Eighteen months ago, Yan Gomes was considered the “other guy” in the deal where Cleveland strengthened its infield depth and added Mike Aviles. Cleveland made the move for Aviles after going through myriad replacements at shortstop in 2012, when Asdrubal Cabrera was injured or needed a day off. The move was also made to beef up the team’s right-handed-batting depth because the team had an American League-worst .234 team batting average and .296 wOBA against left-handed pitching. Aviles came to Cleveland with a career .276 batting average and .317 wOBA against lefties in 421 plate appearances, while Gomes had very limited exposure at the major league level.
Ben Zobrist is the exception to the thought that if you can play multiple positions, you can’t play any position. If a player is good enough at any one position, organizations will leave that player there as long as possible until skill or better talent behind that player dictate a move. The latter scenario victimized Gomes as Travis d’Arnaud was coming through the organization at a similar pace. The team exclusively used Gomes at catcher in 2009 and 2010, but then gave him 20 games at first base in Double-A New Hampshire. In 2011, Gomes got 47 games behind the plate in 83 games and d’Arnaud did a majority of the catching. In 2012, Gomes caught 39 games while spending 42 games at other positions on the field as d’Arnaud once again did most of the catching. Gomes was never ranked in the top 30 prospects by Baseball American while he was in Toronto’s organization; he was 27th in Cleveland’s rankings after his trade.
The conclusion of his ranking at that time read this way:
He has good hands and feet that allow him to provide solid defense behind the plate. He also has an average arm and threw out 23 percent of Triple-A basestealers in 2012. He’s a below-average runner but moves decently for his size. Gomes may not quite profile as a regular, but he could be useful as a backup catcher who can play multiple positions and provide power.
Naturally, Gomes would finish 2013 with the seventh-best WAR for all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances and have the eighth-best defensive value. In essence, Gomes quickly became the player some thought he could be when Cleveland traded for him.
Kevin Cash, after wrapping up his backup catching career in the majors, became an advanced scout for Toronto in 2012. On Oct. 31 of that same year — and just days before Cleveland and Toronto consummated their deal — Cash was hired to be the bullpen coach in Cleveland. Cash apparently gave a glowing report to general manager Chris Antonetti before the trade was made, which mlb.com’s Jordan Bastian explained late in 2012:
“[Gomes] has spent most of his career behind the plate,” Antonetti said. “Toronto is an organization that is very deep, not only at the Major League level, but at the upper levels of the Minor Leagues, in catching. So Gomes did not have an opportunity to be a everyday catcher at every level. He had to earn his playing time and earn his at-bats, and he’s done that.
“He’s got very good arm strength and he’s got soft hands. We have the benefit of Kevin Cash being on the staff. He’s very familiar with him from his time in Toronto and he really likes him behind the plate. Our professional scouts saw him in the Minor Leagues last year and really felt he’s got good, soft hands with a very strong arm with a good release.”
The 88 games he played last season confirmed the potential Cash saw in Gomes and was enough to convince Cleveland to make a guaranteed six-year financial commitment to Gomes that will give him $23 million in the next six seasons, plus another potential $20 million in team options that buy out his first two seasons of free agency. The deal was slightly larger in both years and dollars than what Cleveland gave Carlos Santana in 2012. The deal also is slightly less in dollars than what the Phillies recently gave Carlos Ruiz to stay in Philadelphia through his age-37 season, and it comes in a much better range on the catcher aging curve (yellow = guaranteed years; blue = options).
Note: The aging curve was created by the delta method by weighting plate appearances using their harmonic means. With this method, there’s a small survivor bias summarized by Mitchel Lichtman at the Hardball Times:
… survivor bias, an inherent defect in the delta method, which is that the pool of players who see the light of day at the end of a season (and live to play another day the following year) tend to have gotten lucky in Year 1 and will see a “false” drop in Year 2 even if their true talent were to remain the same. This survivor bias will tend to push down the overall peak age and magnify the decrease in performance (or mitigate the increase) at all age intervals.
As a 2.8 win to 2.9 win player in 2014, Gomes should be worth 14.4 wins through the guaranteed part of his new deal — and 16.4 wins over the life of the contract.
The deal was completed two full seasons before Gomes would have eligible for arbitration, and that process would not have properly factored in his defensive value behind the plate. The rush to do this contract shows how confident Cleveland is that Gomes will make this deal profitable for the club through at least the next six seasons.
His defensive chops played out as Cleveland expected them to do in 2013, as did his offense. His .359 wOBA was the fifth-best for catchers last season, but this is still a player with just 440 plate appearances at the big-league level. During that time, the optimism created by Gomes’s above-average production numbers are somewhat offset by his below average contact abilities and his inconsistent plate discipline. His K%, BB% and O-Swing% each are in the bottom 25th percentile for players with at least 400 plate appearances in the past two seasons.
Barring a complete disaster with his offensive output, the deal should work out well for both the player and the team. The contract is the inverse of all free agent deals in that it is paying the player based future production, rather than on past laurels. Such deals can assume more risks because they favor the organization in terms of profit potential. And here’s something to consider: Perhaps the new rules regarding collisions at home plate made the risks associated with signing a catcher to a long-term contract more palatable for the team.