The Pirates made the decision over the weekend to buy out Chris Stewart’s deal, opting to pay $250,000 rather than the full $1.5 M that he would have otherwise made. Stewart has dealt with injury issues in his career, and those continued in 2017, along with a decline in his production. So while $1.5 M is cheap for a backup catcher, it’s not the best investment for a guy with Stewart’s question marks.
That’s especially the case when they have Elias Diaz out of options and making the league minimum. At the very least, Diaz can be a backup and do the same job that Stewart was doing, for about a third of the price.
But what do the Pirates do with their starting role?
I broke down the issue they have behind the plate in my catcher recap at the end of the year. Francisco Cervelli also has injury issues, and that makes him a guy who can only be relied upon to play half the year, and put up around a 1.0 WAR. He might be able to do more than that, but the Pirates shouldn’t be counting on him to do more.
Cervelli is making $22 M over the next two years. The Pirates could opt to keep him and hope for good results. Or they could try to trade him and go for another option. That last plan might be difficult when you look at the available catchers on the market. Here is the list of free agents, per MLBTR:
Alex Avila (31)
Welington Castillo (31)
A.J. Ellis (37)
Nick Hundley (34)
Chris Iannetta (35)
Jose Lobaton (33)
Jonathan Lucroy (32)
Miguel Montero (34)
Rene Rivera (34)
Carlos Ruiz (39)
Geovany Soto (35)
Chris Stewart (36)
Looking at that list, the following players have been starter quality (2.0+ fWAR) in the last two years: Avila, Castillo, Iannetta, and Lucroy.
Avila had a 2.5 fWAR this past year, and a 2.2 fWAR in 2014. He was an 0.3 fWAR in 2015 and a 1.1 in 2016.
Castillo had a 2.7 fWAR in 2017, and a 2.5 in 2014. He also declined a bit in 2015-16, although not as much, with a 1.2 fWAR in 2015 and a 1.6 in 2016.
Iannetta had a 2.2 fWAR in 2017, and a 3.0 fWAR in 2014. He followed the trend with down years in 2015-16, with an 0.4 and 0.9 in those years.
Lucroy had a 4.6 fWAR in 2016, and dropped to 1.2 in 2017. He had a 6.2 in 2014 and a 1.1 in 2015.
Let’s look beyond the weird trend of players having down years in 2015-16, and look at the expected free agent prices. There aren’t many predictions, although MLBTR has anticipated numbers on three of those players.
Lucroy is projected for two years and $24 M. Avila is projected for two years and $16 M. Castillo is projected for two years and $14 M. There was no projection for Iannetta, although the projections ended at around two-year, $10 M deals, so we can expect that he’s projected for less than Avila and Castillo.
That MLBTR recap notes that not many teams are looking for catchers this offseason. It would already be difficult to trade Cervelli and his two years, $22 M remaining with the cheaper options on the board. But with a weaker catching market, it’s going to be nearly impossible.
No matter what, I think the Pirates are going to be paying Cervelli’s deal. They might be able to pay down part of his deal to move him, but probably to the point where signing an alternative would put them in the same price range. And if it made sense for the Pirates to take that route with Cervelli, it would make sense for any trading team to just go with the alternative option.
The Pirates might be stuck with Cervelli for at least the 2018 season, hoping for a bounce back year. That’s not impossible, as we’ve seen with that trend from the above catchers, where they each had two down years in between two solid years. If Cervelli can stay healthy in 2018 and be productive, then the Pirates could opt to trade him at the end of the season when he has more value. Or they could roll the dice again with him in 2019, depending on their situation at the time.
It would make sense on paper for them to part ways with him and find a more reliable option. Or, if they are rebuilding, to go with Elias Diaz and maybe another younger catching option that they could bring in. But with the demand for catching being low, and a few interesting options already on the market, it seems like the reality will be that the Pirates will be stuck with Cervelli going forward.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.