The Importance of Frankie Cervelli

(REUTERS/Joe Giza)

Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. That was the focus of the offseason, and it still is today given the continued A.J. Burnett trade talks. We haven’t paid too much attention to the other end of the battery though, mostly because the Yankees have some upper level catching depth and an above average big league backstop ready to handle the bulk of the workload in Russell Martin. The Jesus Montero trade took away some of that depth, but Austin Romine is still around as if Frankie Cervelli, the forgotten backstop.

Cervelli, who turns 26 next month, isn’t a terrible backup catcher even though we all seem to collectively loathe him. He’s got 560 big league plate appearances to his credit (roughly a full season), and he’s consistently put the ball in play with solid walk (7.9%) and strikeout (15.1%) rates. His .272 batting average and .316 BABIP are reasonable for a player with his batted ball profile, meaning few fly balls but lots of grounders and line drives. Of course the lack of fly balls means Frankie has next to no power (.082 ISO), but he did go on a rampage before getting hurt last September — three homers in five games across ten days, including at least one more ball knocked down by rain and wind in that ridiculous 11:30pm ET start against the Orioles. Offensively, a .272/.338/.354 line is pretty good compared to most backup catchers. With any luck, that power surge is something more than a fluke, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Despite a strong reputation, Frankie hasn’t been anything special on defense. He’s thrown out just 23 of 116 attempted basestealers in his career (19.8%), though it’s worth noting that runners are 26-for-29 against him when Burnett and his notoriously slow delivery is on the mound. Remove A.J. from the equation, and Cervelli’s been a more palatable 20-for-87 (23.0%) when it comes to throwing out runners. There aren’t any great (or even good) metrics for catcher defense, but I think we can all agree that Frankie isn’t the best receiver back there just from watching him over the last three seasons. He’s not the defensive-first backstop I’m sure Joe Girardi would like to have, but the total package is a viable big league backup catcher.

Cervelli has had some injury problems in the recent past, some fluky (Elliot Johnson breaking his wrist, a foul ball breaking his foot) and some not so fluky (four reported concussions in the last seven seasons). The last concussion came in September, when Nick Markakis bowled him over on a play at the plate. The Yankees take concussions very seriously (as they should), so the injury ended Frankie’s season and forced Romine to the big leagues. With Montero in Seattle, the Yankees need Cervelli to stay on the field this season to make sure Romine gets the couple hundred Triple-A at-bats he needs developmentally. Health is a skill but only to a certain extent, so there’s not much more anyone can do besides cross their fingers and hope he stays on the field.

Anecdotally, Martin seemed to play (or at least hit) better when getting regular rest last season, which is another factor to consider. A healthy and productive Cervelli allows the club to take it easy on their starting catcher during the hot summer months, theoretically keeping him fresher for a potential playoff drive. With all due respect to Gus Molina, Frankie is the guy you want filling in on Martin’s off days so that Romine can keep doing his thing in Triple-A. The backup catcher won’t sink the season no matter who it is, but having a healthy and reasonably productive Cervelli will have a positive impact on Romine, Martin, and the team’s overall chances.

Making sense of the Burnett trade talk

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The last few days have been abuzz with news about a potential trade involving A.J. Burnett, most likely to the Pirates with the Yankee saving anywhere from $8-15M over the next two years. Reports made it sound as if a trade was imminent, but instead they insisted nothing was close. If a trade is made, I have to think it would get done this week, before pitchers and catchers officially report to camp on Sunday (the Pirates report on Friday). No one wants this to drag out and have it be a distraction in Spring Training.

Currently stuck in a three-man battle for the fifth starter’s spot, there are certainly some valid reasons to keep Burnett and use him in that role. His strikeout (8.18 K/9 and 20.7 K%) and ground ball (49.2%) rates improved considerably last year (6.99 K/9 and 17.5 K% with a 44.9 GB% in 2010), and his outrageous homerun rate (1.47 HR/9 and 17.0% HR/FB) should rebound only because no one has ever given up one homer for every six fly balls over an extended period of time. Burnett’s 3.86 xFIP in 2011 paints a much rosier picture than his 5.15 ERA, but you have to be careful with xFIP because it assumes a pitcher should have a league average homerun rate (10.6% HR/FB). That part is simply not true; pitchers give up homers at different rates. From 2006-2010 (his time in the AL excluding last season), approximately 11.9% of Burnett’s fly balls left the yard, more than the average.

