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Francisco Cervelli: Surprisingly Useful Fantasy Catcher

When the Yankees let Russell Martin walk as a free agent this offseason, their catching crop became fantasy irrelevant. Chris Stewart hasn’t hit a lick in his career and the team thought so little of Francisco Cervelli that he was the guy they sent to Triple-A when they acquired Stewart last year. Considering their track records, it was no surprise the Yankees ranked 29th in our Catcher Power Rankings.

Manager Joe Girardi indicated before the season that his catching plan called for “fairly even split” in terms of playing time between Stewart and Cervelli. Two weeks into the season, that plan is out the window. The 27-year-old Cervelli has managed a .360/.500/.520 (189 wRC+) batting line with seven walks and one strikeout (!) early on, so the “play the hot hand strategy” has prevailed. He’s started nine of the team’s eleven games this far, including all three against the division rival Orioles this past weekend.

Now, Cervelli is not going to maintain that production all year. Not even close. He came into the season as a .271/.339/.353 (88 wRC+) hitter in 562 plate appearances, and last summer in Triple-A he put together an underwhelming .246/.341/.316 (89 wRC+) line in 419 plate appearances. ZiPS projects .240/.322/.324 (77 wRC+) the rest of the way and .250/.338/.340 (87 wRC+) overall this season, which is perfectly fine for a backup catcher but unacceptable for a typical fantasy backstop.

Where Cervelli does have value, even temporarily, is in OBP leagues. The K/BB numbers this year are exaggerated, but he’s always shown a solid eye (8.0 BB% in MLB and 8.5 BB% in Triple-A) and a willingness to get hit by pitches (eight career, including 15 in Triple-A last year). He’s also hit lefties well (129 wRC+) during his career — coincidentally, the Yankees are scheduled to see five left-handed starters in their next eight games — and that alone will get him some playing time. Remember, he’s trying to beat out Chris Stewart here, not Jorge Posada.

The Yankees, even with their diminished lineup, still score plenty of runs and will create some counting stat opportunities for Cervelli even though he typically bats in the bottom third of the order. He won’t hit for any power, but a .270/.340 guy with the ability to both score and drive in 50 runs is a deep league or AL-only option behind the plate. There’s no chance Cervelli will keep up his early production and that’s fine. Maybe he’ll keep it up for another few weeks and exceed his projections, but if not, he can still be a useful piece as the catcher position, similar to what A.J. Ellis did last year.