Several major league talent evaluators who scouted the Pirates last season said they paid a hefty price to acquire an insurance plan at catcher.
The Pirates acquired Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli for reliever Justin Wilson on Wednesday. Cervelli is Plan B at catcher should free agent Russell Martin depart, which seems likely considering the number of large-market clubs interested in Martin in a thin market for catchers.
Wilson, 27, has a rare arm for a left-handed pitcher — his fastball averages 95 mph — and is under club control for four more seasons and isn't eligible for arbitration until after next season.
Cervelli, 28, is versatile, but he also has missed nearly as many games to injury (199) and as he's played in (250) during his major league career. Plus, he served a 50-game Biogenesis suspension for PED use in 2013.
“Winning teams in this day and age have to have two (quality) left-handed relievers,” said an American League scout who spoke on a condition of anonymity. “I like Wilson a lot. … It's a big blow to their pen.”
While Wilson (career 2.99 ERA, 8.3 strikeouts, 3.9 walks per nine innings) has battled inconsistency with his command, he has also hit 100 mph from the left side, a feat perhaps matched only by Reds closer Aroldis Chapman in recent years.
Said one National League scout: “There's not many like him.”
The Pirates were in a tough spot. Catcher was their most glaring need entering the offseason, and beyond Martin, there are no starting-caliber, free agent catchers. The scout said he doubted the Pirates had confidence in Chris Stewart to hold up as a No. 1 catcher.
“(The price) also speaks to the catching crop,” the AL scout said. “If you get a (catcher) capable of playing a significant amount of games, you're going to have to give up something of value. … (Cervelli) hasn't been healthy to know what he's about. We don't know what he can be.”
Cervelli is an excellent pitch-framing catcher. It's pitch-framing that, for the most part, led the Pirates to Martin and Stewart as undervalued players. It's also pitch-framing that undoubtedly helped Pirates turn around pitchers Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez.
Cervelli has thrown out 27 percent of base stealers, which is league average. Martin has thrown out 32 percent. Cervelli has a career .278 batting average and .348 on-base percentage. He is eligible for arbitration and made $700,000 last season.
ESPN analyst Dan Symborski's projection system has Cervelli being an above-average catcher with regular playing time, if he stays healthy.
“If he holds up,” Symborski wrote on his Twitter account. “Pirates may have a very solidly average catcher.”
And the Pirates need at least that at the position if they're losing an All-Star performer in Martin.
“(Cervelli is) a quality all-around defender with some history of offensive production,” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. “(Cervelli) gives us a viable alternative should Russ choose to sign elsewhere.”
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