The Indians cut payroll this winter and out went Yan Gomes – one of the more significant and surprising departures of the offseason – in exchange for a pair of controllable prospects and a sense of uncertainty at a once reliable catcher position.
In an age of catcher-by-committee’s, the Indians will surely follow suit. Roberto Perez will see a boost in playing time, but newcomer Kevin Plawecki might be used just as much. There figures to be a sprinkle of Eric Haase at some point as well, who has waited patiently in the Indians farm system since his drafting in 2011.
Cheaper catching is what the Indians wanted and it’s what they’ll get. Perez and Plawecki will make a combined base salary of $3.6 million in 2018, a little over half of what the Washington Nationals will pay Gomes this year ($7 million). But, among the payroll-slashing moves conducted this offseason, this is the one that could give Indians fans the most headaches in the immediate future.
Clevelanders have become quite familiar with Perez over the years, perhaps frustratingly so. His career 72 wRC+ is ugly and last season’s mark of 40 wRC+ was even uglier, but above-average defense and a healthy connection with Trevor Bauer has kept his name on lineup cards.
By Fangraphs’ new measurement of pitch-framing (FRM), Perez’s FRM rating of 7.6 ranked 14th among the 47 catchers with at least 400 innings played last season. Pitch-framing is certainly a nice tool to have, and Perez will seemingly always do that well.
But, last year can’t happen again.
Not the 40 wRC+, or the .263 slugging percentage, or the 33.3 percent strikeout rate. Another season of those numbers will lead to more innings for Plawecki and Haase, who each boast more enticing offensive profiles than the 30-year-old Perez.
The hope for Perez is that he can put up average numbers against lefties – against whom he owns a career 93 wRC+ – and maintains his usual sturdy defense. Aside from that, there’s not really too much to hope for, besides maybe giving us another glimpse at World Series Robo.
If Perez can hit at even acceptable level against lefties, then he might have a fitting platoon partner in Plawecki. The 28-year-old, who has spent the entirety of his 8-year professional career in the Mets organization, has generally performed against righties as of late. After struggling against right-handers his first two years in the majors, he slashed .270/.345/.459 against righties across 84 plate appearances in 2017. His wRC+ mark 92 in 219 plate appearances against righties in 2018 was acceptable as well. Not great, but acceptable.
Between the cheap price tag and his ability to kinda-sorta hit right-handed pitching, it’s clear to see why the Indians decided on him as Perez’s platoon pairing.
However, this is where we can’t get caught up in the idealism of platoon pairing. It’s easy to think ‘hey! if Perez can hit left-handers at an average level and Plawecki can hit right-handers at an average level, then we’ll be fine!’ Platoons rely on each player doing one specific thing well, but what happens when he can’t do that one thing well anymore? Brandon Guyer went from an unbelievable mark of 180 wRC+ against lefties in 2016 to 84 wRC+ a year later, essentially rendering him useless. Neither of these guys have proven to be good hitters at the MLB level, nor are they consistent in any way. If either one doesn’t find success in their respective roles at the plate, there is certainly some disaster potential between this duo.
In case of said disaster, Haase will be the next man in line. With some noticeable pop in his bat, the 26-year-old likely offers the highest offensive ceiling of the Tribe’s big league catching options. In 2017, he slugged 26 home runs in 95 games played with Akron (AA), before tacking on another 20 bombs with Columbus (AAA) in 2018. The gap between his walk rate and his strikeout rate is generally pretty wide, giving him the profile of a big-swinging power hitter, but that at least provides for some run production.
Haase is no sure-thing defensively, but that should not stop him from getting a good dose of action in 2019.
“Haase has made himself into a decent receiver and scores well in Cleveland’s framing metrics. He also has improved the quickness and accuracy of his throws, leading the Triple-A International League by throwing out 49 percent of basestealers in 2018. He doesn’t project as a regular but could be useful as a slugging backup who’s capable behind the plate.” – via MLB Pipeline
Between Perez, Plawecki and Haase, the Tribe have options, but none are particularly exciting, which makes the trade of Gomes such a frustrating one to come to terms with. There is, quite literally, no good justification for the Gomes trade aside from simply cutting payroll, which might go to illustrate how dire of a financial situation the franchise was in this offseason.
Was the trade a ploy to sell-high on a declining asset? Possibly, but even risking it with another year of Gomes is a much better option than tossing three unknowns at the wall and hoping one or two of them stick.
The Indians are banking on a step forward from one of Perez, Plawecki or Haase, and if neither comes through, a trade could certainly be in order.