Since the start of August, the Cleveland Indians have been a mostly disappointing team to watch, going a measly 6-8. During that stretch, the Tribe endured a six-game losing streak which included four straight losses to the AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers. The Indians’ losing streak also allowed the red-hot Kansas City Royals to overtake the Tribe for second place in the division for a brief period of time.
The Indians have since reclaimed their spot amongst the division’s top two, but they now sit six games back of Detroit for the division lead and trail the Oakland A’s by three games for the AL’s second Wild Card spot.
Despite the team’s woes overall, a few bright spots have emerged in recent weeks – most notably, the continuously productive bench. Two of these members of the Tribe’s roster who could be classified as “bench” players were acquired in an offseason trade with Toronto.
When the Indians traded reliever Esmil Rogers to the Blue Jays for veteran shortstop Mike Aviles and backup catcher Yan Gomes in early November of last year, most fans were left a little confused.
Did Aviles’ arrival mean that starting shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who was a frequent centerpiece of offseason trade discussions, was on his way out of Cleveland? Also, why did the Indians give up on Rogers? Most fans would agree that he had displayed enough potential during his short stint with the Tribe to warrant a key role in the bullpen for the next few years. And who the hell was Yan Gomes?
Well, we now know that Cabrera stayed on as a member of the Indians’ roster, providing Terry Francona with the opportunity to use the newly-acquired Aviles as the club’s primary infield utility man. Although I most certainly was not a member of the Mike Aviles Fan Club to begin with, especially after witnessing this miserable game-ending strikeout in person earlier this season (the whole at-bat was terrible, but the footage of that single pitch will suffice), Aviles has definitely grown on me over the past few weeks.
His versatility has proven to be a major asset off the bench for Francona, as he could be a decent starting infielder for numerous big league clubs. Having played 43 games at shortstop, 26 games at third base, 12 games at second base, and even five games as a corner outfielder, Aviles has been the epitome of a utility man for the Indians this season.
His defense has been solid (five errors in 262 total chances), and his bat has been equally steady (.263/7 HR/33 RBI). His numbers are never going to blow anybody away, but, as a utility man, Aviles has definitely proven his worth so far in 2013.
Taking a look at the next piece acquired by the Indians during the Esmil Rogers trade, Yan Gomes, most assumed he would serve primarily as the starting catcher for Triple-A Columbus and the Indians’ third-string man behind the plate, backing up Carlos Santana and Lou Marson.
Marson was sidelined during the first month of the season with a shoulder injury, allowing Gomes to scoop up a spot on the 25-man roster. Now, sitting here in mid-August, Gomes has become a vital piece of the 2013 Cleveland Indians and is carving out a role as the team’s starting catcher of the future. He has proven himself to be an excellent defensive catcher, throwing out 13 of 25 (52 %) base runners in 2013. Gomes has a defensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 1.1., which ranks 5th in all of baseball among catchers. He has also built a solid repertoire with some of the Indians’ starting pitchers, most notably Scott Kazmir, for whom Gomes serves as the primary catcher for games in which he takes the mound.
This is obviously a step up over the defensively-challenged Carlos Santana, who has thrown out base stealers at an awful 11.3 % clip this season (6 out of 53) and has a -1.2 defensive WAR.
Gomes has also been a valuable asset offensively, especially of late. Batting .429 so far this month, Gomes has driven his overall season average up to .313. The 26 year-old has also hit eight home runs while driving in 27 runs in limited playing time with the Tribe in 2013. As Gomes’ offensive production has increased, so has his playing time. Expect to see even more of the man known by the Twitterverse as “Yanimal” in the coming weeks, as Francona should be viewing Gomes as the front-running long-term solution at the catcher position.
With that being said, what should the Indians do with Carlos Santana?
As previously mentioned, Santana is no Johnny Bench behind the dish. Not that Yan Gomes is the next Johnny Bench, but he’s much closer to claiming the title than Carlos Santana will ever be.
Regardless, the Indians have already began using Santana more frequently this season than in past years at first base and in the designated hitter’s role. With the emergence of Gomes, paired along with the fact that first baseman Nick Swisher will be around for another few years at the very least, could a permanent DH role – ala former Indian Victor Martinez’s current role with the Tigers – be in the cards for Santana?
Also, most Tribe fans would be kidding themselves if they said that Santana has lived up to the high expectations that surrounded him upon his entry into the big leagues. Yes, Santana has been a solid contributor for the ball club over the course of his first four seasons, but he has never quite emerged into the star that so many experts predicted him to become.
Despite this, there is no denying his importance to this year’s ball club. Santana has been an adequate run producer and has provided relative consistency at the plate. So, should the Indians keep him on board for the next few years? Or, should the front office allow Gomes to fully take the reigns by dealing Santana in the upcoming year or so? The best answer would be to keep both – for now.
In a rather confusing statement, Francona claimed (I think) that Santana is his main man behind the plate. “Santana’s our catcher. I don’t know if it matters — one, two, three. We have two catchers, and they’re both pretty good. When [Gomes] plays, it just seems to make sense to catch him.”
Basically, Tito is sticking with Santana for now. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, with the steady rise of Yan Gomes, his spot could very well be in jeopardy not only for this season, but for seasons yet to come.
For those who were wondering, Esmil Rogers has served as a member of both the Blue Jays’ starting rotation and bullpen in 2013. He has been mostly inconsistent overall, posting a 3-7 record with a 4.91 ERA. Thus far, the Indians appear to have made out pretty well from this seemingly low-key offseason trade.