Many are calling for the Yankees to trade a catcher, with Chad Jennings going as far as saying, "if there’s a team out there that values Cervelli as a potential starter, ... that seems like the obvious way to go." Last off-season, I strongly agreed: they'd just booked Brian McCann for five years; Francisco Cervelli was an able backup; J.R. Murphy and Austin Romine looked like MLB-ready depth; and a top prospect (Gary Sanchez) was hitting AA. Other than at SP, stockpiling redundant depth is a waste, especially at a position of scarcity like C: a player less valuable to his own team than to others is an undervalued asset who should move somewhere more needed; a more catcher-needy team could offer good value, like a 2B last offseason or a SS this one. What a difference a year makes - and not in a good way. I still think trying to trade Murphy or Romine makes sense, but after OPS'ing in the 600s at AAA, they won't fetch much. Meanwhile, Cervelli's stock and rose with the decline of McCann - who may not even be as good as Cervelli any longer.
Bluntly, there's every chance McCann never hits as well as Cervelli again. Ignore the chatter about McCann - or Beltran or Teixeira or [insert 30something Yankee here] - bouncing back from a disappointing 2014; there's every chance McCann's age 31 season is worse, or no better. After several years of 120s-ish OPS+, McCann's last three OPS's have been 87, 118, and 94. What would be more surprising: (1) a catcher at age 31 recovering ability he last showed in his mid-late 20s, or (2) the totally commonplace pattern of a catcher's 30s featuring no seasons as good as his 20s?
Cervelli's league-average hitting is above-average for a C, and his defense grades well, with mildly positive dWARs supplemented by 2014 pitch framing that actually grades better than McCann's. Cervelli isn't the equal of 20s McCann, but easily could exceed the 30s McCann who, unlike 20s McCann, is the one actually wearing pnstripes. Cervelli also is two years younger; given how quickly catchers age, that's a real difference in how the next few years project - and Cervelli's backup status has let his knees enjoy less squatting, so he's a young 28 for a catcher.
Am I really saying Cervelli definitely is better, or should catch more than McCann in 2015? No: McCann's ceiling is higher, even if I'm pessimistic about him reaching it again. I mainly think playing Cervelli more increases the odds we'll see aging McCann recover young McCann's bat. Even if you're a McCann optimist, you can't expect him to catch more than two-thirds of a season; the past four seasons, he's caught 126, 114, 92 and 108 games. In 2014, McCann DH'd 14 games and 1B'd 16; if the goal is to maximize his hitting by preserving his body, he should up that 1B/DH time from 30 games to 40, 50, or more -- depending on how he looks at 1B and how much rest the decaying body of Mark Texeira needs.
I know this post seems like a downer for Yankee fans, but here's the optimistic take that even McCann fans might like: having McCann catch only 90-100 games, plus DH/1B 40-50 more, gives the best possible odds we get 20s McCann's bat back; the team and McCann are lucky Cervelli is good enough to let McCann take off the armor for 1/3 of the season with almost no dropoff in catcher quality. In that light, catcher may be tied with LF and CF as the position Yankee fans can take the most comfort in.