Trade Analysis: Francisco Cervelli for Justin Wilson

A trade involving one of the Yankees’ many catchers was expected entering this offseason, but lefty reliever Justin Wilson certainly wasn’t quite the return anyone envisioned for Francisco Cervelli. Now, nobody expected a massive haul for Cervelli, but a little-known southpaw for one of the league’s better reserve backstops seems a bit light.

Wilson, 27, had a cup of coffee with the Pirates in 2012, and became a bullpen fixture a year later. He posted a 2.08 ERA that season in 73.2 innings, perhaps fortuitous as he also sported a 3.41 FIP. That luck reverted in 2014: Wilson had a 4.20 ERA, although his FIP was still a decent 3.62. There are a couple of things to like about the newly acquired lefty: his fastball averaged 95 MPH the past two seasons, while also generating a better than 50% ground ball rate. The biggest con is his control: he walked 11.7% of batters last season. His 2015 Steamer projection is pretty decent — let’s do a little comparison with two other lefty relievers for 2015:

Player A 3.28 3.38 23.3% 9.3%
Player B 3.48 3.43 25.1% 8.3%
Player C 2.41 2.52 33.8% 8.5%

Going backwards: Player C, the standout of the group, is Andrew Miller, who I wrote about as a potential free agent target last week. The Fangraphs’ crowd foresees a three-year, $24-26M pact for him. Player B is Boone Logan, the erstwhile Yankee now a member of the Rockies (h/t to Mike Axisa). Logan is due $11.75M over the next two seasons. Wilson, meanwhile, still has four years of control remaining, and won’t be arbitration-eligible until next season. He’s no Miller, but he’s kind of a Logan-lite for cheap. Both throw hard, and both have control issues. In all, Wilson has some upside, but then again, couldn’t Jacob Lindgren have stepped into this role at some point in 2015?

Cervelli, 29 in March, is the third Yankees catcher Pittsburgh has acquired in the past three seasons, with the other two being Chris Stewart (trade) and Russell Martin (free agent). Martin is a free agent again, and if he signs elsewhere, Cervelli would likely be the new starter. Cervelli’s done well as a backup with the Yankees, with a career 101 wRC+ and good defense, accumulating nearly 4 fWAR in 785 plate appearances. As solid as that sounds, Cervelli has spent 230 days on the disabled list since 2011. He also hasn’t held down a starting role since his days in the minors. Steamer likes Cervelli’s defense, but is down on his bat, foreseeing an 84 wRC+ in 2015. In 2014, average catcher wRC+ was 93, but given Francisco’s defensive prowess, he’s probably right around league average for the position. For a backup, that’s great. As a starter, that’s just fine — the only question is if Cervelli can hold up for 120 games.

In moving Cervelli, the Yankees won’t lose much ground talent-wise, if any, at backup catcher. The club’s depth at the spot is a strength, with John Ryan Murphy a fine candidate to be Brian McCann‘s caddy. Austin Romine might get an opportunity as well, with Gary Sanchez not too far behind. Financially, the club will save perhaps $500-600K. As mentioned, Cervelli is expected to garner about $1.1M in arbitration, while the other three mentioned in this paragraph would all receive about league-minimum.

While Wilson is an affordable option for his role, is he a good return for Cervelli? I don’t think so. I’m not sure why the Yankees made this decision so quickly. Was there room to subtract at catcher? Certainly, but I figured they’d wait out the market a little longer. It’s not like Wilson is the type of player the Pirates would refrain from considering at a later date if the Yankees struggled to find an alternative deal. Nonetheless, it’s not a trade to lose any sleep over, though. A peculiar one, for sure, but a swap that probably has little impact on the Yankees’ 2015 win total.

Injury data via Baseball Prospectus. Steamer projections and other statistics via Fangraphs.

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