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Trading Yan Gomes could be the Indians’ latest heist

Who knew trading an All-Star catcher could be so good?

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Remember when the Indians traded Yan Gomes? You should. It really wasn’t that long ago, but weirdly enough it already seems normal that he’s gone. The white-hot fire that Indians fans breathed when the trade initially happened on December 1 is long gone now, and it’s just accepted fact that Gomes is a member of the Washington Nationals.

That could easily be a coincidence — maybe the Indians just really wanted Daniel Johnson and didn’t want an All-Star catcher clogging up the roster. Or maybe, just maybe, they had it planned from the beginning. Maybe the whole thing is actually sort of genius, and with a little bit of luck, could be the next big Indians trade heist.

Recent Indians history is littered with such trades. Vinnie Pestano for Mike Clevinger. Casey Blake for Carlos Santana. Jake Westbrook for Corey Kluber. Cliff Lee for Carlos Carrasco. CC Sabathia for a PTBNL (Michael Brantley). Cliff Lee for Carlos Carrasco. Shin-Soo Choo for Trevor Bauer. All these trades involved fan-favorite players being dealt for some prospects; with the exception of Trevor Bauer, most of these guys were relatively unknown to anyone but hardcore minor-league trackers.

It’s too soon to evaluate the return of the Yan Gomes trade, but there are factors even more important than what Daniel Johnson does in an Indians uniform that could make it an all-timer.

Timing is everything

This is a very small bit of what makes the trade good, but it’s worth noting, and worth getting out of the way up front.

There was a time that trading Yan Gomes seemed impossible. Fans loved Gomes, the rotation seemed to love his ability to call a game and he was the epitome of one of Tito’s guys. A clubhouse hero, and good enough on both sides of the ball to stick around for a long time.

Remember when he went on an awful slump in 2016 and the Indians actually went out and “sacrificed” a chicken to Jobu to try and help him? For the purposes of this section, please refrain from looking ahead to what happened after the sacrifice. He definitely didn’t immediately mess up his shoulder and open the door for Roberto Perez to play hero in the postseason.

Point is, everybody loved him. And he was good.

Yet, somehow, the Indians managed to trade him for seemingly nothing more than salary relief... and we’re all just kind of okay with it? Maybe I’m in a different circle of Indians fans than the rabid Yan Gomerites, but I’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone still truly enraged about Gomes being traded. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Unless the Indians had another signing planned early on, there was no real reason to deal Yan Gomes as quickly as they did. Surely they could have dangled him a bit longer and got better offers. Leak it to Ken Rosenthal, field some offers, watch everyone lose their minds. You know, the usual.

They didn’t bother waiting until the Winter Meetings, where all eyes would be on their every move, and they didn’t even wait until closer to spring training, when another team might be desperate and baseball fans would be paying attention.

No, they did it less than a month after the season concluded, when everyone was coming down off the high of an exhilarating one-sided World Series and recovering with Baker Mayfield and the Browns. As a result, the flames were tempered, and just three months later no one really seems to care anymore.

Maybe it really was a coincidence — they weren’t the only team to make a trade so early in the offseason (and they also traded Erik Gonzalez even earlier in the offseason). But, in the grand scheme of things with this trade, the way they did it without causing an uproar deserves to be remembered.

Now, onto the more important things.

Roberto Perez might actually be the better catcher, anyway

At first glance, trading Yan Gomes for Some Guy Named Daniel Johnson looks like a cut and dry salary dump. The Indians said as much when they admitted they couldn’t maintain the roster on its current course towards a $200 million-plus payroll, and the $7 million Gomes was owed in 2019 is a lot of money to some people.

But the story doesn’t end there for this trade, if nothing else because the Indians might have actually kept their best man behind the plate.

According to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, Roberto Perez is expected to be worth 3.2 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) in 2019 — also known as the sixth-best catcher in all of baseball. Yan Gomes comes in at a respectable 1.4 WARP.

Almost all of Perez’s PECOTA projection value comes from his work behind the plate. He’s expected to be worth 25.7 Fielding Runs Above Average, which is the best among catchers in baseball.

Baseball Prospectus has always been at the forefront of pitch framing and accurately judging catcher defense. Back in 2014, when the mainstream baseball world was still coming to terms with the fact that RBI are actually bad, BP already had a regressed model for framing and blocking pitches. They’ve continued to grow their defensive evaluations, and are currently the closest we’ll ever get to whatever black magic voodoo front offices have to evaluate their players down to the microscopic level.

And they love Roberto Perez.

For example, FRAA (the thing that Roberto Perez is projected to lead the league in by 4.4 run margin) is a statistic developed by Baseball Prospectus that wraps up framing, throwing, and blocking in one pretty little number.

Last season, while serving as Yan Gomes’ backup and Trevor Bauer’s personal catcher, Perez ranked 8th in FRAA (11.1). In 2017 he ranked 5th (19.8). In 2016 he ranked 11th (10.1). By Baseball Prospectus and PECOTA’s estimations, he’s going to take a leap into the best defensive catcher in baseball with his full year behind the plate — or at the very least, the heavily favored starter over rookie Eric Haase.

This isn’t exactly a new trend, either. Since he began getting regular backup playing time in 2015, Perez has continually been the better defensive catcher, according to FRAA.

Here’s where Gomes and Perez have ranked in FRAA each year since 2015 among all MLB catchers:

  • 2014: Gomes (8th), Perez (30th)
  • 2015: Gomes (38th), Perez (17th)
  • 2016: Gomes (89th), Perez (11th)
  • 2017: Gomes (17th), Perez (5th)
  • 2018: Gomes (14th), Perez (8th)

Gomes is still marginally better at preventing stolen bases, but tossing in everything important in being a good defensive catcher — especially framing — and Roberto easily comes out on top.

Sure, Perez being a better defensive catcher is great and all, but it feels like we’re missing something here.

Oh, right.

Daniel Johnson might actually be pretty good on his own

I purposefully left this point last, because it’s the most difficult one to evaluate to this point, and it’ll stay that way for awhile. But you know that "no-name" outfielder that the Indians acquired as a whatever-we-can-get grab from the Nationals in exchange for the aging and expensive Yan Gomes?

He might actually be good.

After taking a year to get acclimated to pro ball as a 21-year-old in Low-A — where he casually posted a 99 wRC+ — Johnson exploded in 2017 with a 154 wRC+ and 17 home runs in 88 Single-A games. His bat cooled off a bit last season, when he slashed .267/.321/.410 in Double-A, but his wheels really began to shine with 21 stolen bases,even though he missed most of June with a broken hamate bone

It’s not hard to see what the Indians liked about this kid when they brought him over in exchange for Yan Gomes. On top of his speed and ability to spread the ball all over the field, he hits the ball hard. Johnson had the hardest-hit ball recorded in the Arizona Fall League last November, with a Yandy Diaz-esque 116.4 mile-per-hour groundout.

He also absolutely crushed a ball in spring training.

You can’t declare him Miguel Cabrera with speed quite yet, but hitting a ball 112 miles per hour is hitting a ball 112 miles per hour, no matter where or when you do it. And boy can he do it.

Could he be the next Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, or Corey Kluber, brought over as a trade piece than many mistakenly overlook? Only time will tell.