Francisco Mejia, the Cleveland Indians top offensive prospect, never had a chance to make the big league club to kick the year off in 2018, and that’s okay. The logjam at the catching position in the Indians’ organization is a real thing, and while Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez are far from offensive stalwarts, their handling of the starting rotation is a pretty important piece to one of the top rotations in the world.
The problem with shuffling Mejia aside is that his offense is Major League ready today. For a team that is smack dab in the middle of their World Series window, Mejia’s offense is a game changer, and having him on the big league roster will make the team better offensively, especially once he shakes through his big league jitters.
Sure, some will point to the 11-game sample size last September in which Mejia struggled mightily at the plate, and say, “he’s not ready, he hasn’t even played a game in Triple-A yet, and he could barely hit the baseball when he came up.” But dissecting an 11-game sample size in which he was a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner in every game except for one…is simply a mistake.
Francisco Mejia CAN hit. Francisco Mejia WILL hit. And when he finally makes the team, he’ll be one of the line-ups’ top four bats, and that may be underselling his offensive skill-set. Remember the other Francisco? Remember how everyone talked about how Lindor was major league ready at defense the day he stepped on the diamond?
That’s Mejia on offense.
Last fall, Terry Francona purposefully only used Mejia as a catcher in small doses once he was called up. Developing an outstanding catcher is like seasoning a really good wine, it takes time, and the 2017 call-up for Mejia was simply to give him a taste of the big league level. Looking at his offense during that cup of coffee is simply the wrong thing to do.
But this does put the Indians in a bit of a conundrum. With Mejia ready offensively, but nowhere near ready defensively as a catcher1, what do you do with him next? Do you send him down to Columbus to continue to learn how to handle a rotation all year, which is likely the requisite to get his defense to a level in which he can make some major league noise? Do you allow him to split time in Columbus at catcher with Eric Haase (I’ll get to him in a bit) while learning a new position that he’ll likely only play at the big league level this year? Do you just move him to a new position, as they tried to do in the Arizona Fall League when they had him play third base? Or…do you just bring the kid up and strip mine him for his offense at some point in the summer, at whatever the cost?
All have their inherent risks. Some involve hindering Mejia’s development, which will always be a giant concern for the Indians with their top prospects. Look at how they handled Francisco Lindor in the minor league system. Lindor played 80-plus games at every level except for short-season Mahoning Valley, and there never was a moment they thought of pushing him faster. They seasoned him and made sure that his final push to the bigs was at just the right moment. And Lindor was one of the most level-headed kids I’d ever covered in the minors up to that point. There is no way this front office doesn’t want to take their time with Mejia, but sometimes ‘timing’ doesn’t really work out the way you want it, does it.
Keeping Mejia away from the Indians offense definitively makes it less good, especially if the outfield doesn’t find their way. Plugging Mejia in the outfielder wouldn’t be fun defensively (I don’t think), but putting Mejia somewhere in the latter part of the line-up, waiting to snack on unsuspecting Major League pitchers would be, and would extend the Indians line-up in an obscene way.
So what should the Indians do?
My bet is if Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, and Terry Francona had their way, this would be their best option. You could probably throw Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez into the “let’s hold him back another year” crew because it’s hard to outrun time as a catcher. Gomes made note of this right after Mejia was sent down to the minors, in a short piece written by Chris Assenheimer.
“It gets to a point where you’re going to have guys coming behind you,” Gomes said. “We’re extremely fortunate it’s Mejia. He’s proven a lot of things in the minor leagues, and he did a tremendous job for us last year.
“I know they want to see him be able to control a Triple-A staff and whatever it is. I know Cleveland’s definitely got a lot to look forward to when he gets here. But right now, it’s still ours.”
The Indians have their catchers, and while we understand their flaws, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Josh Tomlin, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen understand just how much their current catching crew help them behind the plate. It’s fun to talk about the balance of a starting rotation, but there isn’t a single one of the pitchers in the Indians organization that doesn’t take their backstops seriously. Our pitchers are really good, and our catchers make them better.