That said, the difference between A.J.’s homer rate and the league average isn’t huge, but we should probably adjust our expectations a bit and not take the xFIP data as gospel. Don’t get me wrong, if the homer rate comes down he’ll make for a damn fine fifth starter. The question the Yankees have to ask themselves is whether they think Burnett can actually pitch to his xFIP over the next two years, and if they’re willing to gamble $33M to find out. Given the trade talks, the answer is pretty clearly no. At age 35, it’s reasonable to expect Burnett to get worse over the next two seasons, not better. This could very well be their last chance to unload (part of) his contract, because if they keep him and he does decline further this coming year, they’ll have no chance to trade him, not for anything close to the kind of salary relief they’re looking at right now anyway.

Just the fact that they’re talking about dealing Burnett — who’s turned into a workhorse that takes the ball every fifth day regularly — tells you the Yankees are confident in their pitching depth. Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes are more than qualified to hold down the final spot in the big league rotation, and the minor league backups include David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, and Adam Warren, probably in that order. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are a little further away but should be able to step in at midseason if things go reasonably according to plan. There won’t be any Tim Reddings or Darrell Mays coming to town this year unless something many things have gone horribly, horribly wrong. Simply entertaining the notion of dealing A.J. is a vote of confidence in the kids.

The Yankees know Burnett better than any of us, and appear to have decided that trading him and using the cost savings to fill out the remaining holes on the roster — backup infielder, left-handed DH, maybe a second lefty reliever? — is better than keeping him around in some capacity. I think A.J. could be a pretty effective one-inning reliever for reasons Joe outlined last year, but the club isn’t exactly hurting for bullpen help either. Eating all that money to move the last two years of Burnett’s contract is a tough pill to swallow (especially since he’s in no way a jerk or an unpleasant person), but I do believe trading him and getting out from under as much of the contract as possible is the right move at the moment. Using the extra money to improve other aspects of the roster is icing on the cake.

An elegy for Allan James

In 1999, before the Internet played a major role in driving baseball rumors, the Yanks sent David Wells packing on on the eve of Spring Training. In 2004, before Twitter created a world filled with anonymous sources driving our thirst for constant updates, Alex Rodriguez landed in Brian Cashman‘s lap. This year, it seems, A.J. Burnett will be the high-profile player dealt on the eve of Spring Training.

The Yankees haven’t yet wrapped up their A.J. maneuverings. According to Marc Carig’s latest, the main sticking point concerns the amount of money the Pirates will send back to New York. While many seem to think a deal will get done before pitchers and catchers report, the Yankees are not against bringing Burnett to Tampa with them. I have a feeling a trade will be consummated, but it’s a process.

We’ll get to the analysis of how a potential Burnett trade impacts the Yanks’ pitching situation in the morning. Tonight, though, I come with some musings on A.J. For a player who landed in the Yanks’ lap, albeit for the tidy sum of $82.5 million over five years, Burnett’s tenure has been anything but steady for the Yanks.

When the Yanks signed Burnett, the biggest questions surrounding the right-hander concerned his health. Prior to joining the Yanks, Burnett had made 30 or more starts in a Big League season just twice in his career, but he seemed to have found health in his years in Toronto. With the Blue Jays, he flashed the strike outs with a K/9 of 9.0 and kept his walk rate at a manageable 3.3 per 9 innings. He beat the Yanks, and he beat the Red Sox. As long as he stayed healthy, nearly everyone figured he would be just fine on the Yanks.

The health, of course, hasn’t been an issue. Burnett has made 98 starts for the Yankees, and he has lead the league in walks once, wild pitches twice and hit batters once. I saw Burnett throw Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS at Yankee Stadium, and for him that year, it was a typical game. He held the Twins to a run on three hits over six innings but walked five. He threw some clunkers in the ALCS, tossed a gem of a game in Game 2 of the World Series and was shelled in Game 5, not even escaping the third inning.

The next year in the ALCS, he folded against the Rangers. In his one playoff appearance that year, in a pivotal Game 4, he could not get past Bengie Molina. I was watching the game in a bar in California and basically started cursing the TV when Molina launched that home run. Burnett just turned in disgust.

