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Best Pirates Trades Ever: Francisco Cervelli for Justin Wilson

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A look back at the trade that brought vita bella to Pittsburgh.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Following the 2014 season, Pittsburgh Pirates fans were sad to see the departure of catcher Russell Martin, who left Pittsburgh for greener pastures. By greener pastures, I mean that he made lots of green money signing a five-year, $82 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. For reference, Martin had just finished a two-year, $17 million deal with the Pirates. Although he outperformed his contract by a large margin during his time in Pittsburgh, the team was never going to spend real money to keep him around. I digress.

Heading into the 2015 season, the Pirates needed a new catcher. Six days before Martin signed with the Blue Jays, the Pirates found their replacement, trading relief pitcher Justin Wilson to the New Yankees, for Francisco Cervelli. At the time of the trade, Cervelli had two years of team control remaining. Wilson had five (although he was granted free agency following the 2018 season). It seemed as though Cervelli would be a clear downgrade from that of Martin. That was not the case.

In 2015 with the Pirates, Cervelli had a career season. Over 130 games and 510 plate appearances, Cervelli hit .295/.370/.401 (117 wRC+) with 7 home runs, 17 doubles, and 5 triples. Cervelli’s above-average offense paired with his elite defense behind the plate made him worth 5.9 fWAR. Here are some highlights from that season.

His vibrant energy on the field immediately made him a fan favorite. Fans loved as the Dean Martin classic, “That’s Amore”, blared throughout the stadium when he stepped up to the plate. Sadly, although the Pirates won 98 games that season, they lost yet another Wild Card game hosting the Chicago Cubs. I still get sick thinking about that game.

Following the 2015 season, Cervelli spent another 3.5 seasons in Pittsburgh. In 2016, he put up a respectable 2.7 fWAR season. After two solid seasons in Pittsburgh, Cervelli earned himself a three-year, $31 million deal. After an injury-riddled 2017 season in which he played just 81 games, Cervelli bounced back in 2018 with a 2.6 fWAR season. In August of 2019, Cervelli was released by the Pirates. He retired after the 2020 season. All in all, Cervelli was solid during his time in Pittsburgh.

As far as what they gave up, the Pirates didn’t miss Wilson as has never been much more than an average to good middle reliever. In 2015, Pittsburgh had the tenth best bullpen in baseball according to fWAR. In the winter after that season, Wilson was traded from the Yankees to the Cubs in exchange for relievers Chad Green and Luis Cessa.

Although the Pirates didn’t win anything of note during Cervelli’s time in Pittsburgh, this trade was still a successful one. Cervelli had the same fWAR (11.3) during his time in Pittsburgh as Martin, the man he replaced, had during his time in Toronto. Cervelli appeared in 450 games with the Pirates. Martin appeared in 447 games for Toronto. When talking about the Pirates, dollars need to be mentioned. Cervelli earned way less money than Martin during that span. Whether right or wrong, the acquisition of Cervelli was a cost-efficient move.

Overall, I believe that Cervelli’s time in Pittsburgh will be looked upon fondly as the years pass by. In my mind, trading a middle reliever for even one season of elite catcher play makes for a solid deal. The rest of his production was house money. More importantly, the memories of watching Cervelli play in Pittsburgh will be fun to look back on.