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.

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Francisco Cervelli traded to Pirates

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have traded Francisco Cervelli to the Pirates. They’ll get back relief pitcher Justin Wilson. The team has since announced the trade in a press release.

Wilson is a hard-throwing lefty reliever. He sits mid 90s with his fastball, which he favors heavily. Pitchf/x has him with a two-seamer around the same velocity, as well as a cutter that sits around 90.

I’m not going to pretend to know more about the guy than his stat sheet indicates. The excellent Pirates blog Pirates Prospects sums up Wilson’s 2014 thusly:

Wilson had a rough season, struggling more with his control and getting hit a little harder, although he still allowed only a 220/320/323 line. He had a tendency to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: opponents had a .755 OPS against him in high leverage situations, compared to .568 in medium and .622 in low leverage situations. (He was better in high leverage situations in 2013, so, no, this doesn’t mean he isn’t “clutch.”) Hurdle became increasingly reluctant to use him in high leverage situations later in the season and he also had much shorter outings on average. He continued to pitch without regard to left- or right-handed opponents and, in fact, had a mild reverse platoon split. Wilson threw fastballs over 90% of the time, possibly in part due to being behind in the count a lot.

Wilson still has excellent stuff and, despite his control problems, wasn’t at all easy to hit in 2014. He has two options left, but the Pirates showed no inclination to send him to the minors. There’s no reason to think he can’t bounce back and be a dominant reliever again in 2015.

So a hard-throwing lefty reliever with some upside, who can face both lefties and righties? Sounds pretty good as a project. He also has only two years of service time, so won’t be arbitration eligible until next off-season.

Mike made a Boone Logan comp: lefty with good stuff but struggles to command his pitches. That could work. Logan had his rough spots but was mostly a success.

Cervelli has shown promise in limited action the last few years, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy at all. With Austin Romine (also frequently injured) out of options, it was inevitable that the Yankees would ship off a catcher this off season. Nice to see them get back a chance at a decent mid-inning reliever who could blossom into a setup man.

MLBTR’s Projected Arbitration Salaries for 2015

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At this time last season, the Yankees were still talking about getting under the $189M luxury tax threshold for the 2014 season. It was definitely doable, but it would have been very difficult, especially since the team wanted to contend at the same time. Eventually the Yankees abandoned their luxury tax plan and they didn’t even get back to the postseason anyway, so double yikes.

Because Alex Rodriguez‘s salary is coming back on the books and the team handed out four free agent contracts worth $15M+ last offseason, the Yankees won’t be able to get under the luxury tax in 2015 and probably not in 2016 either. It might be possible in 2017, after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires and the luxury tax threshold is presumably raised.

Anyway, that’s a really long way of saying salaries for New York’s arbitration-eligible players are less important this offseason then they were at this time last year. When I looked at the club’s 2015 payroll situation three weeks ago, I guesstimated a $12M figure for their arbitration-eligible players. Turns out I was pretty close. Matt Swartz posted arbitration salary projections using his insanely accurate model — he’s been within 5% the last few years — earlier this week, and he has the Yankees’ players at $12.9M total. Not a bad job by me. Here are the projections:

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)

Pineda (~$1.5M raise), Huff (~$200K raise), and Phelps (~$800k raise) are all arbitration-eligible for the first time. Pineda is getting a nice bump in salary despite missing all that time to injury because a) he was pretty awesome when healthy this past year, and b) he was an All-Star back in 2011, and that pays. Phelps qualified as a Super Two by about a month’s worth of service time, so he’ll be arbitration-eligible four times instead of the usual three. He and Pineda aren’t going anywhere. Same goes for Nova (no raise after lost season). They’ll be tendered contracts for next year.

Rogers, on the other hand, is an oh so obvious non-tender candidate at that salary. He earned $1.85M this past season, which is why his projected 2015 salary is so high. His raise isn’t expected to be that significant. Rogers had his moments in pinstripes (like this one) and his fastball/slider combination is just good enough to keep you interested, but not at $1.9M. The Yankees could always non-tender him and re-sign him at a lower salary, maybe even a minor league contract.

I don’t have any problem with Kelley at $2.5M next season — these days you basically have to throw 30 innings and not run over the closer with a bullpen cart to be worth $2.5M — even though he can be annoyingly inconsistent. At his best, he’s a true eighth inning guy who misses an awful lot of bats. At his worst, Kelley allows like four runs and gets one out. Which makes him no worse than most other relievers, really. His projected salary isn’t nearly high enough to scare me away.

The same goes for Cervelli even though I have no reason to believe he can stay healthy over the course of a full season. Quality catching is hard to find and the Yankees shouldn’t give it away for nothing just because they have John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine (and soon Gary Sanchez) sitting in Triple-A. Even if they don’t want to keep Cervelli at that price, I think another team would give them an interesting enough low-level lottery ticket prospect in a trade. Then again, what do I know.

