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Know Your 40: Francisco Cervelli

The former backup from 2009-11 is determined to regain his reputation and be the Opening Day starter. Can he do it?

Text diagram of above face: >:-/
Text diagram of above face: >:-/
Jared Wickerham

Name: Francisco Cervelli
Position: Catcher
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 27 (born 3/6/1986)
Height: 6’1" Weight: 205 lbs.
Remaining Contract: Under pre-arbitration team control, free agent through end of 2016
2012 statistics: (AAA): 99 games, .246/.341/.316, 15 2B, 2 HR, .309 wOBA, 89 wRC+
(MLB): 3 games, 0-1, BB, R

There has probably never been a backup catcher as polarizing as Francisco Cervelli in the history of the New York Yankees, nor has there been one whose career has been as baffling. Think about it. His fans think he has great potential and a knack for the clutch, while his detractors look at his overall body of work simply don’t see a major-league caliber starter at all. There have been catcher debates before, but the two sides have always previously conceded something about the pros of the backstop on the other side. Well, aside from debates about Elston Howard, but those don’t count because most of his detractors were racist hacks. America.

Cervelli was never supposed to be a hot prospect or anything more than a complementary addition to the system, but thanks to some lucky timing and a strong defensive reputation, he has exceeded expectations. His decline in performance over the past couple years lost him some of the cult following he once had, especially on this SBN site, but even now he still has a dedicated legion of supporters who think the Yankees made a grave mistake by never making him the starting catcher after Jorge Posada left the position vacant in 2011.

One of the longest-tenured current players in the organization, the Yankees and the Venezuelan native Cervelli agreed to terms on March 1, 2003 when he was about to turn 17. Before then, the infielder/pitcher had never caught before, but the Yankees liked what they saw in Cervelli and were willing to take a chance on him if he switched his focus to catching. He agreed and spent the next three summers learning the position and working on his game in the Dominican Summer League and the Rookie Ball Gulf Coast League.

While Cervelli’s defense improved rather quickly, his bat was stagnant until he reached short-season Staten Island in ’06. It was a breakout year for Cervelli, who hit .309/.397/.426 with a .393 wOBA and 153 wRC+ in 42 games, terrific for a catcher. Baseball America liked Cervelli so much that writer John Manuel said despite his seemingly-average 24% caught-stealing rate, he was the best defensive catcher in the system and projected Cervelli to start in the 2010 lineup a few years down the road. Cervelli held the title of "best defensive catcher" in the Yankees system all three years he was mentioned in Baseball America from 2007-09, even as highly-touted defensive specialist Austin Romine's stock rose as well.

Cervelli earned a promotion to High-A Tampa in ’07, as his growing reputation on defense put him on a fast track to the pros. He hit .278/.384/.396 with 24 doubles and a 124 wRC+ in 88 games, throwing out an impressive 41% of baserunners trying to take an extra base on him. The Yankees thought highly enough of him to invite him to Spring Training in ’08, new skipped Joe Girardi’s first year at the helm. Cervelli was involved in a controversy with the soon-to-be-surprising Tampa Bay Rays when infielder Elliot Johnson bowled him over at home plate two days after his 22nd birthday, breaking his wrist and putting him on the shelf for three months following wrist surgery. Since it was Spring Training and players had only just arrived, it was pretty ridiculous that some were already trying to "Fosse" catchers in games that counted for jacksquat, but alas.

When Cervelli finally made his way back to Double-A Trenton, where the Yankees intended him to start the season, he looked good in a small sample of 21 games. He threw out three of the eight baserunners attempting steals and hit .315/.432/.384, earning him a call-up past Triple-A to the majors at season’s end for his major-league debut in three games as the third-string catcher. Cervelli returned to Trenton to begin ’09, but a series of injuries to top-tier catchers Jorge Posada (right hamstring strain) and Jose Molina (strained left quad) suddenly made Cervelli the major-league starter in May. The Yankees felt confident enough in his defensive abilities that he was the first man they called up, bypassing Triple-A catchers Kevin Cash and Chris Stewart (interesting.) Thus, Yankees fans were introduced to the fist-pumping Venezuelan, and he won spectators over with a nice month in May in which he hit .286/.302/.310. Not bad for a guy who had been struggling to hit Double-A pitching in April.

When Posada returned in June, Cervelli was his backup while Molina continued to recover. On June 24th with the team struggling and GM Brian Cashman making a surprise visit to Atlanta for a game against the Braves, Cervelli helped spark the offense. Immediately after Joe Girardi was ejected for arguing a questionable pickoff call at first base with the Yankees down 1-0 in the sixth, Cervelli hit his first major-league home run off Kris Medlen to tie it up for the Yankees’ first hit of the day. They went on to win, and then played .700 ball for the rest of the season on their way to the American League East title. Many called Cervelli’s surprising blast the turning point of the season, even though he departed the big club for Triple-A when Molina returned after the All-Star Break. Cervelli ended his rookie season back in the Bronx in September, and even found a spot on the playoff roster as the Yankees won their 27th World Series championship. Although his overall offensive numbers were not exemplary (.298/.309/.372, 74 wRC+), he threw out 43% of baserunners to certify his defensive reputation.