In 2011, I sat down with the Kinston Indians’ manager Aaron Holbert and asked him about his rotation, which at the time boasted top prospect Drew Pomeranz. Holbert laughed and said, “I’m not sure what I’d have here if I didn’t have Roberto Perez. On one day, he’s catching Drew, who can get it up there if we let him. The next day, he’s catching (Stephen) Wright, who’s lobbing up that new knuckleball of his. I’m sure it bothers Roberto, but you wouldn’t know it.” In that same conversation, Holbert gave me this nugget of information. “Roberto Perez could be a major league catcher today. Just give him a spot. He’s that good.”
That was in High A.
The relationships that these catchers build with their rotation-mates is second to none, and the Indians have been a perfect storm of batterymates. Yan Gomes first full season was in 2014, the year Corey Kluber won his first Cy Young award. In Kluber’s break-out season in 2013, Yan Gomes also had his break-out season. It’s no coincidence that Roberto Perez also debuted in 2014. This isn’t to take away how impressive the rotation is, just to point out that more often than not, a top rotation is backed-stopped by a top crew of defensive catchers. The Indians are that case study.
For Mejia to break into the starting line-up, he has to find his place.
So what is the Indians’ brass expecting of Francisco Mejia behind the plate? It’s one of those loaded “it’s simple” answers that are not really simple. He has to handle the rotation. Easy, right? He has to handle Corey Kluber, a two-time and reigning Cy Young winner. He has to handle the mercurial Trevor Bauer and the wild-ish Mike Clevinger. He has to handle the nibbling Josh Tomlin. He has to handle the velocity of Cody Allen and the sweeping power of Andrew Miller. That’s all he has to do…as a rookie…if he were to play catcher with the big league Indians.
While it may seem the perfect rotation to take care of Mejia, I’ve often wondered how “tied in” certain pitchers are with their backstops. In the Indians case, it’s this bonus scenario in which you have two catchers that the rotation and bullpen implicitly trust. So it makes a Mejia call-up slightly more complicated early in the season, as a catcher.
The catch-22 to that argument is that the Indians are built to build a catcher at the big league level, if you can find room for him in this current construct. Sandy Alomar is on the coaching staff. Two of the best defensive catchers are on the roster. The best rotation in baseball is on the hill. While training at the big league level is a hard thing to do, this team might be the best finishing school there is. If Mejia gets the time he needs in Columbus behind the plate, a late-year call-up for the playoff run does make sense.
But if the Indians are really interesting in taking care of Mejia as a prospect, in the same way that they took care of Lindor, he should stay behind the plate instead of throwing him into the outfield every couple of days. If you’re trying to build a catcher, and have a manager that has publicly stated that he needs work there, does it make sense to have him go down to Columbus to finish learning how to catch, while also learning a different position that he might have to play in the Big League playoffs?
In the perfect world, Perez and Gomes make it really hard for Mejia this year, and that buys him the time he supposedly needs to season himself as a catcher. He’ll have no better value offensively than he will behind the plate, if he’s truly got the skill-set to fit this rotation. Can he be that all-around catcher, and not just an offensive guy that is behind the plate to enhance value, just like Gary Sanchez? Cleveland fans think so…or is his offense just so good, it allows you to look past his defense?
Who will be the best ALL-AROUND catcher with the Indians by the end of 2018?
— Jim Pete (@JimPeteEHC) March 21, 2018
It’s really hard to predict whether or not Mejia will be…just good. Can he frame? Can he call a game? Can he gain the trust of his pitchers? Can he be that influential presence in the clubhouse that Gomes and Perez clearly are? Hard to tell, but other than recent comments, it feels like the Indians think he can be a good catcher, but it’s so hard to tell what that ever means.
