What Went Wrong: Frankie Cervelli

Feinsand: Yankees agree to terms with Larry Rothschild
2013 Draft: Baseball America ranks Yankees' haul third best in MLB

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a young-ish player who finally got a big break before suffering a big break.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees made little effort to solidify the catcher position this winter. They were seemingly caught off-guard when Russell Martin took a two-year contract worth $17M from the Pirates in November — Martin was reportedly open to returning to New York on a one-year contract — taking the best all-around catcher in a weak free agent class off the market. Rather they overextend themselves for an imperfect solution (A.J. Pierzynski?), the Yankees decided no solution was best.

Spring Training started with what was supposedly a three-man competition for the two roster spots, but that was never really the case. The Bombers have a knack for holding fake competitions. Austin Romine was always a long shot for the Opening Day roster while, barring injury, Chris Stewart and Frankie Cervelli were the favorites. A career backup catcher and a guy who was sent to Triple-A to make room for the career backup catcher last year.

None of the team’s in-house catching options stood out offensively in camp — seriously, all one of these guys had to do to win the starting job was swing the bat decently during Grapefruit League play, but no one did it — but Cervelli showed off some seriously improved throwing mechanics, gunning down seven of 14 attempted base-stealers. That was enough to win him the starting catching job on Opening Day. This was how the Yankees sorted out their catching situation coming into a year in which ownership repeatedly called he team “championship-caliber.”

Anyway, Cervelli made the Yankees look very smart for a few weeks. He was one of the team’s best hitters out of the gate, picking up a single and a walk on Opening Day before hitting a homer two games later. During a two-week stretch in the middle of April, Frankie went 10-for-28 (.357) with three doubles, a homer, five walks, and four strikeouts. Cervelli started 16 of the team’s first 22 games and hit .269/.377/.500 (143 wRC+) with three homers in 61 plate appearances, plus he threw out two of four attempted base-stealers. For the first time in his career, he looked like a starting big league catcher.

Then, in the very first inning of the team’s April 26th game against the Blue Jays, Rajai Davis foul tipped a pitch off Cervelli’s unprotected right hand. It was a direct hit, right on the knuckles:

After being looked at by the trainer and trying to talk his way into remaining in the game, Frankie was lifted and sent for tests. X-rays showed a fracture in his hand that required surgery, which was expected to send him to the DL for a minimum of six weeks. Not only had the Yankees lost one of their most productive early-season players at a crucial position, but Cervelli’s big chance to show what he could as a regular catcher was kaput.

Those six weeks turned into at least two months when the Yankees slid Cervelli over to the 60-day DL to clear a roster spot a few days after the injury. He continued his rehab over the next several weeks at the team’s complex in Tampa and progressed to the point where he was swinging a bat and taking batting practice pretty much everyday, which meant an official minor league rehab assignment wasn’t too far away.

Unfortunately, since he’s a Yankee, Cervelli suffered a setback in early-July. It was a stress reaction in his right elbow — the precursor to a stress fracture, so they caught it early — which apparently happened when he changed his throwing motion to compensate for the hand injury. I’m not exactly sure how that happens, but it sounds plausible. Either way, it happened and Cervelli’s #obligatorysetback effectively ended his season. In the unlikely event he got healthy enough to rejoin the team, it wouldn’t have happened until late-September.

On top of all of that, the injury and the setback and losing his chance at a starting catching job, Cervelli was one of 12 players suspended 50 games in early-August for his ties to the South Florida performance-enhancing drug hub Biogenesis. Frankie did not appeal the ban and was officially done for the rest of the year. He suffered both a season-ended injury and a season-ending suspension. Rough. To his credit, Frankie faced the music and admitted he used a banned substance after breaking his foot in Spring Training a few years ago.

All told, Cervelli played in just 17 games this year before the injuries and suspension ended his season. He never got a chance to show if his hot start was something sustainable or if he could even play at an acceptable level as a starting backstop. The Yankees never got a chance to see that either, meaning right now they don’t know if he in the middle of a breakout age 27 season or if he was a small sample size fluke. Given the half-assed catching situation, the team had an opportunity to learn something about Cervelli, about whether he deserved to be in their plans going forward. Instead, he remains an unknown.