Cervelli’s accomplishments in ’09 helped pave the way for him to become Posada’s backup in 2010 with Molina set to hit the free-agent market. That is exactly what happened, even after suffering a pair of concussions fewer than four months apart in Winter Ball and Spring Training ’09. Both age and recurring injuries to Posada actually made Cervelli start more games for the Yankees at catcher in 2010 than anyone else, a career-high 93 in the pros. Unfortunately, he spent both that year and the next regressing defensively, as he threw out only 14% of baserunners, a huge step backward. Even worse was the fact that he committed 19 errors in 131 games between ’10 and ’11, and many of these miscues came on errant throws to center field on stolen-base attempts. Not even pitch-framing statistics rated him very highly, which was disappointing given his reputation. His offensive numbers were perfectly fine for a major-league catcher at .269/.348/.354 with a 94 wRC+ over two seasons, but the Yankees were not pleased that he suffered such a defensive collapse. Cervelli improved his career RISP numbers to .315/.376/.376 in 114 games, but it was not enough to offset his defensive woes. If they wanted a major-league backup who was not good on defense but contributed more with the bat, they would have simply turned to Triple-Astarter Jesus Montero. Cervelli missed the end of the season and the playoffs after suffering his third concussion, which is far from a good sign for his future health. His "Great Gazoo" helmet for hitting is certainly a necessity.

When Spring Training 2012 rolled around, it was assumed that Cervelli would again back up Russell Martin as he had the previous season. However, when projected Triple-A starter Romine went down with a back injury and the San Francisco Giants made the former Yankee Stewart available, Cervelli’s fate was in trouble. Stewart had impressed many people around baseball with his defense for years, and it was magnified furthermore in ’11 when he started for the Giants with stalwart Buster Posey on the shelf. The Yankees decided to trade reliever George Kontos for him and subsequently send Cervelli down to Triple-A because he had options, and because Stewart was a significant improvement as a backup. While I questioned the trade at the time, it certainly makes sense in hindsight. Kontos was just another expendable reliever, and Cervelli was not really getting the job done as the backup.

Devastated by the demotion, Cervelli pouted in Triple-A and struggled to the poor stat line at the top of the page. It was not easy to go from the major leagues to a Triple-A team that did not even have a home park, but Cervelli should have handled it better. His minor-league numbers in 99 games were nothing to write home about, but he did manage to get his caught-stealing rate back up to 30%. At the very end of the season after September call-ups, Cervelli played a small role in the Yankees’ division title despite his limited use, drawing a 12th-inning, two-out walk against Andrew Miller and coming around to score the game-winning run in Game 161. The Yankees clinched a tie for the division title and won it outright the next night.

In an attempt to make a statement to the Yankees, Cervelli played Winter Ball in the Venezuelan Winter League this year, and he was hitting .305 with a pair of homers there as of January 12th. He suffered some whiplash on a foul ball off the helmet, but a recent MRI said he was fine. Quotes like the following show that he is very aware of the current absence of a clear Opening Day starter behind home plate, and that he is determined to be the one to take the job:

"I was happy for Russell because it was a good deal for him, but for myself, I’m not going to make any conclusions. I know I have a lot of work to do, and I am going to remain very focused on that work. The way I’m thinking, I’ve changed a little bit because of what happened last year. But I’m very positive and looking forward to being the starting catcher, but I don’t think too much about it. I keep my expectations low because a lot of things can happen. But I really want it and this is my dream. It’s always been my dream."

"I made a change this year and decided to play winter ball. I played really good baseball, I hit well, I caught well, and I was working on all the little things that can make me better. I never stopped working hard. This is my passion and I’m going to do everything I can to be the starter for the Yankees."

That’s a great attitude to have about the situation—he is hungry for the job. In the linked article, he also says he is unsure whether he will play in the World Baseball Classic for Italy as he did in ’09 because he simply wants them to "see he’s ready to play." Good. Let him prove his worth and demonstrate that he really learned something from his disappointing 2012 season.

UPDATE: Well, sod on that. Cervelli is playing for Italy in the WBC. Seems kind of questionable if he wants to make a direct impression fresh from his 2012, but whatever.

There is plenty of time for the Yankees to make a move for a better candidate to be their starting catcher in 2013, but rest assured they will certainly get Cervelli’s best effort. Whether that will be enough from a guy who is mediocre at the plate and has disappointed on defense over the past few seasons remains to be seen. As he's said, "That's Cervelli."