he can stay healthy for an entire season. He has already dealt with a minor injury early in Spring Training when he was sidelined day-to-day with a foot related injury. But as soon as the injury healed, Cervelli was set to take part in the World Baseball Classic for team Italy. Despite being a native of Venezuela, he was able to play with Italy thanks to his Italian heritage. I mean the guy walks up to the plate to ‘That’s Amore’. If that’s not a true and proud Italian, I don’t know what is. Even if he wanted to play for the Venezuelan team, Salvador Perez was listed as the top catcher for them, though he will now miss the rest of the tournament with a knee injury. Unlike Venezuela, Italy lacked the major league talent to compete in the WBC. After defeating Mexico in their first game, the Italians dropped back-to-back games to Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Cervelli finished the tournament hitting .333. Luckily, he was able to make it out of the tournament virtually unharmed, unlike his countryman Perez. He should be back with the Pirates sometime this week.
If Cervelli can remain healthy and play about 130 games, the same number as 2015, I believe he will bounce back from his setback in 2016. He brings a consistent, calming presence when he is in the Pirates’ lineup. Cervelli is not going to wow you with his power or even behind the plate, but he plays the game with a passion fans have to respect. Having him healthy in 2017 will be one of the differences between the Pirates being a playoff team or enduring another disappointing year.