He quickly became a fan favorite in Pittsburgh due to his personality and the emotions he shows on the field. How will the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting backstop fare in 2017?

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli is easily a fan favorite, and it’s easy to see why. With a welcoming smile, a gregarious persona and a clear desire to play hard each time he takes the field, Cervelli is easy to like.

Now entering his third year with the club, we look towards what 2017 might have in store for the 31 year-old backstop.

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 What do the projections say?

Fangraphs lists projections for each player heading into the new season, specifically ZiPS and Steamer. Both projections see Cervelli improving on his one home run in 2016, with ZiPs forecasting three and Steamer with four. This seems overly optimistic given that he hit his single home run in 393 plate appearances and both projections see him hitting more in less at-bats (349 for ZiPS) or a few more (398 for Steamer). He did take Justin Verlander deep on March 2nd, so perhaps these optimistic projections are within reach for Cervelli.

Regarding WAR, the projections have him accumulating 1.6 (ZiPS) and 1.8 (Steamer), which would sandwich his 1.7 mark in 2017. A real interesting aspect of the projections is the number of games he’ll play. Steamer’s projection sits at 100 games while ZiPs is 91, so it seems his injury history has some effect on their outcomes, which makes sense given how often he gets banged up.

At the end of the day, the Pittsburgh Pirates are not expecting Cervelli to somehow turn into a catcher who hits double digit home runs. If he can add three or four in 2017 and improve on his solo shot last year, the team should be happy. He should continue to focus on getting on base and creating run scoring opportunities for his more power inclined teammates.

And that fact opens up a big can of worms.

Where should he bat in the lineup?

Offensively, Cervelli’s limitations ultimately limit where he should be in the everyday Pittsburgh Pirates lineup. He does get on base at a good clip (.361 on base percentage for his career; .370 or more in each of his two Pirates seasons) but there are other players who can do more offensively that serve as better options towards the top of the lineup.

For this reason, Cervelli is probably best suited for somewhere at the bottom of the lineup. He just doesn’t have enough pop in his bat to justify a top of the order spot. One radical idea that the Pirates could consider is something that other teams, notably the Chicago Cubs, have done in the past.

The Pirates could consider batting their pitcher in the eighth spot and put Cervelli in the ninth spot. Once the opposition has gone through the lineup once, it’s easier to imagine it as a cycle instead of a stagnant order. By placing Cervelli in the ninth spot, Clint Hurdle would give the top of the lineup a chance to hit with more men on base since Cervelli’s OPB was .377 last season, matching the career high mark he set with the New York Yankees in 2013.

As forward thinking as this may be, it may be a little too radical for Hurdle to adopt, and there has been nothing we have seen during Spring Training that has us thinking this is even a remote possibility. But it warrants thought.

Did the Pittsburgh Pirates pull the trigger on the extension too early?

Early last season the Pittsburgh Pirates rewarded Cervelli with a three year contract extension that will keep him in black and gold through the 2019 season. This decision came down after his fantastic first year with the club in 2015.

That year he batted .295/.370/.401 and had an ISO of .106 in part thanks to his seven home runs. However in 2016, while his OBP went up seven points, his slugging percentage dropped considerably to .322.

So the question is, did the Pirates pull the trigger on Cervelli’s contract extension? In some sense, extending him was a good idea. The team just lost Russell Martin to free agency and catcher was not a deep position in the organization (it would get even more shallow once Reese McGuire was sent to Toronto in the Francisco Liriano deal).

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Cervelli’s deal breaks down to $9 million this year followed by $10.5 million and $11.5 million in the last two seasons. While these salaries are modest at first glance, Cervelli is a catcher on the wrong side of 30 who has an injury history that is fairly extensive. Despite being a consistent on-base threat, he has never posted an OPS of .800 or more in a full season, and his 2017 slugging percentage of .322 was just not good.

But at the end of the day, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a good catcher locked up for the next three years. He may not hit 20 home runs, but his skillset is diverse enough to serve as a major offensive cog.

Defensive Overview

Now, there are aspects of Cervelli’s game that are harder to quantify, particularly the ability to frame pitches.

Pitch-framing stats are still a work in progress, but the two leaders in this realm – Statcorner and Baseball Prospectus – have him at 9.9 and 8.7 runs saved from framing in 2017, respectively. These numbers seem great at first glance, but they are down from 26.7 and 19.9, respectively, from those same sources. Some of this was due to missing time due to the Hamate Bone injury in 2016, and Cervelli still ranks high among catchers in this area. But you have to wonder if this represents a trend, and it is something to watch in 2017.

Cervelli is praised for the way that he handles a pitching staff as well. But there are not numbers associated with these abilities, so besides having a narrative that he is good at it, it’s difficult to prove. It just seems that since Cervelli is almost exclusively an on-base type hitter, the amount of money he is getting paid is a little high. The fact that he gets injured so often also raises some concerns.

Throwing out base runners is a basic ask of any catcher, but Cervelli has struggled in that realm over the past few years. In 2015, he threw runners out at a 22 percent clip; in 2016 that figure fell to 19 percent. Both were under the league average of 27 percent. Some of Cervelli’s struggles to throw out runners is out of his control, but he has never been very adept in this regard, throwing just 21 percent of runners out for his career.

The Pittsburgh Pirates will live with that, provided his pitch framing and offensive output hold up.

How will the WBC affect his season?

Cervelli, along with other notable Pittsburgh Pirates stars, will be participating in this year’s edition of the World Baseball Classic and will represent the Italian side of his heritage in the tournament for the second time.

While the WBC in theory is a great idea to make the game more global and get fans and players alike excited for their country, the fact that it happens during spring training is not ideal. It’s particularly not ideal for a catcher who is as injury prone as Cervelli is, so his inclusion on the Italian team is somewhat concerning.

Cervelli has only played in more than 100 games twice in a season, both since he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played in 130 game in his first year with Pittsburgh in 2015 and followed it up with 101 last year. It will not be surprising if his participation in the WBC has some effects on him during the regular season. He may see more days off than he normally would since his is being taxed with playing in competitive games almost a month earlier than usual.

We asked you on our twitter feed how many games you think Cervelli will catch in 2017. Here’s the results thus far:

For the Pittsburgh Pirates to be successful in 2017, they will need a good season from Francisco Cervelli. He won’t have to hit 15-plus home runs; he won’t have to drive in 75 runs; but he will have to be a steady presence behind home plate and in the bottom third of the order.

Ethan Obstarczyk

Ethan is a lifelong Pirates fan who resides in the east end of Pittsburgh. When not talking about, writing about or watching baseball, he also enjoys watching football and hockey along with movies and listening to some of his favorite bands. He can also be found on Instagram (ethanobstarczyk) and Untappd (Ethan_O).