For what it’s worth, I’ve heard both sides of the coin from people that I trust, in much the same way that I heard both sides of the coin regarding Carlos Santana. When you have those types of conflicting reports, you almost always find the answer somewhere in the middle. He’s got talent to play the position, but hasn’t figure it out yet.
Is sending Mejia down to the minors the right play? At 22-years old, he’ll be five years below the Triple-A league average, and playing the hardest defensive position in baseball. To find a comparison, Carlos Santana was 24-years old as a catcher in Columbus. In many ways, Santana was similar. He was a small-ish, offensive-first catcher, with a strong arm, and when I say smallish, Santana was a thicker player, coming in at 200 pounds as a rookie, while Mejia is a compact 180. I’ve heard the rumblings that Mejia is slightly bigger this year, but one of the “knocks” on him is that he’s slight for the position, which could hurt his durability. The point is to only show that Mejia and Santana are in a similar place, with Mejia being two years below Santana.
There’s real value in keeping Mejia in Columbus as a catcher, and not for the short term. Santana came up to the Indians at age 24, after a 60-game stint in Columbus. He never found his footing as a regular catcher, and eventually played the position-jump game, from third, to first, to DH, to first. Keeping Mejia in the minors for at least a year would definitely help his long term value. The question you have to ask is whether or not this helps the Indians this year, and does it even matter?
When a player is still learning a fairly complicated position in the minors, it’s almost always a bad idea for that player to learn a new position in the middle of that learning-curve. The catching position is one of those complicated positions.
Then came this revelation from manager Terry Francona earlier in spring training, regarding Mejia:
“During batting practice, he goes out in the outfield and shags balls. So we’re going to let him play some outfield.”
Now I love Terry Francona, but doesn’t this remind you of something?
Okay, okay, I mostly joke. The Indians do potentially have need to maximize Mejia’s value now, especially offensively. If Francona wants to field his best line-up in the playoffs in 2018, Francisco Mejia will likely be a part of it. If the catching position is off the table, then you definitively want to find a way to get him to the big league club another way. With Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso at DH and 1B, the only reality left is for Mejia to play in the outfield.
Sure, the Indians tried Mejia at third base in the Arizona Fall League. That lasted ten games and disappeared like a puddle in the desert. Maybe he didn’t like it. Maybe he wasn’t any good. Either way, the Indians currently aren’t pursuing that as an option. I’m not sure if that’s a red flag or not.
So ridiculous reasoning aside, the Francisco Mejia experiment will begin in earnest this season, with the idea of getting him to the big league club as soon as possible. While the Indians are still committed to Mejia behind the plate in the future, he’ll likely find himself manning an outfield slot as much as possible, without hindering his development (too much) behind the plate, and without affecting his offense (too much) at the plate.
This will work two-fold for the Indians, as it will allow Eric Haase to get his time behind the plate as well. Haase made himself a really interesting prospect last year, hitting 27 home runs, with 26 of those coming during his time in Akron. I only mention this because Haase could really open some eyes in 2018 if he builds upon last season.
But for this experiment to really take shape, there has to be a spot open in the outfield, right? So where would Mejia likely play if he’s called up in 2018?
The Indians depth chart in the outfield has still yet to be played out. I’m sure if the Indians had their way, Michael Brantley would be in left, Bradley Zimmer would be in center, and some sort of platoon involving Lonnie Chisenhall would be in right field. With the initial roster containing Brandon Guyer and Tyler Naquin, it becomes clear that the openings in this roster will likely be the corners.
Mejia, as a switch hitter, is solid from both sides of the plate, but has raked against left-handed pitching. That immediately plays as a simple platoon with Chisenhall down the road. While Brantley doesn’t need a platoon in the outfield, the Indians could get creative, allowing Mejia a game or two in left field a week as well, likely ensuring Mejia three or four games a week, and thus quieting those that will say, “BUT HE NEEDS TO PLAY!”
This plan obviously can only be utilized if you think that either Mejia can play a serviceable outfield, along with taking into account the fact that there are just simply fewer outfield chances. You would also have to be okay with the hit that he would inevitably take at learning the catcher position.
