Ever since Yan Gomes went down with a separated shoulder, the rumors linking the Indians and Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy have been swirling. On paper, the deal seems obvious: Lucroy is one of the best offensive catchers in baseball while holding his own defensively, and the Indians have gotten pitcher-level offense from every backstop they have used this season. The Indians, firmly in the driver’s seat for the AL Central title, are known to have a decided lack of depth in the bullpen, but it’s becoming more and more apparent just how patchwork the bottom of the lineup has become.
Take Friday’s game against the Orioles, for instance. With Lonnie Chisenhall out fighting an illness, let’s take a look at the bottom third of the lineup that they were forced to trot out:
And that’s not all! When the Indians tried to put things together in the top of the 9th, Terry Francona went to his bench to get Gimenez out of the lineup with the game on the line. Who did he go to? Who was left on the lineup to be a savior?
Erik Gonzalez, a rookie who has all of six plate appearances, and is a career .274 hitter in the minor leagues.
That substitution, to me, says everything that needs to be said about the Indians catching situation. First, due to injury and ineffectiveness, they’re forced to play an offensive black hole like Gimenez with alarming regularity (Note: I know he is Trevor Bauer‘s personal catcher, but it’s not like Francona has another catcher with a batting average above .000 to choose from at this point). Secondly, due to injury and illness, a young kid who might project to have a decent bat someday was the best option that Tito could find in the 9th inning.
If this scenario played out in San Francisco, I have a hunch that Bruce Bochy would tell Madison Bumgarner to grab a bat instead of Gimenez, and I don’t think he would have thought about it very long. In Chicago, I have no doubt that Joe Maddon would roll the dice with Jake Arrieta and his .843 OPS over an untested rookie. That’s how thin the Indians bench is: one tweaked ankle, one errant pitch, and I’m sitting here talking about the pitchers I’d rather have to pinch hit over Erik Gonzalez.
But let’s not get hung up on last night’s game – it was just one game out of 162, and it was highly unlikely that even the ‘roided-up ghost of Albert Belle could have turned that game into a win. No, this is indicative of a much larger problem which is itself the culmination of Michael Brantley‘s broken shoulder and Yan Gomes’ season from hell. Indians catchers have combined this season to form the following grotesque slash-line (parental discretion advised): .168/.218/.293. That’s a .511 OPS. Over the past three years, I wanted to run Mike Aviles out of town because he was flirting with a .600 OPS in irregular playing time. That .511 OPS is what the team has gotten when you factor in each and every at-bat registered by a catcher in every game this season. There aren’t adequate adjectives in the English language to quantify how horrifyingly awful that offensive production is.
And the Indians have an opportunity to add a veteran, all-star catcher who has an .841 OPS this season. But beyond just this season, here are his offensive ranks in various traditional and sabermetric categories since 2012:
.293 AVG (2nd in MLB)
.354 OBP (4th)
.461 SLG (4th)
120 WRC+ (4th)
16.6 fWAR (2nd)
.815 OPS (2nd)
.353 wOBA (2nd)
The Indians are, understandably, not talking publicly about any potential deal with Milwaukee, and it’s pretty plain to see why. The Brewers know what kind of a need the Indians have – and they know how nicely Lucroy’s $5.2m salary for this year and next fits into what the Indians are trying to do with their payroll. I have to assume the conversation starts and ends “Bradley Zimmer or Clint Frazier,” and the Indians probably balk and hang up.
If that’s the case, they are making a mistake. The Indians should absolutely be willing to part with one of their two star prospects in order to push this team that much closer to the postseason.
Four years ago, the Indians traded two of their prized prospects in Alex White and Drew Pomeranz to the Colorado Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez. At the time, people lamented the Indians giving up a top prospect for a marginal upgrade with significant risk, but then one year later when Ubaldo caught fire for three months and drove the Indians into the Wild Card game (not even the postseason proper!), that was all forgotten.
Did you know Pomeranz was an all-star this year? That he put up a 2.47 ERA in 17 starts with the San Diego Padres? Even if you did know, do you care? Ubaldo is long gone, and his tenure with the Indians amounted to a season and a half rental with only that wild card game (and a compensatory pick) to show for it. I haven’t taken a poll of Indians fans or anything, but I know personally I wouldn’t undo that trade, because without it that magical run in 2013 probably never happens. We gave up something to get something, and we got it. There are no hard feelings.
The Indians don’t even have to look far for another salient example of this phenomenon. Two summers ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for All-Star Kevin Love. At the time, people said they would regret it, that they paid too much. When the Warriors won the title over the Cavs last year, people said they wished they hadn’t made that trade. Now? One World Championship later? Good luck finding anyone in Cleveland who would go back and undo that trade.
Winning is the end that justifies almost all means. The Indians have done a lot of winning this season in spite of abysmal performances from their catchers, but they haven’t won anything yet.
Ask yourself: How do you feel about Chris Gimenez, Yan Gomes, or Roberto Perez coming up to bat as the tying run in a potential game 7 in the playoffs? If the Indians ask themselves that question and find they need an antacid to digest it, they should consider trading anyone who might push this team over the hump this season.