For A.J., though, it was never a matter of accepting failure. In 2011, his struggles became a weekly story as he would grow visibly frustrated on the mound. I was in Minnesota for the infamous game this past August when the TV cameras caught him cursing at, well, someone before he stormed off into the clubhouse. Both Joe Girardi and Burnett denied an altercation had happened, and I had the chance to hear Burnett speak in the locker room. He truly wanted to pitch better, to be better than he had been. As much as it pained me to watch him throw every five days, I felt bad for the guy.

It is now looking likely that Burnett’s last pinstriped hurrah will be Game 4 of the 2011 ALDS. With rain impacting their pitching plans and Burnett’s riding a successful September, which included his first win as a Yankee at Fenway Park in three seasons, Girardi handed the ball to A.J., and he delivered only as A.J. could. With the bullpen active from the first inning and he defense supporting him, he lasted through 5.2 innings while giving up only one run on four hits and four walks. For a minute at least, we held our breaths and believed in A.J.

If A.J. has thrown his final pitch for the Yanks, I can’t say I’ll miss him. He was the age-old enigma wrapped in a mystery in which the cliched sayings held true. He once had electric stuff, but he’s now 35. His fastball has faded, and he never could control his breaking pitches. He’s also due $33 million over the next two years. Maybe he’ll still be here in a week, but I wouldn’t bet on it. And for the Yankees, that’s not bad news at all.

Update on RAB fantasy leagues

We got a good head start on the 2012 fantasy baseball season this afternoon. Mike and I each created a league, which filled up pretty quickly. We also put on display 7 additional fantasy leagues with an RAB affiliation. I’m currently trying to figure out which of these leagues still has openings, and I’ll update this post accordingly. (I’m 99% certain they’re all full, though.) Hopefully by tomorrow we’ll have everything figured out and semi-organized.

This afternoon I did forget to post one of the leagues:

RAB Eastbound & Down Division; ID: 42050; pw: kennypowers click here to sign up.

For the full lo-down, check the original post on the 2012 RAB fantasy leagues. For those who don’t want to click and read, here’s the short-short version.

Basically, we’re trying to keep the leagues loosely related, by using RAB as the first word in the league. I’d prefer they all have the same rules, as outlined in the original post, but since it’s not my league it’s not like I can require it. But we are going to give out a prize to the team with the highest win percentage at the end of the season, so there’s that incentive. The leagues are all head-to-head as well.

The process is somewhat chaotic, but it should help us fill plenty of leagues. Here’s how it goes.

1) If you want to simply participate, click on the link next to a league and enter in the required information (league ID and password). Bam. You’re in.

2) If all the leagues or full, someone has to start a new one. Go here to create a new league.

3) Then email me — josephp (at) riveraveblues (dot) com — and give me the league info, including ID and password, so I can post it here.

Important addition: Email me when your league is full, so I can remove it from future posts.

I’ll be posting new leagues at the bottom of this post, as they come in. I’ll also start deleting full leagues, to keep everything relatively sane. We’ll do this twice a day, once in the afternoon and then again in the evening, until interest slows down.

Update: A few leagues rolled in while I was sleeping. Here goes.

RAB Pinstripe Pride; ID: 44914; password: pineda4life

RAB Upper Decki From Hideki; ID: 45344; password: ballsohard

RAB Ramiro Pena Pals; ID: 45421; password: canada

Go here to sign up for any of these leagues.

Open Thread: Recapping Retro Week

Retro Week was so much fun that we decided to extended it one extra day. I hope you folks enjoyed it as much as all of us here did, it’s amazing how much fun it can be to look way back in the past. In case you missed anything over the last seven days, here’s a recap of all the Retro Week posts…

Pitchers

Hitters

Miscellany

Once you’re done rereading all those posts, use this as your open thread. None of the hockey and basketball locals are in action, so you’re on your own tonight. Talk about whatever you like, enjoy.

Four Yanks on Kevin Goldstein’s top 101 prospects list

Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein published his list of the top 101 prospects in baseball today, with Matt Moore beating out Bryce Harper and Mike Trout for the top spot. You don’t need a subscription to read the piece, it’s free for everyone. Four Yankees made the list, and I’m willing to bet you can guess who they are. Manny Banuelos came it at #29, Gary Sanchez at #40, Dellin Betances at #63, and Mason Williams at #99. Our former lord and savior Jesus Montero is number seven. Keith Law posted his top 100 list last week, if you want to compare the two.

