Pirates cut ties with catcher Francisco Cervelli
The news reached the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse several hours before Felipe Vazquez was asked about Thursday’s release of his friend, catcher Francisco Cervelli.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s going to be tough for everyone.”
The Pirates had been playing without Cervelli since he went on the concussion injured list May 26, and it was common knowledge he would not be re-signed after his contract expired at the end of this season.
Still, Vazquez, the Pirates’ closer and the most successful pitcher on the staff, said pitching without Cervelli as his backstop will be an adjustment.
“He knew everything about me,” he said. “The pitches I wanted to throw in any count. It’s not going to be easy to find another guy who’s willing to be on the same page as you. I think I have to communicate a little more with (Elias) Diaz and (Jacob) Stallings just to get on that same page.”
Vazquez said he will speak to Cervelli at some time — he still had not returned to gather belongings from his locker — but he wasn’t sure what he would say.
“He knows everybody here loves him,” Vazquez said, “and I think that’s more than enough.”
The Pirates cut ties with Cervelli, who caught 427 games for the team over most of the past five seasons. His release leaves Starling Marte and Francisco Liriano as the only players in the clubhouse who were with the Pirates’ most recent playoff team (2015).
Officially, the Pirates requested unconditional release waivers for the purpose of giving Cervelli, 33, his unconditional release. The move ends the Pirates career of one of the team’s most popular players — inside and outside the clubhouse — but it had a sense of inevitability to it.
Cervelli has been plagued by head injuries throughout his career, suffering at least six concussions during his 12 seasons in the majors. The day before he went on the injured list, he played his last game for the Pirates, leaving after getting hit in the mask with a bat that slipped from the grasp of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Joc Pederson. At the time, Cervelli, who entered this season with a lifetime slash line of .273/.362/.383, was slashing .193/.279/.248.
He has played six games this month on rehabilitation assignments with Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, getting eight hits in 19 at-bats. Despite the inherent dangers of kneeling behind the plate, Cervelli repeatedly vowed to return to the game as a catcher.
“For me ,I want to see him catch tomorrow,” Vazquez said. “It’s not easy getting back there and getting hit every day. He doesn’t know what else to do besides catching. Hopefully, we’ll see him again catching.”
Because of Cervelli’s contractual situation, the Pirates did not believe there would be much opportunity for him to play over the final 36 games. The Pirates said they released him when they did to give him a chance to connect with another team before rosters are locked Sept. 1.
“As Francisco has worked through his rehabilitation, we have had multiple conversations with him and his agent regarding his projected playing time for the remainder of this season with the Pirates,” general manager Neal Huntington said in a statement. “Out of respect and appreciation for Francisco, we have chosen to honor his request to be released in order for him to pursue an opportunity that potentially gives him a chance at more playing time, as well as an opportunity this season to compete in the postseason.”
Cervelli carried the highest annual salary on the team this season ($11.5 million), but cutting him will have minimal effect on the Pirates’ payroll. They will pay what’s left of Cervelli’s contract. Any savings that would occur if he signs with another team for the major league minimum (about $3,000 per day) will be offset when the Pirates add his replacement to the payroll.
The Pirates traded for Cervelli on Nov. 12, 2014, sending relief pitcher Justin Wilson to the New York Yankees. He was the last of three former Yankees catchers who came through Pittsburgh, following Russell Martin and Chris Stewart.
Cervelli played in a career-high 130 games in 2015, 128 behind the plate, while helping the Pirates win 98 games and reach the postseason. He hit a career-best .295 with seven home runs and 43 RBIs that season. His best homer/RBI season was 2018 (12/57) when he caught 94 games.
The Pirates have replaced Cervelli this season with the tandem of Diaz and Stallings. They have been sharing the catching duties almost equally in recent weeks. Diaz is hitting .247 and Stallings .267. They have a combined five home runs and 32 RBIs.
Cervelli’s release, the trade last year of Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Burnett’s retirement and Jameson Taillon’s arm problems have left a wide leadership void in the Pirates’ clubhouse that management must find a way replace.
“He had the leadership on the field to a greater degree than he ever did before,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He created a very positive wake. He played with emotion, played with a fire and continued to carry that through up until his last game here.”
Hurdle said he attempted to contact Cervelli on Thursday but ended up texting him.
“I have every inclination I may see him again,” Hurdle said. “He’s in a good place. He’s looking forward to what’s next.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .