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yankees countdown

Yankees Countdown: No. 16, Francisco Cervelli

The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Yankees players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 16, catcher Francisco Cervelli.

The first thing you'll notice about Francisco Cervelli when he comes to bat this year is that his head will appear comically large. Thankfully, this isn't a Barry Bonds situation: After suffering a concussion last week (his second since November, and at least his third as a pro), Cervelli was talked into wearing the Rawlings S100 helmet, a safer, larger model than what most big leaguers wear (you may recall David Wright sporting one for a couple games last year). Jorge Posada has already started calling him "Gazoo."

But speaking of Posada: The veteran catcher says he expects to catch between 115 and 120 games this year, a number that seems awfully optimistic. (Joe Girardi's prediction of somewhere between 100 and 120 games — still a high number — might be more realistic.) In his prime, Posada could be counted on for 130 games behind the plate, but he'll be turning 39 in August, and has been injured in each of the last two years, catching 30 games in 2008 and 100 in 2009 — all of which means his backup is more important than ever. Cervelli had his moments in limited action last year, most of which came when both Posada and Jose Molina went down with injuries. His .298 batting average in 101 plate appearances was impressive. His .309 on-base percentage, however, was not.

And though he'll get playing time this year, Cervelli has a bigger problem in the long term: The jewel of the Yankees farm system, Jesus Montero, is a catcher, too. And though his defensive skills reportedly haven't developed as quickly as his hitting has, logic would dictate that they'd like to groom Montero as Posada's eventual replacement. Now, Yankee prospects tend to be just a wee bit overhyped — we're still waiting on that Brandon Claussen Cy Young season — so perhaps it's foolish to look too far ahead. But we're sure Cervelli's as aware of who's behind him on the depth chart as he is of who's ahead of him.

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Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images