A little less than two years ago, Neal Huntington tried to reassure a nervous fanbase that if the club was unable to re-sign Russell Martin it would make every effort to find the "next Russell Martin." At the time, it was hard to imagine the Pirates could fill the void, both on and off the field, left by Martin's likely departure. Yet this afternoon at PNC Park, Huntington announced the three-year contract extension of Francisco Cervelli, who they tapped to replace and who then went on to exceed Martin's on-field performance.
"We traded for him, and he, with all of his work and perseverance and preparation, stepped into big shoes and more than filled them," Huntington said.
Cervelli has posted a 4.5 WAR over his season and a half with the Pirates, which ranks second amongst all catchers. Incidentally, Martin has a 2.8 WAR over the same time frame.
Huntington stressed that it wasn't only Cervelli's measurable contributions that tipped the balance in favor of signing the 31-year old. Equally important were intangibles like work ethic, clubhouse presence, working with young pitchers and calling a game.
"The passion, the energy, the relentlessness that he brings every single day," Huntington said. "He's got one goal and that's to do everything in his power to win. You can't overlook that. It's hard to quantify that. There are a lot of things that we can quantify that he does exceptionally well. That's one that we can't quantify, but you listen to longtime baseball people such as Clint Hurdle, you see it, and you listen to scouts."
One very important immeasurable is the confidence that infuses a pitching staff when it trusts its catcher. It's an issue that Hurdle is intimately familiar with from his playing days.
"Having a guy back there that they just trust, it's just special," Hurdle said. "I know guys when they had to throw to me back in the day they didn't have that confidence. You could see it in their eyes. Do you want to throw to Hurdle or [Gary] Carter? My name would be in the lineup and guys would be like, man, ‘What'd I do wrong, today?' ‘You got handed a tough bull, kid. Get through it.'"
For his part, Cervelli couldn't be happier both with the contract and remaining a Pirate.
"This is probably the first time I'm nervous in front of cameras," Cervelli said. "I don't know why. If you go back 14 years ago, I never thought I'd have an opportunity to be sitting here. It is one of the best days of my life. Thanks to the Pirates' organization for believing and giving me the opportunity. This is just amazing."
The Pirates' catcher realized in the middle of last season that Pittsburgh was where he wanted to stay.
"The atmosphere here is unique," Cervelli said. "When you go outside, when you go play, the love you receive from the fans is just amazing. But the most important thing is what we have in the clubhouse. Coaches, teammates, it's just special. If you come to work at a place where you are happy every day, I think that's the place you should be."
The Cervelli-signing not only completes the successful post-Martin transition, but also likely guarantees above average production from the catcher's position for the next few years. For that, the front office deserves a lot of credit. It wasn't long ago that uncertainty at the position was the norm on the Northside.
From 2010-2012, the Pirates only gained 2.3 WAR from their catchers, third lowest in the Majors. Since 2013, they've received 15 WAR, which ranks third.
"Everybody wants it," Hurdle said, of receiving production and maintaining stability at the position. "If you don't have it, you try to develop it on your own. Some organizations have the luxury of going out and buying it. It's an old phrase, but it plays into today's game as well, you want to be strong up the middle."
The Pirates now have the good problem of lots of catching depth in the minors and security at the major league level.
"That's always the challenge is when you sign someone long-term, you're blocking someone behind them," Huntington said. "In this instance we've got two very good young catchers. In [Elias] Diaz, a young man that doesn't get enough attention. In Reese [McGuire], a young man that we think deserves all the attention that he gets. "
If the two sides had been unable to work out a deal, the organization was comfortable heading into next season with Chris Stewart and Diaz, Huntington said. Now, Diaz becomes a solid insurance option.
"You can never have enough good players. I think the day I walked in here, we talked about one of our goals was to have several prospects at every position lined up through the system. That means we're in a good spot as an organization."
So, the Pirates signed another member of their core to a multiyear contract and, again, they appeared to solidify the future at a team-friendly cost. Travis Sawchik reported back in January that Cervelli was seeking a three-year, $39 million extension. Today, the Pirates got their guy for 20 percent less than the reported asking price.
"I think this was a good partnership where both sides recognize that there was risk for each to sign and there was risk for each to not sign," Huntington said. "We found that common financial ground. Francisco's a very wealthy man, and we've got a catcher that could be a Pirate through 2019 and hopefully beyond."