Yan Gomes is creating a pleasant problem for Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti.
That’s what you call it when a general manager has too many good players at a given position. Now that we’ve seen Gomes perform at catcher, it’s understandable why the Indians wanted him along with Mike Aviles from the Toronto Blue Jays when they traded them hard-throwing reliever Esmil Rogers.
At the time, there probably weren’t more than three people in Northeast Ohio — save the folks who work in the Tribe front office — who had heard of Gomes. But in retrospect, it appears that Antonetti and his lieutenants were not taking a shot in the dark. They had a pretty good idea that Gomes was more than a run-of-the-mill utility infielder who also could catch.
From almost the minute spring training began, manager Terry Francona described Gomes not as a backup but as a potential everyday catcher. Neither he nor his staff was certain Gomes had the ability to be ranked as a regular, but they had reason to believe he might fulfill that role.
Gomes began to deliver on his promise in the exhibition season, batting .407 with five doubles and one home run in 15 games. But he only received 27 at-bats, so his achievements in mere practice games were hardly conclusive.
He started the season at Columbus but played only six games in Triple-A. Mostly because of an injury to backup catcher Lou Marson, Gomes has been on the big-league roster for almost the entire season.
That’s not what the Tribe’s deep thinkers had planned. They would have preferred to see Gomes stay in Triple-A, where he could play every day and polish his skills at the plate and behind it.
However, he has made so many positive contributions for the Indians, a dilemma that might have been postponed until next year but now will have to be addressed this season.
One look at Gomes’ statistics explains what has happened. When the Detroit Tigers left town Wednesday night, Gomes was batting .316 with two doubles, two triples and five home runs. Almost laughably, Gomes has walked only once in 57 at-bats, but not so funny is the fact that he has struck out only once every 6.3 at-bats.
Admittedly, this is only a small sample and thus is not a reliable way to project what Gomes will do in the future. But one particular statistic is intriguing: his ratio of extra-base hits to at-bats. For me, if one-third of a player’s hits are doubles, triples or home runs, he is well on his way to becoming an impact run producer.
This year, 50 percent of Gomes’ 18 hits have gone for extra bases. Last year, his rookie season, Gomes received 98 at-bats with the Blue Jays and batted only .204, but 40 percent of his hits went for extra bases. Even in the six games Gomes played for the Clippers this year, four of his six hits were doubles.
Again, this is a painfully small sample, but Gomes has been amazingly consistent in his ability to hit the ball hard for extra-base hits.
For his entire minor-league career, 44 percent of Gomes’ hits have gone for extra bases. Of course, those numbers were not compiled against big-league pitchers.
It’s easy enough to see that Gomes can hit. But he has been equally adept as a catcher, even though he spent 25 percent of his time in the minors playing either first to third base. And when he arrived in the majors last year, of his 26 starts for the Blue Jays, only four were behind the plate.
So it came as a surprise to most observers outside of the Indians’ official circle to see him deal with the rigors of catching with skill and confidence. As far as the Tribe is concerned, Gomes’ days as a part-time third baseman and first baseman are over.
Even though he has started only 15 games at catcher for the Tribe, it is clear he can handle himself behind the plate. One measure: Gomes has thrown out eight out of 13 would-be baser stealers, a stellar 62 percent.
But catchers must do more than throw. There’s handling a pitching staff, calling a game, blocking the plate, chasing pop flies and mis-hit ground balls and taking charge on the field. So far, Gomes is on the right track to mastering all of these tasks.
One scout who knows him well said, “He’s 26 [in July], so he’s not really going to get a lot better, but he’s the real deal.”
In other words, what you see was what you get. Front-office people don’t have to do a lot of projecting, as they would with a 19-year-old.
Then why did the Jays include him in the deal for Rogers? They have two catchers in their farm system that they think are superior to Gomes. Unfortunately, one of them underwent elbow reconstruction surgery a year ago and only now is working his way back to the field. Moreover, not everyone in the Jays’ organization was on board with trading Gomes.
Now that the Indians have Gomes, what are they going to do with him?
More than ever, No. 1 catcher Carlos Santana is fulfilling his promise as an impact hitter, who is still learning his craft behind the plate. Marson always has struggled offensively, but he is a talented defensive catcher, which makes him an ideal backup.
There is a scenario for 2014 in which Gomes fits nicely.
Mark Reynolds can become (and probably wants to become) a free agent at the end of the season. If he continues to produce as he has, he probably will price himself out of the Tribe market. That would enable Nick Swisher to move full time to the outfield and leave first base open for Santana.
Gomes would become the everyday catcher, and Marson could remain the reserve.
But what about now? Reynolds is here to stay for 2013, and Marson will be ready to return sooner rather than later. Where does that leave Gomes?
Francona might find enough at-bats for Gomes by moving Santana to first or designated hitter two or three times a week and giving Swisher more time in the outfield. Somebody eventually will have to be lopped off the roster, and it’s possible that Marson could be optioned.
Antonetti could send Gomes back to Columbus, where he can play every day, but he probably won’t. Gomes’ value to the Tribe has reached a point where his development has become secondary.
Right now, the Indians need Gomes more than he needs to practice against minor-leaguers.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.