The Cleveland Indians are going to look for ways to shed salary this winter. That outcome is as guaranteed as the sun rising tomorrow. Though, considering the year we’ve endured, even that may not be a favorable bet.
Still, after a year devoid of ticket revenue, Cleveland is likely considering some tough salary decisions in the offseason as an attempt to soften the blow.
Last month, Jim Ingraham of Forbes flagged a few players whose future with the team may be in doubt as a result of this, some of which have been discussed further here at Cleveland Baseball Insider. Francisco Lindor approaching his final year of team control makes him an obvious candidate, while Carlos Santana and Brad Hand each have eight figure options which seem ripe for the Tribe to decline.
After mentioning these three, Ingraham also suggested Roberto Pérez could end up feeling the impact of a summer without ticket revenue. Cleveland’s catcher will be a free agent after this season, unless the team decides to pick up his $5.5 million option for 2021.
Honestly, that’s where the Indians need to draw the line.
If the losses from this season force the departures of Lindor, Hand or Santana, it’d be unfortunate, but understandable. When it comes to Pérez’s option, though, that’s something Cleveland should be picking up next year no matter what.
Yes, I know, it’s not my money. I’m in no position to dictate how a team reacts after a year like this, as nobody could’ve expected a season with such significant financial losses.
Still, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of Cleveland declining the relatively inexpensive option of its starting catcher. Especially when you consider how well he performed when finally given everyday playing time.
After averaging just 59 games per season during his first five years with the Tribe, Pérez took over as the team’s primary backstop after Yan Gomes was traded the previous winter. To say he rewarded the Indians for putting their faith in him would be selling it short.
Pérez saw significant upticks in several offensive stats. He flexed more power (.213 ISO) than ever before, and logged the best OPS (.774) of his career. Of his 34 extra base hits in 2019, all but ten were home runs.
In fairness, he wasn’t perfect at the plate. His wRC+ was still 2% below league average, and though his strikeout rate dipped year-over-year, it was still higher than you’d like to see (28.3%).
At the same time, Pérez was coming off a 2018 campaign which featured the worst strikeout rate (33.3%), slash line (.168/.256/.263) and wRC+ (40) of his career. To see a bounce-back like the one he put forth last year is nothing short of impressive.
Yet, those improved numbers still paled in comparison to what Pérez offered Cleveland defensively in 2019.
In Pérez, the Indians received Gold Glove caliber catching. His defensive runs above average (20.0) was higher than all but four players in the entire league. He converted 51.7% of non-swing pitches into called strikes in the shadow zone of the plate, which was second best among catchers receiving at least 2,600 pitches.
Ice that cake with Pérez’s Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year award, and you have yourself one of the best catchers in baseball.
The Indians can retain a player of this caliber for just $5.5 million in 2021.
That’s not a number to consider for cost-cutting. That’s a discount.
Admittedly, it’s only slightly higher than the $5 million Domingo Santana will be owed if the Indians pick up his option next season. Said option is one I’d bet they’ll decline.
That said, there’s a slight difference between Santana, a late offseason flyer, and your starting catcher.
Even if Cleveland were to consider declining Pérez’s option, who’d be his replacement?
Sandy León was signed over the winter to be his backup in 2020, but his deal is only for one season. Re-signing him would cost less, but considering his underwhelming offensive numbers, this would be a clear step back.
The Indians’ No. 3 ranked prospect -- Bo Naylor -- has a promising future ahead of him. However, MLB Pipeline doesn’t expect him to make his debut until 2022. And this was a projection made before we found out there’d be no minor league baseball this summer.
Could Cleveland simply use free agency to find an affordable bridge catcher until then?
This, too, wouldn’t be a wise route.
Besides Pérez and León, Spotrac lists 28 other catchers scheduled to hit free agency this coming offseason, the bulk of which are 33 or older. One would assume whoever the Indians target would cost less than the $5.5 million they’d owe Pérez.
So, essentially, Cleveland would be downgrading at catcher by signing someone past his prime in an effort to reduce overall salary.
Sure, the Indians could consider a trade, but at that point, we’re talking about giving up an asset or two to save a couple million bucks.
At the end of the day, picking up Pérez’s option is not only the smartest route to take, it’s also the least complicated for Cleveland.
To be fair, we don’t know how well Pérez will play this year. There’s no guarantee he’ll keep trending upwards offensively while providing the same elite defense.
That said, the 2020 season is only going to be about 48 to 75 games in length. Even if Pérez struggles a bit this summer, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt when considering how short the campaign will be.
A winter of salary reduction will be unavoidable after a year like this. Several fan favorites may find themselves in a different uniform next season as a result.
As you can see, it’s pretty obvious that Pérez shouldn’t be one of those players, especially considering all the unnecessary headaches that come with declining his option.