FRANCISCO CERVELLI, CATCHER
|Born: March 6, 1986
Signed: Int’l free agent, 2003 (Yankees)
How Acquired: Trade from Yankees (for Justin Wilson)
Agent: Wasserman Media Group
WTM’s PLAYER PROFILE
|As a Yankee prospect, Cervelli was regarded as a glove-first player, repeatedly ranking as the best defensive catcher in their farm system. He drew a lot of walks in the low minors, but his walk rate generally declined in the upper minors, probably because his lack of power leaves pitchers unafraid to challenge him. In the majors, his plate discipline mostly hadn’t been good before coming to the Pirates, except in 2010, which was the only season in which he got significant playing time in the majors. Oddly, Cervelli has hit much better overall in the majors than in the upper minors. He’s had only a slight platoon split in the majors. Cervelli was a good defensive catcher, rating very well as a pitch framer and blocker at the time the Pirates acquired him. He has a good arm, but hasn’t usually had more than adequate CS percentages. The Pirates acquired him for Justin Wilson shortly after the 2014 season, making him the third Yankee catcher they’d acquired in a two-year period. He already had a history of injuries at that point, and it’s continued since the trade.
Cervelli debuted at age 17 in the DSL. He didn’t hit much but showed good strike zone judgment.
The Yankees sent Cervelli back to the DSL and he had about the same season offensively.
Cervelli played only sparingly in the GCL. He struggled a little more with the bat but continued to draw walks. He threw out 29% of base stealers.
Cervelli finally started to hit while serving as the regular catcher in the NYPL. That included showing some power for the first time, although he also struck out a lot more. He threw out 24% of base stealers.
The Yankees jumped Cervelli up to high A and he had a good year, especially considering that he was in the pitching-dominated Florida State League. He threw out 41% on the bases. After the season, Baseball America ranked him as the Yankees’ 23rd best prospect. The Yankees added him to their 40-man roster after the season.
Cervelli went out in spring training with a broken wrist, sustained in a home plate collision that ignited a brawl between the Yankees and Rays. He came back for a few games in June and then went back out with a knee strain. He returned to play regularly in AA in August, then saw limited action in a September callup.
Cervelli opened the season back in AA and didn’t get off to a good start, but in early May the Yankees called him up when Jorge Posada got hurt. He mainly served as a backup until the Yankees sent him down to AAA in early July. They called him back up in September.
Cervelli spent the entire season in the majors, splitting the catching duties with Posada. He didn’t hit for any power, but managed to draw a lot of walks and hit for a solid average, without striking out a lot. He threw out only 14% of base stealers.
Cervelli missed the first few weeks of the season with a fractured foot, sustained in spring training, then missed the last few weeks due to a concussion. In between, he served as the backup catcher to Russell Martin. He again threw out only 14% of base stealers.
The Yankees went with Chris Stewart as their backup, leaving Cervelli in AAA for the season. He appeared in just three September games.
With Martin gone to the Pirates, Cervelli opened the season in a job share with Stewart. In late April, though, he suffered a fractured hand. When he returned from the disabled list he had to serve a 50-game suspension for violating MLB’s drug program, a suspension that arose out of the Biogenesis investigation. As a result, he missed the rest of the season.
Cervelli was slated to back up Brian McCann, but he went out in mid-April with a hamstring injury. He reinjured the hamstring when he returned in June, but this time missed only a couple games. When he played, Cervelli hit surprisingly well. He threw out a quarter of opposing base stealers.
Even after acquiring Cervelli, the Pirates reportedly were still in the hunt to re-sign Martin, but Martin signed with Toronto shortly afterward. Cervelli proceeded to have a remarkable season; in fact, according to the FanGraphs version of WAR, he had a better year than Martin. Probably the most remarkable part about it was that he stayed healthy, but he also came close to replacing Martin’s offense. He had a fairly large platoon split, producing an .856 OPS against LHPs and .747 against RHPs. He didn’t control the running game as well as Martin, catching only 22% of base stealers. His pitch-framing abilities, though, ranked at or near the top in MLB.