The worst Yankees team of our lifetimes

The phrase “the dark ages” covers a little more than a decade of modern Yankees’ history, from 1982 through 1993. While there were some decent teams during that period, we tend to lump the postseason-less years into one big era. Yet there is a great difference between the 1985 team, which won 97 games and missed the playoffs, and the teams that came came later. It seems as though the Yankees steadily declined during that period, trimming a few wins off their total every year. The worst came at the end of the decade.

It’s unsurprising that the 1989 Yankees won only 74 games, 11 fewer than the ’88 team. Dave Winfield, an offensive force on the ’88 team, was out for the season. The only young pitcher to show any real promise, Al Leiter, has just been traded away. Rickey Henderson had been traded back to Oakland. The pitching staff in general was a shambles. Yet that wasn’t the worst of it. No, the Yankees had yet to bottom out. That would come one year later, in 1990.

Only two of the Yankees regulars produced above-average offensive numbers that year. Jesse Barfield, in his first full pinstriped season, was by far and wide the team’s best player that year. He hit .246/.359/.456, a 127 OPS+. The only player with better rate stats that season was Kevin Maas, who, after being called up mid-season, hit his first 10 home runs faster than anyone in MLB history (and I have the commemorative baseball card to prove it). But he came to the plate only 300 times. It was Barfield’s team, which is indicator No. 1 that they were going to be really bad.

This was the year that Don Mattingly’s back issues came to the fore. From 1984 through 1989 he’d played in at least 141 games every year. In ’90 he was limited to just 102 games, and he posted by far the worst numbers of his career. This was also the year that the Yankees gave Alvaro Espinosa 472 PA; he rewarded them with a 50 OPS+. Bob Geren wasn’t much better. After impressing the Yankees in ’89, he floundered in his first full season, producing a 63 OPS+. Remember, Geren’s limp noodle bat is one reason they went out and acquired Matt Nokes.

There was some youthful spirit on the 1990 team, but none of the players would work out particularly well — and none of the under-25 crowd worked out for the Yankees. That crew included Oscar Azocar, whose MLB career consisted of 460 PA; Roberto Kelly, who was the only starter other than Barfield to produce above-average numbers; the aforementioned Maas, who provided some longball excitement; Deion Sanders, whom they’d release that September; Hensley Meulens, who performed well enough in a cup of coffee but would never meet expectations; and Mike Blowers, whose career as a part-time player didn’t take off until the Yanks traded him to Seattle.

The pitching, on the other hand, was a collection of recycled veterans. All five starters who made double-digit starts that season were right around 30 years old. Only two pitchers aged 25 or younger made even one start for the Yankees that season: Dave Eiland and Steve Adkins. Neither was much to dream on. It would be another year before the Yankees’ farm system produced the hype of Wade Taylor and Jeff Johnson, and two before we were introduced to Sam Militello and Sterling Hitchcock. The staff in 1990 wasn’t so much bad as it was bland; they did manage to finish with a 95 ERA+.

All told, the Yankees managed to win just 67 games that year, finishing last not only in the AL East, but the AL overall. That netted them the No. 1 overall pick in the 1991 draft. We all know that story. But that’s not the most striking part about the 1990 Yankees.

I had originally titled this article “The worst team of my lifetime,” because that was my perspective of it. From the end of the ’80s, during my years as a budding baseball fan, through the present, they had never won fewer games. But that really doesn’t cover the whole issue. Before 1990, the last time any Yankees team won fewer than 67 games was in 1918, when they won 60 games. Of course, they lost only 63 games that season, so that’s not very good for perspective. The last Yankees team to produce a win percentage below .414 was the 1913 Yankees — yes the first year they were called the Yankees. That team, along with the 1912 and 1908 Highlanders and the 1902 Baltimore Orioles, join the 1990 Yankees as the worst in franchise history.

Still, the Yankees went a long way between historically bad seasons. If they can manage another 77 seasons between, we won’t see another .414 win-percentage team until 2067. I think we can handle that.