March 6 – Happy Birthday Francisco Cervelli
This native Venezuelan emerged from the Yankee farm system when catchers Jorge Posada and Jose Molina both were hurt during the 2009 season. Cervelli did a surprisingly terrific job, hitting .298 in 42 games and earning the praise of the Yankee pitching staff for his work behind the plate. I use the word surprisingly because at the time, Cervelli seemed to handle big league pitching better than he did minor league stuff. That’s what I most liked about him. He seemed to step up when the pressure got more intense and that caused the expectations I had for the kid to rise up as the 2010 season approached.
Francisco got off to a rough start in 2010 when he was beaned on his birthday in spring training and suffered a concussion. When he returned he was wearing a new bulkier batting helmet that protected him better but also made it look like his head had shrunk. The new oversized lid also seemed to be making him a better hitter. When Posada got hurt early in the year, Cervelli took over as starter and had his batting average in the high .300’s well into May. I still remember blinking my eyes a couple of times when I checked a box score of a Yankee Red Sox game I missed that month and saw five RBI’s next to Cervelli’s name.
But the bat cooled off and more disappointingly, so did Francisco’s work behind the plate. The passed balls, errors and horrible throws started appearing in bunches and it convinced me that the kid was not yet ready to be a full-time catcher.
Give him credit though. Cervelli refused to give up on the notion that he and not Russell Martin, Jesus Montero or Austin Romine would be the next great Yankee behind home plate and he spent the winter of 2010 working like mad to get in the better physical shape he knew it would take to compete against that trio. But the injury bug hit him again during the 2011 exhibition season when a foul ball off his own bat fractured his foot. By the time he got back into action, Martin had not only solidified his hold on New York’s starting catching position, he proved to be an iron man back there and did not take many games off. As a result Cervelli played in just 43 games in 2011 and his season ended in early September when he suffered yet another concussion and missed the rest of the regular season and the Yankees’ two postseason series.
He arrived at New York’s 2012 spring camp knowing he was not going to push Martin out of his starting role and that he was going to have to compete with Austin Romine to keep his job as Martin’s backup. Everyone including Cervelli and me was shocked when Yankee GM Brian Cashman traded for San Francisco Giant back-up catcher, Chris Stewart just before Opening Day 2012 and Cervelli ended up getting sent back to Triple A for almost the entire regular season. Francisco actually broke into tears when Manager Joe Girardi gave him the news of his sudden demotion.
But Francisco hung in there. Even though he had a bad 2012 season down on the farm, he came to the 2013 Yankee spring training camp knowing Russell Martin was gone, Hal Steinbrenner was trying to cut the team’s payroll and he’d have his best opportunity ever to win New York’s starting catcher’s job. He actually did beat out Stewart and Romine for the position and was off to a decent regular season start, when a tipped foul ball broke his hand in a late-April game against the Blue Jays. Compounding his inability to stay injury free was his involvement in the now infamous Miami-based PEDs dispensing clinic investigation and subsequent 50-game suspension.
With New York’s off-season signing of Brian McCann emphatically disintegrating any shot Cervelli had of becoming the team’s starting catcher, the just-completed Yankee 2014 spring training season was most certainly his one-last opportunity to prove to New York’s management that he could play a valuable role as the ball club’s back-up catcher. He was certainly up to the challenge. Despite constant questioning about his role in the Biogenesis scandal and incessant rumors that the team had him on the trading block, Cervelli put together one of the best exhibition season performances of any of his teammates and started the regular season as McCann’s back-up.
But the injury bug that has plagued this guy forever bit him again during the second week of the 2014 regular season when he severely pulled a hamstring. Though he returned from that DL stay in late June and put together a solid half season as McCann’s backup, I could sense the Yankee front office was ready to turn the page on this guy and bring up some of their young catching talent. In November of 2014, Cervelli was traded to the Pirates for reliever Justin Wilson. He will once again be given the opportunity to replace Russell Martin (who left the Pirates to sign as a free agent with Toronto over the winter) as a team’s starting catcher. I wish him well.
Cervelli shares his birthday with this former Yankee outfielder.