Roughly five weeks remain until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training for the Indians. The sound of baseballs popping in gloves. The smell of freshly trimmed outfield grass. It's all right around the corner. That makes this a good time to go Around the Horn, taking a look at Cleveland's roster. Today we'll start this five-part series by examining the catchers.
CLEVELAND -- Yan Gomes assumed the role of cooperative rookie and took the teasing from Mike Aviles with a smile. The running joke inside the Indians' clubhouse was that Gomes was simply thrown in the trade that brought the young catcher and Aviles to Cleveland from Toronto last winter.
The truth is that, while the Tribe indeed valued Aviles for his skill as a shortstop and clubhouse leader, the Indians also saw a future big league catcher in Gomes. That said, there was some substance to the joking, considering Gomes was hardly a household name when he landed in a Cleveland uniform.
When last season ended, though, Gomes had the last laugh.
"He made believers out of everyone," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said.
Heading into the 2014 campaign, Gomes will serve as the starting catcher for the Indians, usurping that role from Carlos Santana. Cleveland still plans on keeping Santana in the lineup on a daily basis -- he could see action at first and third base, and at designated hitter, when he is not catching -- but the top spot on the depth chart now belongs to the young Brazilian.
In the 26-year-old Gomes, who was acquired with Aviles from the Blue Jays in exchange for right-hander Esmil Rogers on Nov. 3, 2012, the Indians have one of the American League's top defensive catchers and a promising hitter. Gomes opened last season at Triple-A, took over the backup role in April and was entrenched as the starter by the time the Tribe was pushing for the postseason.
Antonetti said it is a credit to Gomes' diligence behind the scenes.
"From the first day Yan came over," Antonetti said, "he demonstrated the mind-set of, 'Hey, I'm going to improve and do everything I can to earn an opportunity and to show that I'm capable of being an everyday Major League catcher. He went about that the right way by working hard, and being extraordinarily coachable.
"That started in winter development when he came out to Cleveland in January, and then he made the decision to be in Spring Training with us and not to play for his country [in the World Baseball Classic]. He did that because he wanted to be around the instruction of our Major League coaches. He worked his tail off to continue to improve as a catcher and as a player."
In 88 games, Gomes hit .294 with 11 home runs, 31 extra-base hits, 38 RBIs, 45 runs scored and an .826 OPS for Cleveland. He hit at a .319 clip with an .869 OPS in the second half, when he and Santana switched roles behind the plate. Defensively, Gomes stood out with a blend of strong game calling and an accurate arm.
Among AL catchers with at least 700 innings behind the plate, Gomes ranked first with a .408 (20-for-49) caught-stealing percentage, according to baseball-reference.com. Cleveland's pitching staff posted a 3.56 ERA in the 710 innings he caught, and he ended the season with just three errors and a .996 fielding percentage.
Given Gomes' rise to the Tribe's starting catching job, Cleveland is evaluating how to best utilize Santana, who is one of the club's top hitters. In 154 games in 2013, the switch-hitting Santana hit .268 with 20 homers, 60 extra-base hits, 75 RBIs, 93 walks and an .832 OPS. That is hardly the kind of hitter a team wants working only as a backup catcher.
"It's a very unique position," Antonetti said, "to have a guy who's the backup catcher also be an offensive force where you're working to find him opportunities to get in the lineup beyond when he's catching. With Carlos, his versatility provides an extraordinary competitive advantage for us."
Cleveland already knows Santana can handle playing first base, though Nick Swisher has that position locked down at the moment. The catcher can also serve as a DH, though he made it clear to the Indians that he prefers to be in the field, if he is not catching. That is why Santana has been trying his hand at third base in winter ball and will continue to work at the position this spring.
"The most important thing is that he's working hard at it," Antonetti said. "He's committed to being the best player he can be at the position, which is great. That's all we're looking for at this point. We're months away from having to make any sort of evaluations or decisions."
One of the pending decisions is whether to carry only the two catchers, or if the Indians will need a true backup catcher on the roster. Cleveland will have veteran Matt Treanor in camp as a non-roster invitee, giving him a chance to compete for a roster spot. If the Indians decide that Santana will garner significant time at third base, the team might need a third-string catcher in the big leagues.
"Roles evolve and playing time evolves," Antonetti said. "The way we're approaching it right now is we're very fortunate to have two everyday catchers on our Major League team."
Antonetti feels especially fortunate to have witnessed Gomes' rapid development.
"You're always looking for guys to make significant steps forward," said the GM. "Yan, I think he's a perfect example of a player who took the initiative to do everything in his power to become the player he thought he could be by working hard."