David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The Yankees appeared to get blindsided last November when Russell Martin suddenly bolted for the Pirates. Now they just look smart.
It's still early, of course, and we're only 13 games into the regular season. But after being widely mocked for failing to upgrade the catching position in the wake of Martin's departure, the Yankees seem to be doing just fine with Francisco Cervelli as the apparent No. 1 and Chris Stewart backing him up.
They look even better when Cervelli is compared to Martin's start in Pittsburgh, where he has a slash line of .103/.205/.154 in 44 plate appearances.
Cervelli is as close to an everyday catcher as the team has at the moment -- Wednesday was his ninth start behind the plate -- and he's given Joe Girardi the confidence to stick with him. So much so that Cervelli was elevated to the No. 6 spot against Diamondbacks lefthander Wade Miley, a noticeable jump from his more familiar home in the bottom third of the lineup.
"It's amazing, huh?" Cervelli said of his starting job. "God always has a different plan for you. Sometimes we don't understand what's the plan at the moment, but right now, I understand. I'm going to keep working."
Speaking of blindsided, Cervelli was stunned himself when the Yankees grabbed Stewart from the waiver wire on the last day of spring training a year ago. That bounced him to Triple-A Scranton, where Cervelli spent the whole summer before being thrown a bone with a September call-up.
And when he did arrive in the Bronx, with the Yankees fiercely battling the Orioles for the AL East title, Cervelli appeared in a total of three games and batted twice. Five months later, we were all supposed to believe this guy was going to be the starting catcher for the Yankees?
Even Cervelli must have had his doubts. He talked yesterday about laying in bed and thinking back to where he was a year ago, and how much his life has changed since then. It didn't happen by accident. Sure, the process was accelerated by Martin taking that two-year, $17-million contract with the Pirates, but Cervelli -- essentially a shunned player last year -- has made the most of this new opportunity.
Through the first 12 games, Cervelli's 1.020 OPS ranked third among AL catchers with a minimum of 30 plate appearances. The Twins' Joe Mauer, with nearly double the PAs, is fourth at .996. It's a small sample size, but Cervelli's line of .310/.444/.448 is a good way to start a season.
"His at-bats have been good," Girardi said. "He's been patient. He's hit the ball with some authority, and I saw that in spring training, too. We have not seen him chase pitches, and when he's gotten his pitch, he hasn't missed it."
With Girardi in need of offensive help, and his roster overloaded with lefthanded hitters, Cervelli has provided a boost from the other side. Listening to him now, the difference seems to be more about attitude than adjustments. By all accounts, Cervelli didn't handle last year's demotion very well, and the Yankees were in no hurry to release him from that purgatory. More than anything, he's freed himself.
"Last year helped me to lower my expectations for things," Cervelli said. "But I'm always positive. I worked hard and came here and got my opportunity. For the 10 years I've been playing my dream was to be a starting catcher somewhere."
Right now, it's with the Yankees, even if Girardi didn't use that exact wording Wednesday to describe Cervelli.
Girardi remains open-minded to using him in as big a role as his performance dictates. At the modest salary of $515,350 for this year, Cervelli has saved the Yankees a few bucks, too. By the end of this season, he could be considered a huge bargain, if he stays relatively productive.
"I've given him more [games] than what we originally did," Girardi said. "If he continues to shine, he'll continue to get more."