Feinsand: Yankees agree to terms with Larry Rothschild
2013 Draft: Baseball America ranks Yankees' haul third best in MLB
  • Kosmo

    Cervelli would certainly have eclipsed Stewart´s abysmal 2013 offensive totals. If Cervelli posted a 85+ OPS over the entire season I don´t think there would have been as great a backlash for not re-signing Martin.
    the Peds suspension was icing on the cake.

  • LarryM Fl

    The direction of the team as per the catching position will be determined on Arod’s arbitration determination. Do we have an extra 25 million or part of it. Cano’s free agency talks. If the Yankees over pay and baseball comes up short with Arod then Frankie, Romine looked to be the guys unless the Yankees pull a catcher out of their a$$.

    One of the first duties of a catcher is protect the throwing hand. This was done by making a small fist and placing the hand behind the glove. Its old school but effective. I hope Frankie learns to protect his throwing hand. The video just shows that sooner or later the injury would have occurred (IMHO).

    • Captain

      for some reason I don’t recall seeing too many catchers place their hands like that in the ML. that’s definitely how it’s taught at the youth level though. just a bad break for Cervelli especially when he had the opportunity to show that he could be a starting ML catcher.

      • Chris in Maine

        We teach Little Leagers to hide their throwing hand behind their back or tuck it in the back of the knee. We discourage Little Leaguers from do a “Cervelli” with their throwing hand.

    • Charlie in SD

      I totally agree. My dad always taught us to move your right hand back around your kidney. I don’t know why catchers just leave their hands out there in the danger zone. Frustrating, but with the season ending in suspension, I guess it’s just as well. Can we fire Chris Stewart already?

      • OhioYanks

        One consideration is that with a decent runner on milliseconds can be the difference between an out and a steal. Overall it might just be laziness, but Cervelli is hardly alone.

        I would imagine Stewart has at least a tiny bit of trade value and doesn’t need to be “fired.” He’s a very good defensive C who is at least above replacement and still cost controlled. I don’t think teams will line up to deal valuable assets, but I think the Yankees might get something.

  • http://www.twitter.com/_swarlesbarkley Mark Teixiera – Ghostbuster (formerly Drew)

    I feel like unless something really dramatic happens (like signing McCann or trading for Lucroy) then Cervelli will once again (fucking kill me now) be the starting catcher on opening day.

    • Long-Past-His-Day-Rod

      I’m all for pursuing McCann but if my choices are Stewart or Cervelli then you can count me squarely in camp Frankie.

      • http://twitter.com/#!/Clay_Bellinger Clay Bellinger

        Yeah, same here. I’m actually kind of okay with Cervi with Romine and JR behind him. If they strengthen some of the other parts of the lineup anyway.

        • jjyank

          Agreed. So long as Stewart isn’t in the picture.

        • mitch

          I’d only be okay with that if they really strengthened the rest of the team. Neither of those guys is starting caliber. Get a real catcher and let them battle it out for the backup job.

          • http://twitter.com/#!/Clay_Bellinger Clay Bellinger

            In an ideal world.. one without a budget.. yes, of course I’m all for that too. With 189 though and some promising prospects at the C position (Sanchez, Murphy, Romine) it’s not a bad area to fill with a stop-gap like Cervi for right now.

          • OhioYanks

            Get what “real C,” though? McCann or …

            Outside of McCann, there’s not necessarily anyone significantly better than those two available. And this is actually a decent C class. There’s more upside available if you think Salty is a late bloomer rather than coming off a career year, Soto is back, or a mid-to-late 30s C can bounce back. Cervelli has been worth 2.4 fWAR in 623 career PAs, though, which is good for about 1.9 fWAR in a 500 PA season. I don’t know if Cervelli can stay healthy enough to do that, but I also don’t know that I’d bet on any FA C outside McCann reaching that.

            I’d put it at about even that whoever wins and keeps the job on the roster is as good in 2014 as any given non-McCann FA C.

  • http://www.thewebsitemarketingagency.com Geno

    My concern with Cervelli is how much of his improvement was PED-based?

    • Mr Pappageorgio

      If you believe Cervelli, his PED usage was a few years ago, and he just got busted for it this year. Who knows what to believe anymore. Everyone lies. Everyone.

      • mt

        That always confused me – Cervelli said he started taking it for his foot injury but did he ever say he stopped (sort of like Andy P who suppsoedly did HGH a couple of times around his injury?) Cervelli talked about why he started but it was never clear to me from his conversation when he supoposedly stopped.

        I guess it doesn’t matter anyway since everyone lies about this stuff.

