Moving on after a most memorable season, the Indians’ primary catchers would like to forget about how bad they were at the plate. I’m not going to discuss their defensive abilities because Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez are among the best defensive catchers in the league. They both call a great game behind the plate and have good ability to frame pitches and control the running game. Plus, they seem to have good chemistry with the pitching staff as a whole.
Catchers traditionally don’t make their living as standout offensive players because it’s their defense that is most critical to their game because they are involved with every pitch. Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule such as Johnny Bench, Ivan Rodriguez and Yadier Molina to name a few. Typically, a good defensive catcher will usually see action with the hope he can at least be adequate on offense.
Gomes, 29 (will turn 30 in July), played in just 74 games in 2016 and missed most of the second half of the season with injury. He had a career-low slash of .167/.201/.327 (.528 OPS) to rank among the worst hitters in MLB. His offensive runs above replacement level (oRAR) was a -10 in 264 plate appearances. Perez, 28, really wasn’t any better in the 61 games and 184 plate appearances. He slashed .183/.285/.294 (.579 OPS) with a -1 oRAR.
After a World Series run with Perez hitting two home runs in Game 1, there was some optimism that he could become a viable MLB catcher on offense to go along with his outstanding ability behind the plate. Despite his important role in the 2016 playoffs, Perez was named the backup to Gomes headed into the 2017 campaign. The thinking must have been that Gomes has a better track record when healthy and he had been the starter prior to injury. If you recall, Gomes won the American League Silver Slugger award in 2014. Not to mention that Gomes earns $4.5 million in 2017, while Perez earns $675,000.
Gomes is apparently healthy physically, but his bat is not. He only had two hits in 30 ABs heading into the April 17 game against the Minnesota Twins. His slash was an anemic .067/.152/.167, just when you thought he really wouldn’t get off to any even worse of a start. He’s also struck out 10 times or 33 percent of his official ABs. He does have one HR and one RBI and three walks and has grounded into two double plays.
Perez also has stumbled out of the block in 2017 although on a smaller scale. Entering the April 17 contest, he had just one hit in 13 ABs, but he does have two RBI including a sacrifice fly. Yes, it is still early and there is a lot of baseball left to play. Just a couple of three or four hit games and the stats can change quickly during this time of the year. This discussion could be moot in a week.
But with Gomes, there seems to be a troublesome trend as his offensive production has continued to get worse since his solid 2014 season. In his last 644 ABs since, he’s hitting only .199 with 25 walks and 22 HRs and 183 Ks. Because he doesn’t walk much, Gomes needs to get hits to contribute offensively and he’s simply not getting it done effectively. Barring any potential hot streak, you really have to begin to wonder what the future has in store with Gomes in a Tribe uniform. He signed through the 2019 season with two team options for the seasons following.
Perez has a career slash .216/.312/.347 in his four seasons at the MLB level. He’s appeared in 164 games and has 519 plate appearances and 435 ABs with 11 HRs and and 61 walks and 136 Ks. He may improve some, but probably won’t ever be an above average offensive player.
Meanwhile, you have to wonder how much longer a team with championship aspirations can afford to have a black hole in the lineup. Gomes has at times been a rally killer when it’s his turn to bat. Hopefully, he’ll turn the corner quickly and be on his way to a solid season.
But it’s not like the Indians haven’t considered a trade to upgrade this position before. However, Milwaukee catcher Jonathan Lucroy decided to veto a trade last year to the Tribe and instead went to Texas. So journeyman Chris Gimenez get significant playing time behind the plate for the Tribe with Gomes hurt and thought to be lost for the season.
It’s worth noting that uber catching prospect Francisco Mejia, 21, started the season in AA Akron. With the RubberDucks, Mejia is already off to a hot start hitting 12-for-29 with a .414/.455/.655 slash line with only four Ks and two walks. The guy can hit and hit a lot. You may recall that he had a 50-game hitting streak last year, the longest in 62 years at the MiLB level. He’s probably the future at the catcher position. Just how soon that future arrives probably depends in large part on the production of Gomes or Perez at the MLB level. He might be ready to hit MLB pitching soon (if not now?). If so, would it be a huge stretch this year to bring him up from Akron? Perhaps he could be the rookie that comes out of nowhere to spark the team in mid-season.
If injury does happen to Gomes or Perez, journeyman catcher Erik Kratz is off to a good start at AAA Columbus, but at age 36, he’s not a long-term solution. Neither is Adam Moore, 32, who also plays for Columbus. A lot needs to happen (or perhaps not happen at the plate) for Mejia to move up to Cleveland, but if he keeps hitting and Gomes and Perez aren’t hitting at all, then would be that drastic of a move?
Can the Indians afford Gomes and Perez to continue to their offensive woes? If so, for how long can they wait? Perhaps if the rest of the lineup returns to their past production, having a hole in the bottom of the order can be managed. But if other leaks spring around the rest of the offense, can the Indians wait to make a change with Mejia or someone else?
This season isn’t necessarily about player development. It’s about winning the World Series, so personnel decisions in 2017 need to be made with that specific goal in mind. If something drastic is needed to shore up the catching position, then all options should be explored, even if that means it can be painful in the long-term or doing something outside the normal comfort zone and starting a 21-year-old prospect’s MLB service time.