GOODYEAR, ARIZ.: As Mike Aviles often reminds buddy Yan Gomes, it was Aviles whom the Indians targeted in the November 2012 trade that sent reliever Esmil Rogers to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Seeking a versatile reserve infielder that manager Terry Francona could plug into multiple infield roles, Aviles joined the Indians along with “throw-in” Gomes.
Young and with raw skills, Gomes could play a handful of positions himself, including catcher. But entering spring training last year, Indians officials weren’t sure where Gomes’ best fit would be and sent him to Triple-A Columbus to find out with starter Carlos Santana firmly entrenched at catcher.
“From last year’s [spring training one-on-one] meeting to this year’s meeting is unbelievable,” Francona said. “[Last year] It was like, ‘do you go to the [World Baseball Classic] or not? Are you a catcher or a third baseman? [Now] all of a sudden we view him as one of the better catchers in the league.”
Gomes took over for Santana as the Indians’ full-time catcher in August last season. His impact on the team has been so great in such a short time, Aviles started heckling him to remind him to keep in mind for whom the trade was originally made to acquire.
Regardless, moving into the starting lineup has cost Gomes membership in he Indians “Goon Squad,” the self-titled bench players who include charter members Aviles, outfielder Ryan Raburn and veteran slugger Jason Giambi.
“You were tougher when you were a Gooner,” Aviles joked. “Now, you’re all sensitive that you’re a starter.”
“He’s just jealous,” said Gomes, 26, the only Brazilian-born player in the major leagues.
All jokes aside, Gomes’ defense was on display Thursday in the Indians’ second spring training game. After a throwing error, he nailed Cincinnati Reds speedy second baseman Brandon Phillips trying to steal second as part of a double play that helped starter Trevor Bauer out of a first-inning jam.
Gomes was a 10th-round draft pick of the Blue Jays in 2009. His path to Cleveland was mapped out by Indians bullpen coach and former Toronto scout Kevin Cash, who mentioned to the Tribe brass that the relatively unknown Gomes would be a good “extra player” in the Rogers/Aviles deal.
Gomes’ big break to show the Indians what he could do came quickly. Santana had accepted an invitation to play for his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic last spring. And while Gomes was asked to play for Brazil as well, Francona told him he would catch a lot if he stayed in Arizona.
“That’s an honor we’d never ask anyone to turn down,” Francona said. “But it showed his maturity in wanting to stay here and get the extra experience catching.”
Gomes knew that remaining with the Indians in spring training was the right thing to do from the start.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he said. “Playing in the big leagues has always been my goal and this was a way to get in more games, show more of what I could do.”
While wresting the starter’s job from Santana late in the second half of the season, Gomes hit .294 with 18 doubles, two triples, 11 home runs and 38 RBI in 88 games.
Although a good-hitting catcher is hard to find in baseball, Francona made it clear Gomes’ focus is to be on his defense and guiding a relatively young pitching staff.
“He’s a good hitter who will help us offensively,” Francona said. “But the goal for Gomer is if we’re shaking hands after the game, whatever he did was good enough. If you take ownership of a staff, you’re going to lose at-bats. [But] I don’t care how good of a hitter you are.”
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