Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes suffered a sprained MCL in his knee over the weekend in the following awkward play at home plate.
Ouch. He should be out for at least 6-8 weeks. Left fielder Michael Brantley, who has struggled with back problems since February, has only played two games this year, and the last one was on Friday. As injuries ravage the Indians at key positions, a question hangs in the air:
How screwed are the Indians?
Pretty screwed, actually.
Cleveland was a pretty sexy pick this spring to finally unseat the Tigers in the AL Central, or at least challenge for a wild card. The Tribe won 85 games in 2014 in spite of the underperforming campaigns of Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher. They brought back much the same squad back in 2015, including American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, a budding superstar in Michael Brantley, breakout candidates in the rotation like Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar (who, surprisingly, was sent back to Colum. They added Brandon Moss in the outfield and elite shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor is likely going to join the club in the second half. It seemed pretty likely that the club would improve by at least a few games.
Nevertheless, the club's margin for error would be small. Based on their run differential last year, the Indians played like an 82 win team and the average minimum number of victories teams need to be the fifth best team in the league has typically been around 87 wins since 1995. Even a single penny on the track could derail the entire season. And, boy, are Brantley and Gomes big pennies. Terry Francona's team is simply not well equipped to absorb the loss of either player.
Gomes has quietly become perhaps the best catcher in the American League since being acquired from the Blue Jays and inheriting the position from Carlos Santana. His 126 OPS+ in 2013 and 2014 dwarfs the offensive performance of anyone else in the AL with more than 100 games caught. And it's not like he's a defensive slouch either. Baseball Prospectus estimates Gomes added at least a win defensively, and Fangraphs agrees that the Brazilian is especially adept at framing pitches and stealing strikes. Both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs agree he was worth about four and a half wins in each of the last two seasons.
Limited options mean Gomes simply can't be replaced
In his place, General Manager Chris Antonetti may explore the possibility of acquiring Dioner Navarro from the Blue Jays, but the Diamondbacks already found the asking price prohibitively high over the offseason, and Gomes will undoubtedly be reclaiming the starting job when he gets back. Instead, the Indians will almost certainly turn to Roberto Perez, a 26 year old with just 102 major league plate appearances, who hit .229 in Akron and Columbus from 2012-2014.
His backup will be Brett Hayes, a 31 year old minor league veteran who has hit .209/.252/.353 in 175 major league games. They are the very definition of replacement level. While this doesn't discount the possibility that Perez could get hot for a few weeks, chances are that Cleveland will lose Gomes for a third of a season and receive nothing to replace his production.
Shallow backstop depth is just the start
Things are just as bleak in left field, where Mike Aviles, David Murphy, and Jerry Sands have been splitting time. We know that Brantley, who was worth between six and seven wins last year, has been dealing with this back issue for some time, and that he hasn't healed. We also know that back issues can quickly turn into chronic problems. Clearly, he needs rest, but giving left field over to the law offices of Aviles, Murphy and Sands virtually guarantees a steep dropoff in production. Meanwhile, a sub-optimal Brantley might struggle at the plate and in the field anyway, and may exacerbate the injury.
I don't envy Terry Francona and Chris Antonetti's choices here. It's far, far too early to give up on 2015, but a critical lack of depth may force their hand and cut short what was shaping up to be another strong year in Cleveland.