The Braves signed Francisco Cervelli on August 24th because they needed a catcher when McCann went down with a sprained knee. He is no spring chicken for a catcher (he’ll be 34 before next season, and he’s about two months younger than Tyler Flowers) and has a long history of concussions. The good news is that he’s only played 100 games in three seasons, so he’s relatively fresh for his age. The bad news is that he really can’t be counted on to give you even 60 games, much less 100.
But he can hit: he has a career OPS of .738 and managed over .800 in 2018. (Flowers only has two seasons higher than Cervelli’s average: both in Atlanta, and neither this year.) In the month he played in Atlanta, he OPSed 1.066, but that is of course meaningless. And while his defense isn’t remarkable, it’s not horrible. His pitch framing is average. Unlike Flowers, though, he actually seems to stop the ball from rolling to the backstop.
He’s a free agent, and if he wants to keep playing baseball, his $11 million 2019 contract is in for a major reset. I do not think there is any chance they will start the season with Flowers and Cervelli, but I didn’t think there was any way they’d start with Flowers and McCann last year. There are a lot of free agent catchers, ranging from pretty good (Grandal) to once good (Lucroy, Castillo, Avila, Castro) to never good (Chirinos and Maldonado, but they’re playing in the World Series, so what do I know.) Note, I am ranking catchers here by their hitting prowess for the most part. Nobody really wants a no-hit catcher any more, even as a backup.
Cervelli asked for his release from the Pirates for the chance to play on a good team and go to the playoffs. He got to go the playoffs – how’d that work out? He is a very popular player with teammates and fans. As a Venezuelan, there is at least a chance that Acuña will listen to him as to the right way to play baseball. Maybe Cervelli and Ender together can create critical mass. I think Cervelli would make a great backup catcher/pinch hitter, but (a) he needs to be signed at the right price; and (b) the main catcher has to be much better than Flowers in that case. But if, for example, the Braves signed Grandal, it is inconceivable to me that they’d keep Cervelli over Flowers, whether it’s a better move or not. They can’t really move Flowers in a year with this many similar free agent catchers (I’m assuming they pick up Flowers’ $6MM option), so I think Cisco is odd man out.
What would I do? First, I’d get doctors to really check on Cervelli’s health, and see if he wants to play. If he does, I’d buy out Flowers’ option and put Cervelli, Flowers, Chirinos and all the other aging catchers I could find in a spring training competition for backup duties. But that assumes you’re willing to pony up for Grandal, because waiting for Contreras isn’t a plan. If Cervelli’s healthy, see if he’d sign a deal contingent on making the club and then let him fight it out in Spring Training, a period just about as long as he’s been in Atlanta already. You could do that whether they pick up Flowers’ option or not, but the $6 million sunk cost will give Flowers a huge head start. I’m not sure whether I’m betraying my soft spot for Cervelli or my antipathy to Flowers, but I still fear we kept the wrong catcher in 2018. Pitch framing aside, there’s no evidence that Flowers is a better catcher than Cervelli, and he clearly isn’t a better hitter. But has Cervelli had one concussion too many? I have no idea.