After two years of disappointment, the Indians could finally make a serious run in 2016. Their rotation ranks among the best in baseball, as Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer each have elite potential. Aside from established regulars in Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana, their position players include a trove of intriguing youngsters, chief among them the wünderkind Francisco Lindor. Projections at both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus think Cleveland will win the AL Central this year.
Nevertheless, they should try to get better before the season begins — after all, they had similarly optimistic outlooks in 2014 and 2015, and that didn't amount to anything. They could probably use a center fielder and/or a third baseman, to take plate appearances away from Abraham Almonte and Giovanny Urshela respectively, and an upgrade to the top-heavy bullpen couldn't hurt. If they want to improve in any of these areas, they'll need to trade away someone.
Enter Roberto Perez. The catcher made something of a name for himself last season, when he compiled 1.7 fWAR in 226 plate appearances for the Tribe (and, as we'll soon see, that total might sell him short). He's somewhat old, having turned 27 in December, but with five years of team control remaining, he has plenty of time to provide value. If Cleveland makes the right move, he'll do so for another club, and give the Indians much of that value immediately.
Why should the Indians trade Perez? First and foremost, Perez has a decent bat. He showed off his offensive potential in 2015, with a respectable 110 wRC+. Although we should obviously regress that a bit for our expectations, one element of it looks pretty sustainable — and bodes well for his future at the plate.
In the 2014 offseason, FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel complimented Perez on his "feel...for the strike zone", which had helped him accumulate walks in the minor leagues. During the subsequent campaign, Perez was one of 352 players to accumulate 200 plate appearances. On average, those players swung at pitches outside the strike zone 30.9 percent of the time; Perez did a little better than that. How much better?
Yeah, he led the majors. Yeah, he beat Votto. Yeah, that's pretty damn impressive for a rookie. If Perez can continue walking in 14.6 percent of his trips to the dish, he'll remain at least a satisfactory hitter.
To roughly measure his odds of maintaining that plate discipline, let's look to history. Over the past nine seasons — also known as The PITCHf/x Era — a mere 16 rookies have amassed 200 plate appearances with an O-Swing rate below 20 percent. Their subsequent careers went pretty well, at least in terms of free passes:
|Season||Player||Rookie PA||Rookie O-Swing%||Rookie BB%||Later PA||Later O-Swing%||Later BB%|
All together, the 14 relevant batters have compiled a 10.2 percent walk rate in their post-rookie tenure. Some of these men washed out, but the successes of the bunch offer some hope. Plus, Jaso and Ruiz — players who have had respectable major-league careers despite late debuts — demonstrate that age won't necessarily hold Perez back.
Perez still strikes out a lot, and his power has a tendency to come and go. He has anything but a certain offensive future. For a backstop, however, teams will tolerate inconsistent production at the plate, especially if the player can succeed behind it. And in terms of defense, Perez really stands apart.
Down on the farm, Perez intimidated opposing runners, whom he threw out 37.7 percent of the time. He surpassed that threshold in 2015, with a phenomenal 41.9 percent caught-stealing rate. His blocking prowess also helped his cause at the major-league level, where he allowed an average amount of both wild pitches and passed balls. That combination made him worth three runs above an average defensive catcher, in FG's judgment. Over just 538.1 innings, that makes him pretty valuable.
In the most important area of catcher defense, Perez was more than pretty valuable. His framing ability saved Cleveland 4.7 runs — and, as noted above, he achieved that in about a half of a season. That didn't come out of nowhere, either: From 2012 to 2014, he stole enough strikes in the minors to earn 59.5 runs. This metric doesn't factor into fWAR, so his value takes a hit in that regard, but it still matters. Perez appears to be a spectacular receiver, and while that talent could disappear, I'd bet on it sticking around.
Why should the Indians give away a catcher who excels at defense and holds his own on offense? Well, they already have someone who meets both of those criteria: Yan Gomes. After he exploded in 2013, the Indians signed him to a long-term contract extension, that could potentially keep him on the team through 2021. In terms of true talent, Gomes beats Perez with both the bat and the glove — he's clearly the superior player, and the one that should stay in Cleveland.
Gomes played horribly in 2015, as he suffered a knee injury in April that seemed to hamper him the rest of the way. He hadn't missed much time before then, though, meaning he has a good chance at regaining his health in 2016. This makes him more of a buy-low option, as opposed to Perez, whom the Indians could sell high on. While either player could conceivably depart in a trade, Perez makes the most sense.
Of course, the Tribe could always keep both players. Having two front-line catchers can only help your team, especially if one of them gets hurt. But until that happens, one of Perez or Gomes will see less playing time than they deserve, while the Indians will be giving plate appearances at some positions to players far below front-line, or even average. To replace the likes of Almonte and Urshela, they'll need to part ways with a true asset. If Cleveland wants to make the leap in 2016, they'll make the difficult choice and deal Perez.
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