And learning how to be a big league catcher would take a hit.
Eric Haase plays an interesting part here, since he’s developed a solid power bat, and is improving defensively. Having Haase and Mejia splitting time at catcher, while learning a new position is a good thing in theory. I’ve talked about roster flexibility since Jose Ramirez emerged as a prospect several years ago, and having Haase and Mejia learning a new position is almost always a good thing…unless it keeps you from being good at any one specific position.
But I keep thinking about Yan Gomes, when you talk about roster flexibility with a catcher. Remember, he came to the Indians with this interesting mix of first base, third base, the outfield and catcher. He actually did that very thing, pretty successfully, with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012. With the Indians, he played first base once, in his first game with the team, as a late inning shift. The difference with Gomes, at the time, was need. The Indians needed Gomes to stick at catcher, because at the time, there wasn’t really anyone else of consequence, past Santana. But since then, the Indians have been reluctant to move him around the diamond. Perhaps it’s a health worry, but it does make you wonder why they’d even ponder moving Mejia around before he had solidified himself as a catcher.
Another argument is whether or not Mejia’s offense takes a hit, while learning a new position on the fly, then getting a call-up to the big leagues at that new position, which would all but nullify the offensive bonus of adding Mejia.
If you’re bringing Mejia up to platoon in the outfield, wouldn’t this be a better option? What if the Indians benched Yonder Alonso against lefties, moved Edwin Encarnacion to first base, and let Mejia DH? Sure, Encarnacion is pretty dreadful at first, but this would allow Mejia to work out with the big league club as a catcher, not have him have to worry about a new position, and he’d be able to spell Perez and Gomes once or twice a week.
If you’re a big believer in Greg Allen and Yandy Diaz as right-handed hitters in the future, you could see a scenario in which Mejia, Allen, and Diaz fill in the lefty splits, making the offense that much better, while also spelling the veterans.
The most likely scenario for Mejia is that he stays in Columbus until late May or June, and then becomes a priority when and if injuries appear. WFNY guest writer Jim Ford and I talked about this very thing last week.
The only way he sees time at C is via injury to Robo/Gomes. ANd if it’s an extended one, it would not surprise me at all if they called up Haase.
— Jim Ford (@jpftribe) March 22, 2018
If you follow that chain a bit, you can see the two trails of thought. If there’s a long-term injury at catcher, who gets the spot? Jim mentioned Haase, and I disagreed, and mentioned Mejia. I think the key to any catcher injury is the when. If it happens early in the season, I could see Haase get the call up while they either wait on service time for Mejia, or let him settle as a full-time catcher or catcher/outfielder.
If it happens after May 31st, I think it’s all Mejia, all the time.
The same could bare out if there are injury issues in the outfield, and considering Brantley, Chisenhall, Guyer, and Zimmer have all missed significant time with injuries over the past year, you can make a case that this is likely to happen. In that case, you could see a situation in which Mejia is called up to be a part-time outfielder/third catcher.
This is the real question, isn’t it. When you think about the way the Indians handled their home grown superstar, Francisco Lindor, who absolutely could have handled an early call-up as well as anyone, it does make you wonder about why they are so willing to bounce Mejia around.
While his offense has been discussed as a plus-plus skill for years, there’s been no mention of Lindor’s personality or maturity. This isn’t a knock on Mejia, just a statement of fact. Mejia, while the Indians’ top prospect, is there mostly because of his offensive skill level. The rest is “in development.” So why are they so willing to try him at third, and equally try him in the outfield?
Perhaps this is the only piece of information that’s important. If they believe that he can be a good catcher, and he’s your top prospect, is their offense at the major league level that desperate for offense that they would risk Mejia’s development to learn a new position before he’s comfortable at his current position?
And perhaps there is our answer.
No, it doesn’t make sense, and no, the Indians don’t necessarily need that sort of boost….unless he’s really not going to be a good catcher.