In an offseason where the most commonly exchanged cliche in Cleveland is “market constraints,” it appears the Indians are at a difficult crossroads. The team is faced with either running back the 2018 roster in 2019 minus Brantley and others, or attempting to thread the needle of dealing impactful players to strengthen the window beyond this year.
The Indians have spent the last half decade utilizing this “threading the needle” methodology. This current Indians team-turned-continued-contender is the by-product of innumerable deals and decisions resulting in the most impressive core in Cleveland in nearly 20 years. Indeed, be it Corey Kluber centerpiecing a 4th starter tradeoff, a little covered free-agent latin prospect turned MVP candidate Jose Ramirez, or Kluber, Ramirez, Carlos Carrasco, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger, and others all producing at elite levels while on contracts significantly below market value. This confluence of production and surplus value is nearly unheard of; and sadly unlikely to occur for a very long time again in Cleveland. While all of these moves went right; the Indians are still faced with the dangerous position of having to move salary, even good salaries for a small market, to get better.
Lying somewhere between the high value targets of Kluber and Carrasco, and the harder to move targets.
Here enters veteran catcher Yan Gomes, who has surfaced on the trade rumor circuit in recent days. Gomes trade value lies somewhere between high value targets such as Kluber and Carrasco, and the harder to move targets such as Jason Kipnis and Yonder Alonso. Yet it’s clear his skill-set behind the plate has caught the eye of some interested suitors who like the financial structure of his contract.
One of the questions raised when discussing a potential Gomes trade is whether he offers any actual surplus upon which the Indians could construct a solid return, or if the surplus is so limited as to make this a purely salary relief structured deal.
A Gomes deal from the Cleveland perspective is structured on the notion that the Indians have relative depth at the position; though depth at catcher is a bit of a fallacy. One of the arguments would be that integrating more advanced valuations of the position; specifically receiving, has Roberto Perez as a comparable player.
Gomes’ highly-touted 2018: 3.3 WARP (435 plate appearances)
Perez, 2017: 2.4 WARP (248 plate appearances)
Gomes, 2015-2018 (1,471 plate appearances): 4.9 WARP
Perez, 2015-2018 (868 plate appearances): 6.1 WARP https://t.co/ThOhrtFuD4
— Kevin Dean (@kvnbsbl) November 20, 2018
Further, readers of this site, and this author’s absurd musings would note the hubris which I have bandied about regarding Eric Haase.
Never the less; moving on from Gomes is difficult because of his role in the last half decade of Cleveland professional baseball. Yet, the question above must be revisited; is Gomes actually worth moving beyond mere salary relief?
First, the contract Gomes is owed $7 million in 2019, with player options for 2020 and 2021 of $9 million and $11 million respectively. Further, if the 2020 option is not utilized it triggers a $1 million buyout. Thus, the best way to think about dealing his contract is $8 million for 2019 with an $8 million option.
If one accepts the estimated cost of a win as $8 million; Gomes was worth 2.2 fWAR translating to roughly $18 million in 2018. On this basis surplus projection over the next two years is reasonable. However, projection systems have Gomes as a 1.3-1.5 fWAR player in 2018 which assuming linearity of the cost of a win is roughly $12 million in value. Yet, the cost of a win is not linear and buying the first 0-1 WAR should generally be pretty cheap thus projecting any actual budget surplus is difficult. Of course, Fangraphs WAR has its faults and catcher in general is particularly difficult to evaluate on a pure cost per win analysis.
First, the position receives less playing time due to wear and tear so a league average player actually should sit around 1.5 WAR as a benchmark. Second, Fangraphs WAR does not fully integrate pitching framing metrics not to mention the unanswerable question of a catcher’s impact on managing the staff.
It is reasonable to postulate that Gomes is undervalued by the Fangraphs WAR metric because while he is not Perez’ equal as a framer, Gomes is still a plus framer placing 15th among the 82 catchers in 2018 with at least 1000 chances. Indeed, Gomes outside of an outlier season has proven to be an above average framer which should inflate our projection of value he would provide over the next two years. BWARP, which rolls in framing, had Gomes as the fourth most valuable catcher in baseball in 2018 behind just J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal, and Jorge Alfaro.
The fascination is that Realmuto and Grandal are both likely to move before 2019. However, Gomes is the oldest of the group but likely the most cost stable. Where Grandal expects significant free agent commitment, and Realmuto a massive prospect cost as well as soon entering arbitration; Gomes has a short option heavy, cost-capped, deal.
In this lens Gomes is wholly more interesting as an asset because 2 years $16 million for a Gomes with an option to get out after year one is a dynamic position for a club to be in. Returning to cost per win projecting inflation to Fangraphs WAR number via Framing from Baseball Prospectus metrics, Gomes could conservatively project for ~ 4 WAR in 2019-2020. The surplus value above his contract being roughly $16 million. This is significant potential surplus and can be argued in either direction. Therefore it is necessary to project potential returns based on estimations to either side of $16 million.
Craig Edwards provided excellent research when he endeavored to evaluate the financial value of each level of prospect. The outcome is based on the relationship between observed scouting grades and WAR accumulation and predictions.
Here are a range of projected surplus values from the Yan Gomes contract:
$8 million: This would equate to the trade value of a roughly 45+ grade position player prospect((45+ is a just below league average player with a big league role and would rest outside the top 125 prospects in baseball)).
$16 million: This is potentially worth a roughly 50 grade pitching prospect
$24 million: This would equate to roughly a 50 grade position player prospect
These are rough approximations and certainly provide little certainty, but are in encouraging in that the Indians could receive a substantive prospect to aid in rebuilding the upper levels of the minors in 2019 and potentially to be flipped near midseason if necessary as well as creating financial flexbility.
The Indians may choose not to take the prospect route in which case the return would likely be structured around acquiring a player with similar potential surplus bands. Isolating a list of those or equivalency is exceedingly difficult. Gomes is one of the ten best catchers in baseball at the moment and many contenders are thin at the position. For the Indians moving Gomes has to be more than salary relief but structured around an actual substantive return.