SOUTH HILLS – So it turns out that despite being a season away from free agency, when he will potentially be the top the catcher available in a weaker market in an industry awash in cash, Francisco Cervelli is interested in a contract extension with the Pirates as we reported Wednesday. The Pirates have not yet indicated they are interested.
Normally a player being interested in a contract extension isn’t major news, but this is a little different given Cervelli’s potential position on the open market next offseason, and given the Pirates’ uncertain catching situation in 2017.
(Cervelli-related podcast here)
A source with knowledge of the situation said a 3y/$39 million deal might keep Cervelli in Pittsburgh. While many fans think that is not much of a discount, if Cervelli repeats his 2015 it’s plausible he could get a four-year deal on the open market with a greater annual average value.
Some will point to his 7 home runs and 43 RBIs and injury history and think such demands are too rich for the Pirates to consider. But this is a player who was second in baseball among catchers in Wins Above Replacement last season – 3.8 WAR – trailing only Buster Posey and ahead of Russell Martin.
This is a player who was the best pitch-framer in baseball last season, a metric prized by the Pirates and becoming more and more prized by the rest of the industry. Cervelli is entering his Age 30 season, though with his time missed he has accumulated less wear-and-tear on his body.
What should the Pirates do?
There was an interesting temperature-taking done by TribLiveRadio’s Tim Benz. If interested, please vote and check out the results of his Twitter poll:
Reports from @Sawchik_Trib- Cervelli may want a 3 yr/$39 million extension. Should the Pirates pay that much to him?
— Tim Benz (@TimBenzPGH) January 28, 2016
As of 1:30 p.m. Thursday, there was nearly split vote – 51 in favor, 49 against – extending Cervelli.
Cervelli is interested in an extension but the Pirates, to date, have not shown any interest.
Should the Pirates pick up the phone and talk about a contract? Or should they let Cervelli walk after 2016, possibly pick up a free agent comp pick, and turn to internal options?
THE ARGUMENT FOR: Cervelli has always been an above-average hitter and pitch-framer when he’s been healthy. That’s a special package. Catcher is arguably the most important defensive position on the field, and not only is Cervelli an elite framer but this was the average slash line produced by MLB catchers last season: .238/.302/.371 as noted over at MLBTradeRumors.com.
For his career, Cervelli has a .284 average and .357 on-base. Couple that with his glove, and that’s a rare package at catcher.
You could argue he was the most valuable Pirates player in 2015 when combining his receiving and WAR totals, his performance was worth 6.5 wins above an average catcher.
THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: Many will start with the anti-Cervelli-extension argument with this point: 2015 was a breakout season for the Cervelli, who missed 199 games to injury the previous four seasons. The Pirates could be buying high on Cervelli with an extension.
THE ARGUMENT FOR: But Cervelli would argue, and has, that none of his injuries have been chronic (that’s true), many have been flukey in nature and impossible to avoid (also largely true). Cervelli ran into some tough luck, and is probably not going to miss 199 games to injury over the next four seasons – particularly in Pittsburgh where the training and strength staff have done an excellent job of keep players health and on the field. Maybe the Pirates have a competitive advantage in keeping players on the field. They like to believe they do.
THE ARGUMENT FOR: The Pirates are a frugal organization — some suggest cheap — and they have spent a modest amount of money this offseason despite coming off a 98-win campaign. Committing to a player like Cervelli, or Gregory Polanco, players they know well, with contract extensions, might go far in not only locking up a core player(s) but appeasing the fan base. This is a sport awash in revenue sharing, and digital and national TV dollars that are shared equally.
THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: 2016 marks the final season Gerrit Cole will be really cheap as a pre-arbitration eligible player. If Cole’s growth continues he’ll start becoming much more expensive in 2017 and 2018 and 2019. He could earn $20+m in arbitration, eventually. With health, Cole projects to set club records for arbitration earnings, and one-year contract earnings. Cole is the kind of asset the club wants to keep around as long as possible. Polanco is arbitration eligible in 2017 and is a piece the Pirates have expressed interest in extending in the past. If the Pirates don’t, or can’t, pay everyone, they might elect to go cheaper at catcher.
And the Pirates have cheaper options at catcher in the coming years. Reese McGuire (No. 4) and Elias Diaz (No. 6) are top 10 catching prospects, according to MLB.com. McGuire projects as a solid MLB starting catcher, according to scouts I’ve spoke with, while some see Diaz as a reserve. McGuire does have to answer questions about his bat, but the defensive skill-set could be special.
THE ARGUMENT FOR: While the Pirates have cheaper options nearing the majors, all prospects are suspects until they prove the ability to perform at the major league level.
Do the Pirates want to break in young catchers during the last two years they have Andrew McCutchen under control? If the club wants to maximize its window during the McCutchen-Cole-Jung Ho Kang-Starling Marte era, perhaps extending Cervelli makes sense.
The Pirates have recently paid out a contract identical to what Cervelli is asking.
The Pirates gave Francisco Liriano a three-year, $39 million deal prior to the last season. Liriano had produced 6.6 WAR in the three proceeding seasons. Cervelli? 5.9 WAR in the three proceeding seasons.
THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: There is a counter argument that suggests $30+ million could be spent elsewhere on the roster. Say Cervelli receives a three-year, $39-million deal from some team. While in a vacuum it might produce surplus value if he stays on the field — assuming one Win Above Replacement is truly $7-8 million — the Pirates don’t employ the same $/WAR valuations that some analysts use as a standard.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington at the winter meetings:
“We are not big believers that if a player is a 2-WAR player that means he’s worth X. There are times where that is in a vacuum and you put together enough players that give you enough WAR to win 100 games it’s a payroll way above and beyond where anyone could potentially go – even a certain club.”
Moreover, the Pirates tend to spread risk and not concentrate it in one player and one contract.
THE ARGUMENT FOR: No team prizes the low strike like the Pirates. They have led MLB in groundball rate each of the last three years, and target the lower portion of the strike zone more than any other team.
What is the easiest pitch to frame? The low strike.
It’s in part why so many pitchers have had success in Pittsburgh recently: they’ve been working the bottom of the zone and throwing to excellent receivers in Cervelli, Martin and Chris Stewart. It’s in part why the lower part of the strike zone has been growing.
THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: Not only has the commissioner suggested shrinking the bottom of the strike zone (to create more offense), which would erode some of the value from pitch framing, but umpires might be starting to become aware of which catchers are making them look bad. Over at Fangraphs.com a couple days ago, Jeff Sullivan wondered if we might be beginning to see the end of pitch framing.
Still, until computers call balls and strikes there will always be bias in officiating and an opportunity to frame pitches, but it’s possible that top framers begin to lose some value.
There are a bunch of different factors at play in the Cervelli decision. What is known is that he would like to stay, he’s valuable, and if Cervelli repeats his 2015 he’s going to get paid by someone. But there are risks involved, and the Pirates have internal options closer to the majors compared to when Martin left.
So should the Pirates reach out or stand pat?