BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) _ A year ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates knew as little about catcher Francisco Cervelli as he knew about them.
The Pirates traded for Cervelli in November 2014 as insurance shortly before Russell Martin left to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays. Cervelli had long been a promising player with the New York Yankees, but his path toward playing time often was blocked by veterans and injuries.
Could Cervelli stay healthy for a full season with the Pirates? And if he did, the coaches and front office wondered, how productive would he be?
Cervelli had the same questions last spring when he first walked into the clubhouse filled with unfamiliar faces. He knew the everyday job was his to lose and wanted to establish himself quickly.
“Last year was a big challenge for me,” Cervelli said. “I didn’t want to prove anything to anybody. I just tried to prove to myself that I can do it. I wanted to let myself know that I’m able to do something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time.”
Cervelli wound up catching in 128 games, two dozen more than he’d caught over the previous four seasons combined. He batted .295 – the fourth-best average among big league catchers — with seven home runs and 43 RBIs.
In seven years with the Yankees, Cervelli was sent to the disabled list by a broken wrist, a broken foot, a concussion, a broken hand and strained hamstring. He absorbed plenty of blows from foul tips last year, but never missed significant time.
“I took a month off (in the offseason) and after that, I was still in pain,” Cervelli said with a laugh. “I don’t complain when I get hit. It’s part of the catcher’s job. I’ve been getting hit for a long time. Now, I get hit more because I’m catching more. If I’m able to stand up and keep playing, I’m happy.”
Among NL catchers, Cervelli ranked third with a .994 fielding percentage and fifth with a 22.3 caught-stealing percentage. He excelled at the intangibles, too.
“He has the ability to plug into each pitcher and make that pitcher feel like the most important cat in the ballpark,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He picked up on our pitchers’ strengths and areas of improvement early on.”
Through film study and lots of one-on-one interaction, Cervelli became familiar with the entire pitching staff, including many of the minor leaguers.
“He showed growth all over the place,” Hurdle said. “Just a very, very good year for a guy who put in a lot of hard work and took advantage of the first opportunity for a good volume of playing time.”
A bigger opportunity might be ahead for Cervelli, who’s making $3.5 million and will be a free agent after this season. If he repeats his performance from last year, Cervelli likely will be the top catcher on the market.
The budget-minded Pirates signed 34-year-old backup Chris Stewart to a two-year deal as insurance if Cervelli bolts after the season. Cervelli said that, although he’d like to remain in Pittsburgh, there are no current talks between his agent and the Pirates about an extension.
“We haven’t talked to anybody about anything,” Cervelli said. “Right now, I’m concentrating on my work.”
Notes: Kyle Lobstein will pitch the first two innings on Tuesday in the Grapefruit League opener against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. Wilfredo Boscon (two innings), Neftali Feliz, Curtis Partch, Rob Scahill and Trey Haley (one apiece) also are scheduled to pitch. . Wednesday, Jeff Locke will start against the Tigers at McKechnie Field. Locke and Juan Nicasio each will toss two innings. Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, Ryan O’Flaherty and Jorge Rondon will work one inning each. . Hurdle asked University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to speak to the Pirates before Wednesday’s game. The Tigers asked Harbaugh to serve as first base coach for an inning. Michigan is holding part of its spring camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton.