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Prospect Retrospective: Francisco Cervelli, C, Pirates

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli is having a fine 2015 season: .304/.380/.405, wRC+ of 123, lots of praise for his pitch-framing ability, and a 3.7 fWAR. Cervelli was generally viewed as a solid backup catcher during his tenure with the New York Yankees, but the Pirates saw something that made them think he could handle regular work and picked him up last winter for Justin Wilson.

A reader recently asked for a Prospect Retrospective on Cervelli. Here it is.

Cervelli was originally signed by the Yankees out of Venezuela back in 2003. He was an obscure prospect until 2006 when he hit .309/.397/.426 in 136 at-bats for Staten Island in the New York-Penn League. He still didn't receive much attention but I had some good reports on him and filed this summary in the 2007 Baseball Prospect Book.

Cervelli is from Venezuela, and was signed as a free agent in 2003. He hasn’t received much notice yet, but he had a good year in the New York-Penn League in ’06, showing intriguing offensive potential to go with a sound defensive approach. He doesn’t have a lot of power just yet, but his plate discipline is adequate and he posted a strong +27 percent OPS in the NY-P. He should transition to full-season ball in ’07, and if he carries his hitting forward he will start getting attention on a broader scale. Grade C+.

Jumped up to High-A Tampa for 2007, he hit .279/.387/.397, not showing much power with just two homers but controlling the strike zone well and drawing good reviews for his glove. The report entering 2008:

I pointed out Cervelli as a possible sleeper in the book last year. He is an excellent defensive catcher with a strong arm, good footwork, mobility, reliability, and leadership skills. Offensively, he makes contact, draws walks, and has some doubles power. But his swing is very level, and it appears unlikely that he’ll ever hit many home runs. Unless he can show more pop at higher levels, he might not make it as a starting catcher in the majors. His glove will make him an excellent backup. He’s still young enough to develop more pop in his bat, and I will give him the same grade I gave him last year, a Grade C+.

2008 was tough to read. He missed almost the entire season with injuries, but when he did play he was effective, hitting .315/.432/.384 in 73 at-bats for Double-A Trenton. He received a cup-of-coffee and got five at-bats for the Yankees, fanning three times.

Despite the injury and resultant small sample size there was a sudden burst of hype regarding Cervelli in the prospect press and Yankees fan circles. The report for 2009 was something of a reaction against that hype.

The Yankees were hoping that Frank Cervelli would break through in 2008 and firmly establish himself as the Catcher of the Near Future; instead he missed most of the season with a wrist injury. When healthy, Cervelli shows excellent defensive skills, certainly good enough to start at the major league level. But his bat holds him back and keeps him off top prospect lists. He controls the strike zone fairly well, but his swing is very level and he has no home run power. He also gets injured a lot, having missed much of ’07 with a knee problem. Cervelli looks like a reserve catcher to me, albeit a good one. Other people seem to be more optimistic about him, but unless the power improves greatly, I don’t see him as the star player that Yankees fans seem to be anticipating. Grade C.

In retrospect that was too negative and it was unfair and inaccurate to say his bat "holds him back." His bat was actually pretty good when healthy, as long as you weren't looking for home runs.

As you know, he spent the next five years battling injuries and competition from other catchers, seeing regular action in 2010 but never quite solidifying his hold on a job and spending considerable time in Triple-A. At the age of 27 in 2013 there was a spark of power with a .500 SLG, but it was easy to dismiss due to sample size because it occurred in just 17 games.

But hey, he was 27. . .the classic "peak." Maybe it wasn't just a small sample illusion. He continued to hit well in a larger sample in 2014 (.301/.370/.432 in 146 at-bats), the Pirates decided to give him a shot, and he's continued hitting at a similar pace this year.

So that's Francisco Cervelli. If you look back to what he was doing eight or nine years ago, there were hints that he could do this, hints of good major league hitting talent that got buried among injuries and sporadic playing time but eventually re-asserted themselves.

Kudos to the Pirates for seeing his potential, and kudos to Cervelli for battling his way through.