Cervelli trade doesn’t guarantee Murphy backup catcher job

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the GM Meetings last week, the Yankees swung a trade sending long-time backup catcher Frankie Cervelli to the Pirates for hard-throwing lefty reliever Justin Wilson. It’s the third straight offseason in which a Yankees catcher has gone to the Pittsburgh — Russell Martin signed with the Pirates as a free agent during the 2012-13 offseason and the two clubs got together for the Chris Stewart trade last winter. Maybe they like the same catchers because their internal metrics are similar.

Anyway, the Yankees made the trade because they almost had to move a catcher this winter. It had gotten to the point where they simply had too many catchers for too few spots at the upper levels. Brian McCann is locked into the starting MLB job and Cervelli had a leg up on the backup spot, leaving John Ryan Murphy, Austin Romine, and Gary Sanchez for Triple-A Scranton. That’s not really feasible. Playing time is a zero sum game — the more at-bats Sanchez gets, the fewer there are for Murphy and Romine.

Something had to give and it turned out to be Cervelli, who is two years from free agency and projected to earn $1.1M through arbitration next year. Why pay seven figures for a backup catcher — an injury prone backup catcher at that — when you have several players who can do the job for close to the league minimum? The Yankees dealt from a position of depth and added an interesting arm to the bullpen mix while shedding some salary. It’s not the type of move that will win a team a title but it helps balance the roster.

As soon as Cervelli was traded, I and I think many others considered Murphy the favorite to take over as McCann’s backup. That makes sense — Murphy was the one who got the call when Cervelli got hurt last year and Romine didn’t even get a September call-up at first. (He was called up after Cervelli got hurt in mid-September). Romine has stalled out the last year or two and Murphy has played well, especially when he first came up last April and May. He’s ready for a big league job.

There are other factors to consider, however. First and foremost, the Yankees might not be done dealing. Murphy isn’t a top trade chip but he’s a desirable piece because, again, he’s basically MLB ready. Catching is hard to find and plenty of teams will try to pry six years of Murphy away from New York if given the chance. I both would and wouldn’t be surprised if he gets traded at some point, perhaps for a shortstop. I don’t think it will happen but it wouldn’t come out left field either. Trading Murphy seems completely plausible.

Trading Murphy would free up the backup catcher’s job for Romine, though I would expect the Yankees to sign a veteran backup catcher type to compete for the job in Spring Training. Someone on a minor league contract who can fight for the job in camp then go to Triple-A Scranton to back up and mentor Sanchez (and also serve as the third catcher). The same applies to trading Romine, though he isn’t as tradeable as Murphy. Romine is likely to be out of options though — Chad Jennings heard it “does not appear” Romine will qualify for a fourth option — which opens another can of worms.

If Romine is in fact out of minor league options, he won’t be able to go to Triple-A without first clearing waivers. It’s easy to say he will be claimed because he’s a young and cheap catcher who once had some nice prospect shine, but I looked through the MLBTR Transaction Tracker, and not many catchers get claimed off waivers. In fact, there have only been nine waiver claims involving a catcher since May 2008, and three of them featured the perpetually available George Kottaras. That guy always seems to be on waivers.

Maybe the means Romine will clear waivers, or maybe it means catchers like Romine rarely hit waivers and aren’t able to be claimed in the first place. The latter seems more likely to me. The Yankees have more upper level catching depth than most teams and could be the rare club who waives someone like Romine, but the easy solution would be sending Murphy to Triple-A and letting Romine back up McCann. They have that option as well, as unlikely as it seems. Options are good though and the Yankees don’t need to make a decision now.

“We’ll see how the winter continues to shake out,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty following the Cervelli trade. “We have guys with Major League service in Romine and Murphy. So we’ll see how it all shakes out still. I’m still open to any possibilities to assist in improving our club.”

Backup catcher is very low on the offseason priority list because it is a position of depth, even after the Cervelli trade. The Yankees can roll into next season with what they have right now and be perfectly fine behind the plate. I do think Murphy has a leg up on the backup job with Romine likely to be exposed to waivers, but that’s just me. A lot can and will change in the coming months. The Cervelli trade helped clear up an organization logjam but it didn’t guarantee anyone a job either.

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2014 Season Review: Cervelli & The Backups

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
I will miss using this photo. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

Once again, the Yankees held a faux-competition in Spring Training, this time for the backup catcher’s job behind Brian McCann. Francisco Cervelli, John Ryan Murphy, and Austin Romine were competing for the job, though we all knew it was Cervelli’s barring something unexpected. All three seemed to play in every Grapefruit League game as the Yankees showcased them for possible trades, but instead they kept all three. Cervelli opened the year as McCann’s backup and both Murphy and Romine reported to Triple-A.

