Meet the Pittsburgh catcher who has made waves with the Pirates and in Italy

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Francisco Cervelli in action for current employers, Pittsburgh
Photo by Keith Allison, CC BY-SA 2.0

Few Italian-Americans have made as big an impact on the world of baseball as 33-year-old, Francisco Cervelli. Born in Valencia, Venezuela, Cervelli had an Italian immigrant father, Manuel, who encouraged him to play baseball during his youth in Venezuela. What happened next Cervelli could only have dreamt of when starting out in Venezuela. He was eventually scouted by Major League Baseball giants, the New York Yankees.

During Cervelli’s time playing baseball in his homeland, he was a shortstop, second baseman and an occasional pitcher. He had never been utilized as a catcher in his life, but that was the potential the Yankees saw in him. At the tender age of 17, the Yankees were very taken by Cervelli’s athletic build and his hand-eye co-ordination. They gave him the chance of a lifetime to sign for the Yankees as an international free agent on the proviso that he would try his hand at being a catcher.

A life-changing opportunity with the Yankees

Prior to his big move to the Yankees, Cervelli was a switch-hitter, but in his first appearance in the Dominican Summer League in 2003 the Yankees’ hierarchy insisted that he reverted to batting with a natural right-handed swing. The first couple of years of professional baseball were by no means an easy initiation for Cervelli. He struggled to adjust to life in the Dominican Summer League, but he began to show signs of promise in 2006 on the eve of his 20th birthday.

Cervelli appeared for the Staten Island Yankees in the Class A-Short Season New York-Penn League and batted .309, which made a big statement to the Yankees’ management. He was then selected to appear in the Class A-Advanced Florida State League for the Tampa Yankees, batting .279 with an on-base percentage of .387, as well as two home runs to his name. At the end of the 2007 campaign, Cervelli was being touted by Baseball America as the 23rd-best prospect for the Yankees ahead of the 2008 MLB campaign.

2008 was a fragmented season for Cervelli’s development. He sustained a nasty fractured wrist as part of a spring training warm-up against the Tampa Bay Rays. Cervelli ran into Rays’ infielder, Elliot Johnson, on the home plate and the broken wrist would keep Cervelli out for three-to-four months. Despite a lack of game time, the Yankees threw him into the major league in September 2008, as a defensive replacement. Although he went 0-5 during his short stint in the majors, it would give him the confidence he needed to make a bright start to the 2009 season as part of the Trenton Thunder in the Class AA Eastern League.

Cervelli’s breakthrough into the major leagues

Midway through his 2009 season with the minors, Cervelli was eventually recalled to the Yankees squad in May. Cervelli picked up his first senior hit, with a single in a clash with the Baltimore Orioles. He would also excel in the deep, catching the Orioles’ starting pitcher, CC Sabathia, as part of a complete game shut-out. He then struck his first Major League home run against the Atlanta Braves. Over that period, Cervelli quickly cemented his status as a dependable defensive catcher at majors level. His progress was even acknowledged on the international stage, receiving a call-up to represent Italy in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

The 2010 season saw him named as one of the Yankees’ 25-man squad, selected as back-up catcher to Jorge Posada. The following year, Cervelli was also back-up to Russell Martin, but managed the first grand slam of his major league career against Texas. However unfortunate injuries prevented Cervelli from ever nailing down a steady place as a starter for the Yankees, sustaining a broken right hand in 2013. Despite a reasonably solid batting average of .301 in the 2014 season, it was time for Cervelli to move on to pastures new.

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Caption: PNC Park: Cervelli’s new home with the Pittsburgh Pirates

Photo by Joshua Peacock, Public Domain

The Pittsburgh Pirates traded pitcher Justin Wilson in exchange for Cervelli’s services. Midway through the 2016 campaign, Cervelli agreed a new three-year contract extension with the Pirates, reportedly worth $31 million. Although his batting averages let him down somewhat in 2016 and 2017, he was still selected once again by Italy to take part in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Although Italy was eliminated from the event, it did enough to qualify for the 2021 World Baseball Classic and Cervelli will hope to remain active to take part in his potential swansong for international duty.

What does 2019 hold in store for Cervelli and the Pirates?

Domestically, Cervelli and the Pirates have already begun the 2019 MLB season. Few can accurately predict just how well the Pirates will do this term. Most sports betting pundits say the NL Central is one of the toughest divisions to pick a winner for the 2019 MLB season, with the top-three teams priced between +200 and +250. For the Pirates fans, few will have high expectations of making a playoff appearance. It has been some time since the Pirates qualified for the playoffs through winning their division, with their three-year playoff stint between 2013-15 earned through the NL Wild Card Game on two of those occasions.

This season marks the 40-year anniversary of Pittsburgh’s last appearance at the MLB World Series. It’s therefore unsurprising that their fans are feeling somewhat jaded at the prospect of another season right now. The real issue for the Pirates is that they have one of the smallest payrolls in the major leagues. It is said that they have never operated with an annual payroll of more than $100 million.

With that in mind, it won’t surprise you to see that the Pirates are hanging their hat on low-cost, homegrown talent, with a sprinkling of under-the-radar trades thrown in for good measure. Cervelli, now considered a veteran in major league terms, has been utilized in some unconventional roles during the spring. He has been trialled as a first baseman and a designated hitter, with the aim of not exposing him to the wear and tear of catching. Nor does it expose him to foul balls to the mask, which have caused him a spate of concussions in recent seasons. Maybe, just maybe, the Pirates have found a way to best utilize Cervelli.