Pittsburgh Pirates' Francisco Cervelli (29) hits a RBI sacrifice fly off Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Dan Straily to drive in Andrew McCutchen in the sixth inning of a baseball game, Monday, May 9, 2016, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo
May 17, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) Francisco Cervelli arrived in Pittsburgh as a backup plan in fall 2014, the ''just in case'' should Russell Martin bolt in free agency.

Barely 18 months later, Martin is long gone and the livewire catcher who replaced him is an integral part of the Pirates' future after signing a contract through the rest of the decade.

The $31 million, three-year announced Tuesday, runs from 2017-19 and serves as validation that the injuries and inconsistent play that dogged Cervelli early in his career are behind him.

''With all of his work, all of his perseverance, all his preparation, he stepped into big shoes and more than filled them,'' Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington said.

Pittsburgh acquired Cervelli from the New York Yankees on Nov. 12, 2014, while Martin weighed his options following two seasons with the Pirates. Martin signed an $82 million, five-year deal with Toronto a week later, and Cervelli found himself tasked with replacing one of the best all-around catchers in the game.

''It was a challenge for me,'' Cervelli said. ''Two options: try to play a little more than what I can do or just be me.''

Given a chance to start regularly for the first time, Cervelli hit .295 with seven homers and 43 RBIs while appearing in 130 games. Heady territory for a player who was told back in 2005 he should consider getting into coaching rather than try to pursue a job working behind the plate. Looking back, Cervelli can't help but laugh at the memory.

''I don't want to be a coach, I want to be a player,'' Cervelli said before pointing to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. ''I got my coach there. I think I'd get thrown out every day if I were a coach.''

On that point, Cervelli may be right. In a laidback clubhouse, the Venezuelan is a firebrand. His walkup song is ''That's Amore'' sung by Dean Martin, a tune that instantly made Martin a hit at PNC Park and fits in lockstep with the way Cervelli goes about his business.

''He's one of our culture drivers,'' Huntington said.

One who quickly developed a rapport with Pittsburgh's staff thanks in part to his attention to detail and ability to turn borderline calls into strikes by expertly framing pitches. Still, his status beyond 2016 was uncertain; he had a $3.5 million, one-year deal and would have been eligible for free agency after the World Series.

Pittsburgh signed No. 2 catcher Chris Stewart to a new deal in the offseason and has Elias Diaz in the minor league system. Huntington admits he wasn't optimistic the Pirates would find common ground with Cervelli, which is why negotiations went on privately.

''If it hadn't come to a positive ending, we didn't want it to be a distraction for Francisco, didn't want it to be a distraction for us,'' Huntington said.

Yet the Pirates have become aggressive in locking up core players for the long term. Cervelli joins outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco and second baseman Josh Harrison as players signed through at least 2019, with centerfielder Andrew McCutchen under team control through 2018.

Now Pittsburgh can try to find the pieces to fit around them as it tries to keep pace with NL Central rivals Chicago and St. Louis.

Not that it mattered much to Cervelli on Tuesday. After seven erratic years in New York, he's found a home in Pittsburgh. He always envisioned the day he would sign a big contract, hold up a jersey and pose for pictures. There was no jersey available as he sat next to Huntington because it was already hanging in his locker. One that he plans on keeping for awhile.

''The most important thing is what we have in the clubhouse: coaches, teammates. It's just special,'' Cervelli said. ''You come to work to a place where you're happy every day. I think that's where you should be.''

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