With one swift statement, the Pirates stopped employing their most expensive player.
And with similar swiftness, Francisco Cervelli could be property of the Braves.
Neal Huntington announced, in a team-issued statement at 2:11 p.m. Thursday, that the Pirates had "requested unconditional release waivers for the purpose of giving catcher Francisco Cervelli his unconditional release." And less than an hour later, Cervelli was being connected to Atlanta, which has a catching need. But the latter process can't be completed for 48 hours because of a mandated waiting period for waivers, meaning another team could claim him if only to mess with the first-place Braves.
This was the initial statement:
The Pirates today have requested unconditional release waivers for the purpose of giving catcher Francisco Cervelli his unconditional release.
— Pirates (@Pirates) August 22, 2019
And this was what Huntington added in a team email: “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. 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. We appreciate who Francisco is and all he has done for the Pirates and the city of Pittsburgh. We believe this was the right move for the right reasons and wish Francisco well.”
Loose translation: The team wasn't about to let Cervelli take playing time behind the plate from Jacob Stallings or Elias Diaz, and Cervelli wasn't about to hang on the perimeter while awaiting free agency. So Cervelli pressed for a move, and Huntington obliged.
Cervelli, 33, is being paid $11.5 million in the final year of his contract, which had been the highest on the Pirates. (That's now the $10 million salary of Starling Marte.) He'll be a free agent this winter. Because of that and his concussion history, it had been immensely unlikely he'd return to Pittsburgh for 2020, as all concerned had tacitly acknowledged.
It's been a wild, weird and sad summer for Cervelli, beginning with the May 25 injury that brought the sixth known concussion of his career in Major League Baseball, though he's told me there'd been several more during and beforehand, as many as double.
After an extended period of rest, then resuming light baseball activity, he told me on the morning of July 7 he was done with catching, saying, "That’s enough. This time is different. I can’t live like this.” He texted me a note later that day, upon reading the article, and took no issue with it other than stating he'd wished I'd waited until his next doctor's appointment to run it. Six days later, though, he told reporters in Chicago that there'd been "a misunderstanding" in our conversation and that he very much hoped to catch again. And three days after that, in St. Louis, he and I hashed out all that had occurred and agreed -- very much amicably -- to label our initial discussion "a misunderstanding."
I watched him working out that day in St. Louis and he did so with familiar passion, as well as a long-unseen smile.
"I'm gonna be back," he told me. "You'll see."
He was. The team sent him out on what was anticipated to be a 20-day rehab stint, first to Class AA Altoona, then to Class AAA Indianapolis a day after that. He was catching without incident -- though there's been one report he was lifted Tuesday night after a foul tip -- and hitting extremely well: In six combined games and 18 at-bats, he slashed .421/.542/.684. On Wednesday, Todd Tomczyk, the Pirates' director of sports medicine, told reporters at PNC Park, "No issues with Francisco,” after which he caught seven innings in Game 1 of a doubleheader and homered.
The Pirates couldn't have made a trade in this instance. The old waiver deadline of Aug. 31 was eliminated after last season, and now only the July 31 deadline applies.
Also, the Pirates will barely save a relative penny in the transaction. Cervelli's remaining salary is roughly $2.4 million, but the claiming team is required to pay only the prorated portion of the major-league minimum salary, which this year is $550,000, so the savings would be roughly $110,000.
The Braves need him more than anyone: Brian McCann, their starting catcher, was placed on the 10-day injury list Wednesday with a sprained left knee. Tyler Flowers, McCann's backup, is slashing .222/.299/.412 with 13 passed balls, most in the majors. Alex Jackson was promoted Thursday from Class AAA Gwinnett.
"He's in a good place," Clint Hurdle said, referring to a text conversation he had with Cervelli Wednesday. "He's looking forward to what's next."
The news came as a surprise to the man who has punched his chest in celebration more than anyone, Felipe Vazquez.
"I think I still can't believe it," Felipe Vazquez said. "Right now, just thinking about the kind of guy he is, or the kind of guy he was, when he was here. So I think it's going to be tough for everyone just to see him leave."
"I think he knew everything about me," Vazquez said shortly after. "The pitches that I wanted to throw in any count ... It's not going to be easy to find another guy as willing to be on the same page as you."
It's that connection, with both his teammates and the fans, that Hurdle thinks people will remember about Cervelli's time in Pittsburgh.
"I think our fan base also was attracted to him," Hurdle said. "Just the energy. He created a very positive wake. Played with emotion, played with a fire, and continued to carry that through, up until his last game here."
"We're thankful and grateful for the connection, for the time here," Hurdle added. "Like many of the men that we've had here and had really good relationships with, we wish him nothing but the best moving forward."
Alex Stumpf contributed to this report.
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