When you look into any baseball-related subject through the first three weeks of the season, you should act responsibly towards certain statistics, trends, and performances. Almost everything can be taken with a grain of salt as the true contenders and pretenders become sorted out much later in the season.
The Astros have the most wins in baseball (11-5), the Blue Jays are 3-12, the Reds lead the NL Central and the Rockies and Diamondbacks are tied for the NL West lead. If all of these trends continue into late-July and August, please wake me up from this dream I’m in.
The American League Central doesn’t appear to deviate from this claim, either, as the Indians and Tigers were each 8-7 and tied for the division heading into weekend play (though the Indians won last night and the Tigers lost, so they are 9-7 and 8-8, respectively). Though most “experts” picked the Indians to make it back to the Fall Classic, and some picked them to win it all, the club has struggled a bit in the dawn of their American League defense season.
A “Good” Problem?
Every team has their flaws and weaknesses, and matchups often do reign supreme on different levels in baseball. But what once was deemed a “good” problem for the Indians has revealed to be somewhat of a liability as we begin the 2017 season.
Terry Francona made the call to tab Yan Gomes as the primary catcher in mid-February , but that decision has been put to question by the majority of media and fans due to Gomes’ sluggish offensive start. Through 11 games entering Friday, Gomes is slashing .143/.231/.257 with five hits, including one homer and one double, in 35 at bats. Also, Gomes has struck out 10 times, which is double the amount of hits that he has.
The concerns for Gomes’ slow start are very real and has been a continuation of his steady decline since hitting .278 and earning a Silver Slugger Award in 2014. That was the only season where Gomes played in over 100 games (next highest was 95 games in 2015) and it was a year in which he set career highs in numerous defensive categories, including runners caught stealing (31) and assists (73). In a vacuum, Gomes can be very good when he is healthy.
The problem with Yan Gomes is he has not been healthy since that 2014 breakout season. Since 2015, he has spent a total of three months on the scheduled DL for right knee and right shoulder injuries – two of which should be very difficult for a catcher to overcome. Gomes is still an above average defensive catcher, and he is still able to throw runners out, but he has not found that same stroke at the plate that he once had pre-injury.
The second option for Terry Francona to consider entering the season was Roberto Perez. Though the adage says you shouldn’t lose you starting job to injury, the case to start Perez over Gomes was very strong heading into 2017. Roberto Perez managed the Tribe pitching staff as well as you possibly could have down the stretch and into last year’s World Series run. Not only did he manage the pitching staff at a high level, he was a top-tiered pitch framer among qualifiers. So if there was a case for Perez to start, it was a strong one.
Let’s also not forget the hefty extension the club gave Perez at the beginning of the month. The Indians will pay Perez $9 million to stay in Cleveland for the next four years, which doesn’t seem like much considering today’s catcher market, but should prove to be a valuable signing throughout. Not only did the Indians lock up one of the best “reserve” catchers in baseball, but they also retained familiarity, reassurance, insurance, and, in four years, a guaranteed option and mentor for when Francisco Mejia figures to be playing in the Majors.
So far In 2017, Perez is batting .150 (3-for-20) with two RBIs in six games played. So while playing time is not currently at a premium, and Perez has not had the chance to sustain consistent at bats, Perez’s chance may be coming sooner, rather than later. The organization has shown confidence in Perez by extending his contract and if Gomes continues to struggle, Francona could make the switch if he feels it benefits the team.
Almost to Temperature
The elephant in the room – that is not quite ready to be exposed yet – is top prospect Francisco Mejia. Nearly enough has been said and written about the caliber player that Mejia could be, but when does he figure to be ready to make the jump to Cleveland? Mejia has torn up the Minor Leagues over the past two seasons. In 2016, Mejia held a 50-game hitting streak. In 2017, he is on a tear to start.
In 10 AA games entering Friday, Mejia is slashing .368/.395/.553 with 14 hits in 38 at bats. Of those 14 hits, seven are doubles and he also has driven in seven runs.
Mejia has continued his hot hitting into 2017, and his hit tool was the one to propel him to The Show, but his defense, particularly pitch framing and quickness, still needs work.
Tale of the Tape
For Terry Francona, is there a correct move to make here? Do you remain loyal to Gomes, who retained his starting role after injury? Do you switch in Perez, who the organization has shown confidence in by giving him an extension? Do you begin to assess Francisco Mejia as whether he is MLB ready or not and try to accelerate the development process?
My input is to insert Roberto Perez. The season is still new and there is plenty of time to figure out the situation as the Indians figure to at least repeat as division champions. Perez has shown he can manage a game and can work with a high-end pitching staff, so why not insert him while working with Gomes on his approach at the plate on the side? Also, the rest of baseball seems to be gravitating towards pitch framing. It’s a worthy statistic to look at and the Indians already have one of the best at their disposal.
I do not think Mejia should be or can be rushed to the MLB level just because the other two guys ahead of him can’t hit above the Mendoza line. However, if Mejia continues his tear, fast tracks to AAA, and then continues to hit well there, then we can kick the tires a little harder on that discussion maybe in September.
For now, starting Roberto Perez is the right move. Let Yan Gomes figure it out, let Francisco Mejia marinate a little longer, and then re-convene and revisit this topic as we hit the dog days of summer.
Corey Crisan is a columnist for the Cleveland Indians and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers on Indians Baseball Insider on Scout.com. You can listen to him on IBI’s Farm Report Podcast and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cdcrisan.