Francisco Cervelli

This past season was a typical Cervelli season. He put up very good numbers and not just by backup catcher standards — he hit .301/.370/.432 (128 wRC+) with two homers in 162 plate appearances. Cervelli also got hurt, which has unfortunately become the norm for him. He suffered a Grade II hamstring strain running out a ground ball on April 14th and was not healthy enough to return until June 17th. A series of migraines — the Yankees confirmed it was not a concussion — kept Frankie on the bench for two weeks in September as well.

Cervelli threw out a below-average 25% of attempted base-stealers and other stats say he was better than average at blocking pitches in the dirt (+0.9 runs) and framing borderline pitches (+1.47 runs per game). Like I said, typical Cervelli season. He showed promise with the bat and glove but again suffered a significant injury that limited his playing time. Cervelli has played in parts of seven (seven!) seasons with the Yankees and we still don’t know who he really is. Can he sustain that level of offense and defense over a full season? It’s trendy to say Cervelli could start for half the teams in the league but health is a skill and he doesn’t have it.

The Yankees officially put an end to the Cervelli era yesterday by trading him to the Pirates for hard-throwing left-hander Justin Wilson. The move saves them a little cash, frees up the backup catcher’s spot for a younger player, and gives them another bullpen option. Pittsburgh has a tremendous training staff and excels at keeping players healthy as Ben Lindbergh explained this summer, and they’ll have their hands full with Cervelli. I’ll miss his goofiness more than anything. The Yankees can be a bit dull and uptight, but Frankie played with a lot of energy and made me laugh. That alone made him worth a roster spot in my book.

John Ryan Murphy

When Cervelli went down with the hamstring injury, the Yankees called up Murphy to serve as McCann’s backup for three months. He started out very well, going 11-for-27 (.407) with some pretty big knocks to drive in runs, but he cooled off after that and finished his limited tour of duty with a .284/.318/.370 (93 wRC+) batting line and one homer in 85 plate appearances.

Murphy. (Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Murphy started 21 games behind the plate and appeared in 30 overall. He threw out only two of 12 base-stealers (17%) and was below-average at blocking pitches in the dirt (-0.8 runs), but he only caught 201 innings. That’s not much at all. StatCorner says he saved +0.18 runs per game with his framing, same as framing god Yadier Molina. I think that says more about the sample size and imprecision of the stats than Murphy.

As far as 30-game looks go, Murphy was about as good as you could expect from a 23-year-old catcher in his first extended taste of the show. The Yankees rave about his defensive work and they aren’t the only ones. Most reports identify him as a big league caliber gloveman, if not now then soon. The Cervelli trade creates a clear path for Murphy to take over as McCann’s backup, though, as we all know, the Yankees like to hold fake Spring Training competitions to keep the pressure on.

Austin Romine

If Murphy getting the call over Romine when Cervelli got hurt didn’t convince you Romine had fallen on the organizational depth chart, the fact that he didn’t even get a September call-up should have. The Yankees declined to call Romine up on September 1st and only called him up later in the month when Cervelli missed time with his migraines. Romine did appear in seven games this past season, going 3-for-13 (.231) with a double and throwing out the only runner who tried to steal a base against him.

After spending last season as the team’s regular backup catcher, Romine was nothing more than an afterthought in 2014. The Yankees had him work out at first base in Triple-A as a way to improve his versatility — “Catching is my passion. But if they threw me at first, so be it. I can do it if it gets me in the lineup,” said Romine to Brendan Kuty in September — but that doesn’t figure to improve his standing in the organization all that much. Injuries and a lack of offensive development have stalled Romine’s career. Unfortunately for him, the Yankees have a lot of catching depth, even after the Cervelli trade.

Cervelli down with “severe headaches,” Austin Romine to join Yankees

Francisco Cervelli is dealing with “severe headaches” and will not be available for the foreseeable future, according to Sweeny Murti. Insert joke about having to watch the offense here. Austin Romine will be called up to join the Yankees in the meantime. Cervelli has a history of concussions and, if I remember correctly, he did take a pretty hard foul tip to the face mask the last time he played. Hopefully it’s nothing serious. The brain is nothing to mess around with.

Yankees activate Brian McCann, send down Austin Romine

As expected, the Yankees have activated Brian McCann off the 7-day concussion disabled list. Austin Romine was sent back to Triple-A Scranton in a corresponding move. McCann missed one week plus a day after taking a foul tip to the face mask. Good to see it was a relatively minor concussion and not something that lingered for an extended period of time.

Yankees place Brian McCann on 7-day DL, recall Austin Romine

The Yankees have placed Brian McCann on the 7-day concussion disabled list, the team announced. He took a foul tip to the face mask last night. Austin Romine has been recalled from Triple-A Scranton and will presumably back up Francisco Cervelli. With Mark Teixeira (finger) banged up and McCann out, Carlos Beltran is the team’s only consistent power threat.