    • OhioYanks

      I don’t know how much was due to PEDs. I would bet you that a huge amount was not an improvement at all but a function of a tiny sample.

      I think Cervelli is a solid backup if his D’s right and maybe even a passable starter, but I don’t think he’s better than league average offensively over a whole season.

  • MatUk

    Bleacher Report comments the best:

    WWE Thunder88 posted 6 days ago

    There is no way in heck,That the Yankees would be willing to trade:Gary Sanchez,Slade Heathcott and Jose Campos for Max Scherzer,So keep dreaming.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Wait, THE YANKEES wouldn’t make that trade?! I think the entire city of Detroit would close down on account of simultaneous laughter.

  • mt

    I have seen guesses at McCann contact anywhere for 5 years for $80 million – the MLBTR prediction – to 6 years at $100 million – I think it will be too rich for Yankees blood. Also everyone says he can slide over to DH when his catching days are over. I think that is so funny because the “he can slide over to DH” mantra is used so often when there is only one DH position. Here is the list of current and potentially future Yankees who are supposed to slide over to DH at the end of their current or potential future contracts.

    Of course the big one is Arod (signed through 2017 and no guarantee he will retire or be bought out before then) Teix (signed through 2016), Jeter (if he is here past 2014), Cano (if he signs an 6-8 year deal through 2019-2021), Beltran (if he signs more than a one year deal; needs rest for his knees), McCann (to rest him while catching in years 1-3 of any deal and to stop catching altogether in years 4 and 5/6); Abreu (may not be able to field a position on a five or six year deal).

    McCann also can slide over to first, I guess, but a couple of the names above may also need to look at sliding over to first in addition to sliding over to DH.

    I think Cervelli will be the fall back position that is kept in background while Yanks try to do a (shorter than McCann) deal with AJ P. or Ruiz. Of course, if they go after the highly coveted McCann, the Yanks will be hurt by not knowing Arod suspension resolution until probably December at the earliest – after this Friday, apparently hearings are going to recess for at least 2 weeks until after World Series and then resume in November – I don’t think Arod has even started to call witnesses yet so who knows when in November it will end. Then arbitrator then has time to make his decision (I believe up to 30 days; hoping for shorter of course.)

    • jjyank

      You make a valid point, but here is my counterpoint(s): I’m not sure Tex will need to “slide over” to DH. His problems haven’t been in the field. Also, I doubt all of those guys are ever on the same team.

      Still though, your general point is good. Gotta watch how many guys we have in that situation.

      • http://twitter.com/#!/Clay_Bellinger Clay Bellinger

        Yeah, Tex is def not a part of the DH mix. Guys usually don’t age off of first base. Maybe in some cases where they were already bad at it.

        It would probably be more of a rotate position – no straight DH, just a spot to use to give guys a half-day off. Even if it’s 3 guys, that’s 1/3 of their games where they don’t have to play the field. Yeah, you don’t want to completely log-jam it, but it can be flexible.

        • jjyank

          Right. Even when an aging Cano needs DH reps, he might still be able to play 2B ~3 times a week, allowing others to DH.

    • Pee Wee Herman Ruth

      Well said…given the number of veteran players who may need to be used in the dh role in the future, plus the likely cost ($80 to $100 million), the uncertainty surrounding the payroll due to the Arod situation, and the number of C prospects (Romine, Murphy, Sanchez and Cervelli)…I find it unlikely that the Yankees will pursue McCann- despite media reports to the contrary.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        There’s no way I’d go 6/100 on McCann. Just no way.

        I’m fine with McCann on a three-year deal or so. We have five catchers that need 40-man space, three of which are legit MLB prospects. I can see the solid vet mitigating risk there, but I don’t think the best way this team spends its money is tying up the catcher’s spot for six years for that sort of money.

  • FLYER7

    No way there are 5 catchers on the 40 man…Im guessing Romine, Murphy, Sanchez and a FA signing…any other names may be on it at the outset of FA signing but as FAs sign someone not named here will be DFAd

    • OhioYanks

      I wouldn’t be so sure about either brining in a FA C or there being no trade market for Cervelli and Stewart. Cs are very scarce, and while those two aren’t particularly good they’re pretty passable and affordable.

  • http://www.penuel-law.com/ Cuso

    If we’re going to give “credit” to Frankie for admitting his usage, you at least have to reference he publicly denied it TWICE before “coming clean.”