As for Huff, he actually pitched pretty well this past season by long man standards, posting a 1.85 ERA (4.00 FIP) in 39 innings. That’s usable. Huff’s projected salary is barely above the league minimum, so the decision whether to tender him a contract will come down to other factors like project performance and roster concerns. If the Yankees need a 40-man roster spot this winter — they’ll need one as soon as the World Series is over because A-Rod‘s suspension ends — Huff could be the odd man out.

It’s worth mentioning these contracts are not guaranteed. Teams can release arbitration-eligible players who sign one-year deals before mid-March and only owe then 30 days termination pay. If they release them after mid-March but before Opening Day, it’s 45 days termination pay. The Yankees dumped Chad Gaudin this way a few years ago. They could keep Huff, see how the offseason plays out, then cut bait if a need for a roster spot arises. I’d put my money on Huff being non-tendered.

The Yankees have an uninteresting crop of arbitration-eligible players this winter. There are no real tough decisions here. It’s an easy call to non-tender Rogers and an easy enough call to keep everyone other than Huff. Huff is the only borderline guy and there’s almost no wrong decision there. If they non-tender him, fine. If they keep him, whatever. The arbitration-eligible players won’t make or break anything this offseason. The Yankees have an easy arbitration class this winter, which is good because they need to focus on lots of other stuff.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Gardner, Prado, Phelps

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The Yankees continue to fade out of the postseason race, but at least there is some good news on the injury front. Also some bad news, but whatever. Here are a few injury updates, courtesy of Bryan Hoch, Chad Jennings, George King, and Mark Feinsand.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) threw 45 pitches across three simulated innings yesterday, saying afterwards that everything went fine and he feels strong. He will throw a bullpen session in the coming days, and after that the Yankees will decide whether Tanaka will throw another simulated game or pitch in an Instructional League game in Tampa. It’s entirely possible he will rejoin the rotation after that. “I think he wants to feel that he can go home and have a normal offseason and he can be healthy and come back,” said Joe Girardi. “I do believe it’s important to him.”
  • Brett Gardner (abdomen) underwent an MRI and was diagnosed with a mild strain. There is no timetable for his return right now and it’s possible his season is over. “We’re not sure exactly when we’ll get him back,” said Girardi. “He does feel better. He’ll see the doctor again tonight and then we’ll try to make some decisions on when he’ll start doing some baseball activities … I’m not sure when we’ll get him back. It is a concern of mine. We’ll continue to talk to the doctors, measure how he feels and how he’s improving and go from there.”
  • Martin Prado (hamstring) is not improving. His mild strain hasn’t gotten any worse — he did play two games over the weekend — but it just isn’t getting any better right now. “There’s concern about him playing on that, where he could really make it worse in his hamstring to where it becomes a serious issue,” said Girardi. “It’s still bothering him. Even though I told him to guard it — and he did a good job — there’s concern.”
  • David Phelps (elbow) will throw a bullpen session on Wednesday and is likely to be activated on Friday, in advance of the team’s doubleheader against the Orioles. He feels great and is ready to go. The Yankees are bringing Phelps back as a reliever.
  • Frankie Cervelli (migraines) is on medication and resumed working out Monday. He should be available soon. “I got treatment and I’m back. Doctors say we have to make sure it doesn’t come back, but I feel good so I think I am going to play soon,” he said.

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.

Sherman: Rockies and White Sox keeping an eye on Cervelli

Via Joel Sherman: The Rockies and White Sox are among the teams keeping an eye on Francisco Cervelli prior to the trade deadline. All of his recent playing time is not a showcase, however. “You showcase in Spring Training, not now when you are trying to win games. We are just putting our best team on the field while [Mark Teixeira] is out,” said Brian Cashman.

Cervelli, 28, is hitting .311/.354/.443 (121 wRC+) in 65 plate appearances around a Grade II hamstring strain this year. The White Sox were said to be watching him back in Spring Training and the Yankees have reportedly asked about lefty John Danks, but it’s unclear if there’s any kind of match there. Sherman says the Yankees also like Rockies lefty Jorge De La Rosa, but Colorado is asking for way too much in return.

The Yankees have some upper level catching depth to spare but that doesn’t mean they should give it away. Remember, Cervelli is injury prone and Austin Romine has faded. The depth isn’t as great as it appears. Cashman did a really excellent job of getting Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley for pennies on the dollar, so maybe Cervelli winds up being part of a similar trade within the next few days. We’ll see.

2014 Midseason Grades: The Catchers

Even though it is not technically the halfway point of the season — the Yankees are 58% of the way through the 2014 season, in case you’re wondering — there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. Over the next few days we’re going to hand out some real simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. Let’s start with the backstops.

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

Brian McCann — Grade D

If the Yankees wanted a defensively sound catcher with a .294 OBP and an 83 wRC+, they could have simply played on of their young upper-level guys everyday instead of signing McCann to a five-year, $85M contract. His first half was a colossal disappointment overall, especially offensively. McCann’s glovework and apparent leadership guiding the pitching staff are the reasons I’m giving him a D rather than a straight F.