Cervelli didn’t have quite the year he did in 2015. The two biggest differences were that his power disappeared and the injury bug returned. Cervelli went out for hamate surgery in June and missed over a month. After he came back, he continued to miss time occasionally with minor ailments, including head, wrist and thumb injuries. He got off to a good start on the season and was hitting over .300 as late as May 11. On May 17, the Pirates and Cervelli agreed to a three-year extension worth $31M through 2019. The team may have been motivated in part by Elias Diaz’ elbow surgery, which figured to keep him out for a chunk of 2016. Whether coincidentally or not, Cervelli slumped immediately after signing the extension, going 8-for-46 from May 18 through the hamate injury. It’s tempting to write off the lost power to the hamate injury, but Cervelli wasn’t hitting for any power before that injury. The loss of power was accompanied by a increase in his groundball rate to a very high 56%, although it was 52.1% in 2015. Cervelli struggled with RHPs, posting just .663 OPS against them. He had an OPS of .888 against LHPs, although it was in just 62 plate appearances. On the plus side, Cervelli’s walk rate increased to a career-high 14.3%. Defensively, he continued to be one of the best pitch framers in the game, but he struggled to slow down the running game, catching just 19% of base stealers. The team’s numerous other catchers combined to catch 26%.
Cervelli had another injury-plagued season, appearing in just 81 games. It started in spring training, when he suffered a foot injury that bothered him throughout the season and caused him to miss a few games in May. In June he missed two games with an illness and then suffered a concussion and had to go on the seven-day concussion list. Still later in the same month, he underwent tests for a lingering illness, then went back on the concussion list as he was still feeling the effects of the earlier injury. He missed several days in August with a groin injury, then went on the disabled list with inflammation in his left wrist that was related to the 2016 hamate surgery. Cervelli said at the time that the wrist had been affecting his play, both on offense and defense, all year. In his first game back from the DL, he suffered a quad injury and missed the rest of the season.
When Cervelli was able to play, his modest power returned to roughly his 2015 level, but his K rate increased and his walk rate dropped, with impact to both his average and OBP. His pitch framing suffered significantly, possibly due to the problems in receiving that he said had resulted from the wrist inflammation. He dropped to below average in that department. His CS% was 20%; the team’s other three catchers (Chris Stewart, Diaz and Jacob Stallings) ranged from 23% to 30%.
Cervelli bounced back and set career highs in HRs, RBIs and OBP. He still had a lot of ups and downs, and missed time due to injury. In fact, his hitting over the course of the season tracked his health closely. He stayed healthy through the first two months and posted an OPS over .900 in each month. In June and July, though, he went on the disabled list three times with concussions that resulted from getting hit on the mask by foul tips. When he played during those months, he slumped badly at the plate. He rebounded to an .829 OPS in August, then slumped again in September when he missed time with some minor ailments. He played first in five games, a measure that was made easier by the fact that Diaz was having an outstanding year. Defensively, Cervelli rebounded dramatically in stopping the running game, throwing out 39% of opposing base stealers. His receiving was more of a problem. Pitch framing data — which has become less reliable in the last couple years — showed him to be below average. In addition, the Pirates led the majors in wild pitches, as both Cervelli and Diaz didn’t do well blocking pitches. Cervelli was very good on tag plays.
Cervelli’s rebound, plus a strong year from Diaz, gave the Pirates easily the most productive catching position in the majors, measured by fWAR. Cervelli’s health, particularly the concussions, presents an ongoing issue, as it may not be safe for him to remain behind the plate. If Diaz continues to hit, it’ll be easier for the Pirates to keep Cervelli’s workload modest. He has one more year on his contract before he becomes a free agent.
|Signing Bonus: N/A
MiLB Debut: 2003
MLB Debut: 9/18/2008
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2016
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 11/20/2007
Options Remaining: 0 (USED: 2009, 2010, 2012)
MLB Service Time: 8.146
|March 1, 2003: Signed by the New York Yankees as an international free agent.
November 20, 2007: Contract purchased by the New York Yankees.
November 12, 2014: Traded by the New York Yankees to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Justin Wilson.