As Gomes Nears Return, Indians Near Decision Time at Catcher

When Yan Gomes went down with a shoulder injury on July 17, the Indians’ one-time Silver Slugger Award winning catcher was not having a good year at the plate. He was also hearing whispers about the Tribe chasing after Milwaukee’s All-Star backstop Jonathan Lucroy to replace him.

Indians fans know the entire Lucroy saga by now and how he spurned the Tribe by invoking his no-trade clause and avoiding a change of scenery to Cleveland. At the time, the Indians seemed in a perilous position at catcher.

Gomes was only hitting .165 at the time his addition to the disabled list. However, he seemed a far better bet to catch fire at the plate than either of his backups, Chris Gimenez or Roberto Perez. Gomes is also very well-respected as a quality game-caller behind the plate by the club’s pitchers. That is key for a team that has very good pitchers in the starting five and in the bullpen.

Two months ago, when Gomes was put on the shelf, the Indians were in first place in the American League Central Division and were hopeful of getting their struggling catcher back before a possible postseason run. All of that remains the same today. The Tribe remains entrenched at the top of the Central and are in a good spot to win their first division crown in nine years. Gomes is eligible to come of the disable list on Friday, September 16. He has been on a minor league rehab assignment with Double-A Akron, where all indications appear that his injured shoulder is strong. He should be back in Cleveland later this week.

Normally when a club gets back an injured player, especially one who performed at an All-Star level just two years ago, it would be cause for major celebration, not that the Indians are not looking forward to getting back one of their team leaders. However, Perez and Gimenez have done well for themselves in Gomes’ absence.

Neither backup catcher has ripped the cover off the ball. Where they have been influential is in their defense. Teams are almost afraid to try and steal bases against the Tribe because Perez and Gimenez have proven plenty capable of gunning them down. Perez, while batting just .162 with two homers at the dish, has wiped out an absurd 53.3 percent of base stealers, tops in the Majors among all catchers with more than one attempted steal against them. Gimenez, meanwhile, has thrown out 27.3 percent of bases runners trying to steal, which would put him in the AL’s top ten if he had enough games to qualify. Offensively, he is hitting .227 with four homers and eleven RBI.

While Perez and Gimenez have not produced a lot of runs, the duo has prevented possible runs with keeping base stealers at bay and from getting into scoring position. Taking runs away from the other team is just as good as driving them in for your own. They have been a blessing to the pitching staff.

Gomes’ return will come with just over two weeks left in the regular season. No decisions from management will need to come at that time as rosters expanded to 40 on September 1 and the Tribe is nowhere near that number on the current Major League squad. Once the playoffs hit, provided the Indians avoid a collapse and play October baseball, the club will have a decision to make. Three catchers will not be on a postseason roster, even though all three probably deserve to be.

Over the final two weeks, along with holding off the second place Detroit Tigers, the Indians will be invested in seeing if Gomes is truly healed and if he is any closer to being one of the game’s better hitting catchers, like he was in 2014. That year, he ripped 21 homers and had 74 RBI to go with a fine .278 batting average. It followed a 2013 effort of batting .294 with eleven bombs and 38 RBI in 88 games that earned him the Tribe’s full-time catching duties.

The 29-year-old Gomes struggled with injuries last year as he lagged to a .231 average with 12 homers. Perhaps not fully healed this year, Gomes was clearly struggling at the plate to consistently hit. One positive, however, was that the power did seem to be back during this year’s first half. He was at eight homers before the shoulder setback, on pace to jack out more that 15-20 this year.

Obviously, the Indians could use a return to health and a return to good hitting from their fourth-year catcher. If he proves to be fully healthy over the regular season’s final 16 days, he will certainly be on the postseason roster and the likely regular starter. Despite his hitting failures this year, he, too, has been a wizard behind the plate while keeping base runners in check. He has thrown out 36.7% of those would-be base thieves.

Gomes also has the best chance of any of the three catchers to get hot at the plate. He has the track record of having been a strong hitter before.

Perez is in his third season as Cleveland’s backup catcher. Last year, he showed some power with seven homers in 70 games in Gomes’ absence, but hit only .228.

Gimenez, at 33, is a career backup and journeyman. A positive with him, however, is that he has postseason experience, which is not in great abundance on this Indians roster. Most of the players on the team, including Gomes, have no more than the 2013 Wild Card game they can call on as do-or-die baseball (although the Indians did win ten straight games to end that year’s regular season and needed every single one of them). Gimenez played in last year’s playoffs with the Texas Rangers. He saw first-hand how emotions can affect a playoff game as he was behind the plate against the Blue Jays for Jose Bautista‘s infamous bat flip incident.

Simply put, if the Tribe hangs on to its first place standing for three more weeks, Indians brass will have a decision to make. One of the three catchers will not be able to be on the postseason roster. Given a clean bill of health, Gomes should and likely will be on it. He has been a big part of the club for four seasons. That leaves Perez and Gimenez. It will be a tough choice as both have been great with the pitching staff and are very good character guys to have in the clubhouse.

In the end, Perez’s defensive superiority and propensity to have a little more pop in his bat should win out. When Cleveland traded for Gimenez back in May, it was only to be for a short time as Perez was on the DL at that point. His stay grew longer as Gomes went down just before Perez was due back. Gomes and Perez were to be the catching options all along. As it has worked out, the two have rarely been seen together since April.

If the Indians are playing playoff baseball, it will most likely be with Gomes and Perez sharing the catching duties. It was spring training when a lot of people talked about the position as a major strength for the Tribe because of that pairing. Six months later, both have taken their lumps. Now, however, they could yet combine to turn that preseason talk into reality. Except, this time, it would be in the postseason.

Photo: Duane Burleson/Getty Images

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