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2020 Marlins Season Preview: Francisco Cervelli

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Should Cervelli be viewed as a mere backup backstop or a legitimate challenger to Jorge Alfaro’s playing time?

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The annual tradition has returned. Leading up to Opening Day, Fish Stripes will be previewing the 2020 Marlins season, one player at a time. Find every article of the series here.


Where Did He Come From? The Marlins signed free agent catcher Francisco Cervelli to a one-year, $2 million deal on January 9, 2020.

2019 Performance

.213 BA | .302 OBP | .348 SLG | 3 HR | 73 wRC+ | 0.1 fWAR | 160 PA

Although far from being the worst team in Major League Baseball last season, the Pirates were arguably the most dysfunctional and depressing. Some of that can be attributed to the absence and decline of Cervelli, who had been installed as their primary catcher since 2015.

Just the year before, the then-32-year-old led Pittsburgh with a 124 wRC+ and posted the highest on-base percentage of his career. He began the 2019 campaign in a brutal slump at the plate (struggling especially against breaking balls), but the Bucs were staying afloat—they spent nearly the entire first quarter of the season above the .500 mark.

Then in late May, Cervelli suffered a concussion. The initial diagnosis did not indicate a severe injury, but recovering from brain trauma can be unpredictable. Also consider that he had been susceptible to concussions many times before, six of them recorded as a major leaguer, according to Dejan Kovacevic of DKPittsburghSports.com, plus others from his prospect days.

While rehabbing in early July at the Pirates’ Spring Training facilities, Cervelli reportedly told Kovacevic that the concussions had taken a toll on his quality of life. He was transitioning away being a catcher (despite limited experience at any other position). The following week, however, he firmly denied the story, saying his comments had been taken out of context and that he wanted to continue being a backstop.

The Pirates nosedived following the 2019 All-Star break and approached the trade deadline as clear sellers, but they couldn’t find a taker for Cervelli. He was two-plus months removed from participating in a game and still owed more than $3.5 million down the stretch. Instead, they released him on Aug. 22. The NL East-leading Braves scooped him up two days later.

He made an immediate impact:

Cervelli slashed an incredible .281/.378/.688 for Atlanta—albeit over a teeny tiny sample—which set him up to sign a guaranteed major league deal in free agency. Even so, his 160 total plate appearances were his fewest in a season since 2013. His all-around performance was roughly replacement level (lowest fWAR and rWAR since 2012). He did indeed return to catching, but only had four complete games at the position.

Off The Field

Cervelli takes tremendous pride in being Venezuelan. Through the years, he has formed friendships across baseball with his countrymen and has not shied away from speaking out about his homeland’s politics.

Cervelli frequently posts about his young niece, Emilia (the daughter of his sister, Maricarmen).

Follow him on Instagram (@fran_cervelli) and Twitter (@fran_cervelli).

2020 Expectations

Last year, Jorge Alfaro was unchallenged for the role of primary Marlins catcher—all the backup options had limited and/or mediocre track records in the majors (Bryan Holaday, Chad Wallach, Wilkin Castillo and Tyler Heineman). Health permitting, Cervelli should receive a slightly larger share of the playing time than they did, perhaps with sporadic appearances at first base, too.

That being said, it wouldn’t be reasonable to hope for a full return to his prime production. A large component of Cervelli’s game was saving runs with his pitch framing. He used to rank among MLB’s best at stealing strikes on the corners and bottom of the zone, but that is no longer the case.

Statcast

In terms of batted ball quality, Cervelli has been more or less at the MLB average. One concern, though, is that his swings-and-misses are gradually increasing. He can be trusted to work deep counts—question is, does he still have the reaction time and bat speed to spoil putaway pitches until getting something he can do damage against?

A former World Series-winning teammate of Derek Jeter with the Yankees, Cervelli may receive some preferential treatment from the organization (immunity from being released even if he struggles, some input into his new team if successful enough to attract trade interest, etc.). In the meantime, they are hopeful he can be a positive influence on Alfaro and the young, promising starting pitchers he’ll be forming a battery with.

50th-Percentile PECOTA Projections: .246/.344/.385, 5 HR, 23 RBI in 217 PA