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One Yankees player who inspires some strong emotions among members of the fanbase is Francisco Cervelli. He started 2010 very hot, with a .387 wOBA in April fooling some into believing that he was an everyday player. With Jorge Posada’s defense continuing to deteriorate, a rapidly growing portion of the fanbase called for Cervelli to steal the starter’s job from Jorge. However, Frankie regressed terribly at the plate from June through August, and was not much better in the field. The bloom was off the rose, to the point where many called for him to be sent down to the minors.
This offseason, Cervelli was nearly traded for Russell Martin, and the Yankees have made it fairly clear that they do not trust Frankie in anything more than a backup capacity. Some Yankees fans have gone so far to say that he “sucks” and want him off the roster. However, a look at his numbers, and more importantly, the competition at backup catcher, shows that he is a solid backup and is a perfectly reasonable player to keep on the roster while he is cheap.
Cervelli finished 27th (min. 120 PA’s) among all catchers in wRC+ last season (94), and was 28th in WAR (min. 60 PA’s). Now, that does not mean he was the 28th best catcher, as WAR is a cumulative stat and his unfortunate amount of playing time helped him build value relative to some backup types who may be better than him. But wRC+ is a normalized rate statistic, and it suggests that Frankie was right on the fringe of starting quality as a hitter. MLB catchers as a group hit an atrocious .249/.319/.381, while Frankie turned in a .271/.359/.335. A lot of that line can be attributed to a high BABIP in April, May, and September (where he OPS’ed at least .768 in each month), but his struggles in the middle months (.548 OPS or below) saw some fairly hard luck as well. To put his season in perspective, since 2004 only one Yankees backup has had a better OPS+ than Cervelli (88) did this year (Jose Molina in ’07, and that was in 71 PA’s). Overall, it seems clear that if you were to make an evaluation based on 2010, Cervelli would be ahead of most backup catchers in terms of offense.
As for defense, Cervelli had a tough season, and most metrics have him near the bottom of the league defensively. However, it is important to note that he caught the incredibly wild AJ Burnett practically exclusively, which likely hurt him in terms of blocking pitches and throwing out potential base-stealers. Some, like our own Steve S., have contended that Frankie is actually a much better defensive player than we saw in 2010, but I do not think it is fair to make that assumption at this point without more evidence. The best we can do is mix some scouting into our evaluation and conclude that Cervelli is likely a bit better defensively and a bit worse offensively than he was in 2010, which would likely make him one of the 5 or 10 best backups in the sport.
Some would say that while it is fair to say that Frankie is better than most backups, the issue is that he was the starter in 2010. While this is absolutely true, it misses the point on how the Yankees should view him going forward. He is a poor starter, but the club has already made that determination and now must evaluate his ability in the right context, as a possible backup. When planning for 2011, the club needs to look at how his 2010 would position him among others who might fill the backup role. In a league where guys like Wil Nieves, Chris Widger, and Sal Fasano types are continually recycled due to a dearth of major league catching talent, Cervelli grades out as a bad player but an above average backup catcher.
Of course, it is fairly likely that this is all moot by midseason, assuming Russell Martin and Jesus Montero play well enough in Spring Training and early in the season to push Cervelli out of the catching rotation. If Montero looks ready in ST, it might make sense for the Yankees to trade Cervelli before his value dips due to being sent down. He could actually start for a few clubs, as there is a severe dropoff in talent after the first 20 catchers or so. However, if the Yankees decide to keep him, Cervelli should serve as a perfectly adequate backup catcher.