From 2010-13, McCann posted either a 122 or a 123 wRC+. The one exception was the 2012 season, when he managed an 87 wRC+ while battling a right shoulder labrum injury that required offseason surgery. When healthy, he (very) consistently produced at the plate in recent years. This year though, McCann comes into the break with a .239/.294/.377 (83 wRC+) batting line, which ranks him ninth out of the ten catchers qualified for the batting title (only Dioner Navarro has been worse). Even with his strong first half-ending road trip, he’s been that bad overall.

Unlike offense, catcher defense is a very thing to quantify even with all these fancy stats we have today. StatCorner says McCann has one again been an excellent pitch-framer, and he rates right in the middle of the pack when it comes to allowing wild pitches and passed balls. I don’t think that’s been a problem. I mean, we watched Jorge Posada for a very long time, we know what it looks like when a catcher struggles to keep the ball in front of him. Considering all the nasty breaking and offspeed pitches on the staff — Masahiro Tanaka‘s and Hiroki Kuroda‘s splitters, David Robertson‘s and Dellin Betances‘ curveballs, Shawn Kelley‘s slider, etc. — I have no complaints about McCann’s receiving work at all. He’s been solid, as expected.

One thing we can measure is the rate at which a catcher throws out attempted base-stealers, and McCann has gunned down 21 of 48 runners, or 43.8%. That’s outstanding. It’s fifth among catchers with at least 300 innings behind the plate and second only to (who else?) Yadier Molina among the 16 guys who have caught at least 500 innings. McCann came into the season with a below-average career 23.8% throw-out rate. Is this a fluke? I don’t think so. I think this is Joe Girardi‘s and Tony Pena’s work. They have helped some others improve their throwing in the past (Frankie Cervelli, most notably) and it appears they helped McCann this year. He might not sustain a 43.8% throw-out rate, that’s pretty high, but I don’t think the improvement is dumb luck.

Overall, McCann has undeniably been a disappointment this season. He was expected to provide not just more offense than he’s given, but a lot more. He has not been able to fully take advantage of the short porch in right, perhaps because he’s been focused on hitting to the opposite field to beat the shift — his 20 opposite field hits are already more than his total from 2011 (14), 2012 (15), and 2013 (19). Given his overall lack of production, maybe it’s best for McCann to be himself and focus on ripping the ball to right. Trying to beat the shift seems to be dragging down his offense overall. The Yankees need more from McCann in the second half. There’s zero doubt about it.

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

Francisco Cervelli — Grade C

The first half was a typical first half for Cervelli. He showed enough to keep you interested with the bat, hitting .273/.333/.364 (95 wRC+) in 48 plate appearances. He also threw out some attempted base-stealers, four of twelve (33.3%) to be exact. And he got hurt, missing two months with a Grade II hamstring strain. Cervelli actually played more games before getting hurt last April (17) than he did in the first half this year (16). I can’t possibly go any higher than a C because of the injury and missing so much time. Cervelli is a perfectly cromulent backup catcher for a team with a clear number one (in theory) like McCann. I feel he has performed exactly as expected when healthy.

John Ryan Murphy — Grade C

When Cervelli got hurt, Murphy got the call and showed flashes of why he’s expected to one day be an everyday catcher. He started off very well with that bat before slowing down and finishing his cameo with a .286/.308/.365 (85 wRC+) batting line in 63 plate appearances. Murphy threw out two of ten attempted base-stealers and did allow eight passed pitches in 159.2 defensive innings, so the superficial defensive stats aren’t all that impressive. He looked very much like a young catcher getting his first extended taste of the show. There’s a decent chance Murphy will be traded in the coming weeks, but right now he is a capable backup catcher stashed in Triple-A.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Austin Romine — incomplete

Yes, Romine did actually spend some time with the big league team this season. The Yankees called him up and briefly carried three catchers when Mark Teixeira landed on the 15-day disabled list with his hamstring injury in April. Romine spent four days with the team, played two innings behind the plate in a blowout and struck out on seven pitches in his lone plate appearance. That’s it. Romine’s prospect shine has dimmed considerably over the last year or two, and he is currently a part-time first baseman/Murphy’s backup in Triple-A.

* * *

The bar behind the plate is rather low these days, so even with McCann being such a big disappointment, Yankees’ catchers still rank only 19th out of the 30 teams with an 85 wRC+ this year. I thought it would be worse. They have collectively been very good defensively, throwing out 38.6% of attempted base-stealers (third best) while allowed one passed pitch every 22.2 innings (15th). StatCorner says McCann, Cervelli, and Murphy have all been better than average pitch-framers as well and I buy it based on the eye test.

The Yankees just need McCann to hit more, that’s it. Cervelli staying healthy would be nice too, if for no other reason than possibly upping his trade value. On paper, this should be one of the best and most productive two-way catching units in baseball. They’ve gotten the defensive value in the first half. Now they need to offense to catch up in the second half.