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Kevin Gorman: Pirates’ Francisco Cervelli coming off season worth repeating | TribLIVE.com
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Kevin Gorman: Pirates’ Francisco Cervelli coming off season worth repeating

Kevin Gorman
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli celebrates his two-run homer during the third inning against the Cubs on Tuesday, July 31, 2018, at PNC Park.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Francisco Cervelli’s eyes lit up in response to a tongue-in-cheek question Tuesday asking the Pittsburgh Pirates catcher about being an established home-run hitter.

“Wow! I love that question,” Cervelli said, breaking into a big smile. “Can you say it again, please?”

Cervelli, fresh off a career-best 12-homer season in 2018, reveled in the moment. He spoke in Spanish to teammate Gregory Polanco, telling him to listen as the question was repeated to laughter around his locker at Pirate City.

“That made me feel sexy right now,” Cervelli said, playfully rubbing his shoulders. “No, I always work to hit the ball harder and get a lot of extra bases. Last year was the first time that I felt something different. I think I’ve got to keep doing the same thing.

“I feel I’m a better player than years before, and there’s nothing wrong with being a home-run hitter. Everybody’s talking about the launch angle. I’m not doing launch angle. I don’t know. I changed my stance, do a leg-kick, and it’s helping. I hope I can hit double digits again, with a two in the front.”

Cervelli knows hitting 20 home runs is a reach, considering he never hit more than seven in a season before last year. But he has defied the odds before, including his return to the Pirates this spring after an offseason in which his name was involved in trade rumors.

Cervelli was not surprised to hear his name connected to such rumblings, especially after starting pitcher Ivan Nova was dealt to the Chicago White Sox in December. But Cervelli, an 11-year veteran, made it clear he wants to remain with the Pirates.

“The way baseball is now, nothing surprises me,” Cervelli said. “I’m here now. I’ve got this uniform. I’m going to make sure to represent them well. If they decide to do something different, I’ll be thankful but I hope they’re not. This is a place that I want to be. The noise outside, you need to just shut it down because it’s not good.”

The Pirates could have a tough time justifying Cervelli being their highest-paid player at $11.5 million this season — the final year of a three-year, $31 million contract — because of his injury history and a concern over the number of concussions he has endured.

“The prevention, probably you’ve got to build a wall in front of home plate, a concrete wall,” Cervelli said. “To not get hit is something you cannot take away. But I really work on a lot of stuff with my eyes to get back on track and tell my brain, ‘This is what we have to do.’ ”

Cervelli expressed no concerns about recurring concussions.

“Before the season was done, my head was good,” Cervelli added, “so there was nothing to worry about.”

The Pirates might disagree. Cervelli never has played in more than 130 games in a season, but he has played in at least 100 games in three of four seasons with the Pirates, including 104 last year.

Yet Cervelli and backup Elias Diaz were the most productive catching duo in baseball last season, according to FanGraphs.com, with a combined 5.3 WAR. Cervelli’s experience behind the plate is invaluable to a team whose strength is the starting rotation and back end of the bullpen, so there’s a risk in disrupting the trust he has established with the pitching staff through his calling of the game as a catcher.

“I knew he was not going to get traded,” Pirates All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez said. “At first, when I saw it, I was like, ‘We don’t need that.’ We just need to keep ‘Cervy’ for one more year and then if you want to talk about an extension, you can do it. Just putting his name in (a trade) would make everyone feel uncomfortable.”

Which is why the Pirates appear poised to keep Cervelli at catcher, where he started 93 games last season. He started four games and played in five at first base last season but repeated his preference is to play behind the plate.

“I’m a catcher,” Cervelli said. “I’ll play first if they need it, but I’m a catcher. This is what I love, to catch more than hit. But in the end, Clint is the boss. If he wants me to work at first and third, I’ll do it. It’s not a problem. If it’s for the team, it’s good. But I’m a catcher.”

One who finds it sexy to be called an established home-run hitter, and one who is ready to answer questions about a season worth repeating for the Pirates.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.