The weakest free agent class in recent memory just got weaker again, as Francisco Cervelli has now joined Stephen Strasburg in taking a mid-season extension rather than testing the open market this winter.
Sources: Francisco Cervelli has signed a three-year contract extension with the Pirates. Total money is $31 million.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 17, 2016
As Passan notes in another tweet, Cervelli’s rise to a $31 million guaranteed contract has been pretty remarkable, given that he was suspended as part of the BioGenesis scandal in 2013, then spent most of 2014 on the disabled list. When the Pirates picked Cervelli up as Russell Martin’s low-cost replacement, he was a 29 year old without any real big league track record of success and a tainted reputation.
18 months later, Cervelli has established himself as one of the better catchers in baseball. Since the start of the 2015 season, he ranks behind only Buster Posey in catcher’s WAR, which actually undersells his value, considering that Cervelli also rates as one of the game’s best pitch framers. For last year, StatCorner graded him out as 27 runs better than average; Baseball Prospectus had him at +19.
Cervelli is an elite defender who also hits pretty decently, making him a very valuable contributor to a contending club. Selling $31 million for three free agent years is certainly light for what he brings to the field; this is the same price Denard Span got last winter, coming off an injury-shortened season, and only a little more than Gerardo Parra got. Cervelli is clearly more valuable than those two, so relative to his true value, this is a steal for the Pirates.
But there is some logic in Cervelli taking the deal now as well. The Pirates almost certainly would have made him a qualifying offer this winter — if that still exists, anyway — and that could have potentially limited his market if he was tied to draft pick compensation. He’s also a 30 year old catcher who has a long history of health problems, and given that teams are shying away from paying big money to aging players, Cervelli probably wasn’t going to cash in on a monster contract this winter, especially because a lot of his value comes from pitch framing, which the market has shown no willingness to pay for.
If he got to free agency and rejected the qualifying offer, maybe he could get four years and $50 million, arguing that he’s similar enough in overall value to Ben Zobrist that he should get near that deal despite the fact that 30+ catchers age very poorly. But there’s risk in that plan, as Cervelli could easily get hurt or see his production tumble over the rest of the season; he’s not exactly a sure thing, and it is worth noting his offensive production is BABIP-heavy.
So Cervelli probably left some money on the table with this deal, but he also sold some real risk that he was carrying, gets a solid guarantee from a contending club that he’s comfortable with, and doesn’t have to worry about where he’s going to spend the rest of his productive days. This isn’t a max-out-the-dollars contract, and the Pirates should be thrilled with the production they’ll get for the price, but there are enough reasons to see why he did this that it seems like a nice deal for both sides.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.