TORONTO – Maybe it’s not so much that the Toronto Blue Jays never knew what they had in Yan Gomes as much as they didn’t have an opportunity to properly evaluate what he might eventually be.
The cornerstone catcher for the Cleveland Indians – back at Rogers Centre for the first time since he was traded Nov. 3, 2012 with Mike Aviles for Esmil Rogers – was always in the background as he came up through the minors, well behind J.P. Arencibia, Travis d’Arnaud and A.J. Jimenez on the depth chart.
The Blue Jays had seen the future behind the plate, and Gomes wasn’t a part of it.
"Ultimately you wonder if we didn’t have other prospects that were so talented, if Yan had played more, would the development path have changed, would we have had a better feel for him?" Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said Tuesday before a 5-4 win over Gomes and the Indians. "We were finding places for him to play, but he was never the everyday catcher because there was always someone else who was there.
"We always liked Yan, clearly he’s become a better player sooner than we would have expected. That’s not a slight against him, that’s a full credit to him."
Of that there’s little doubt, and Gomes isn’t the same player who left the Blue Jays typecast as a potential utility-man with a flawed swing because of a big leg kick and high hand placement.
The Indians saw beyond that and envisioned, at minimum, a backup catcher in the 26-year-old, and the more they got to know him, and the more he worked with Sandy Alomar and Kevin Cash on his defence, the more they began to believe that he could grow into a starter.
An injury to backup Lou Marson last year opened the door for Gomes, and once he arrived in the big-leagues, he quickly took over, allowing Carlos Santana to be used at first and third base instead. Gomes finished the 2013 season with a .294/.345/.481 slash line in 88 games, and at the end of spring training the Indians gave him a $23-million, six-year deal.
Meanwhile the Blue Jays, who viewed Rogers as an inexpensive set-up type reliever when they made the deal, released Arencibia, who’s struggling badly with the Texas Rangers, while d’Arnaud is enduring growing pains with the New York Mets and Jimenez remains at double-A New Hampshire.
The guy they never paid much mind to is probably the most desirable of the four catchers right now, although d’Arnaud’s potential remains intriguing.
"The (Indians) were unbelievable to me," said Gomes, 1-for-3 with a walk and run in the loss. "They called me during the off-season (after the trade) and they said they only wanted me to catch. That meant something, one position, I felt like they had a goal for me set for the future, and I had a place in the future in some way.
"That helped me and gave me some pretty good confidence."
While the long-term vision for him provided Gomes with some confidence, it’s the changes to his swing that made the biggest difference.
During his time with the Blue Jays, he held his hands near his head and had a big leg kick, two trigger mechanisms that wreaked havoc with his timing. Toward the end of a 43-game stint in Toronto in 2012, he and former hitting coach Chad Mottola began work on cutting down the leg kick, and after the trade, Gomes and Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo worked on lowering his hands.
"I tried to simplify everything I was doing," Gomes explained. "This is a tough game man, that’s why it’s so amazing what a guy like Jose Bautista with the big leg kick is doing. He’s got it perfected. I felt like I had it, and then with not playing, it makes it tough. So I tried to make it as simple as possible.
"Especially with catching now, it makes it tough on my legs."
Gomes never caught more than 58 games in a single season with the Blue Jays, but handled 710 innings in his 88 contests last year for the Indians, throwing out 41 percent of would-be base-stealers. This year, he’s already logged 270 frames while throwing out 30 percent of runners, although his nine errors led all American League position players.
"I knew I could catch but I was never 100 percent with catching," Gomes said. "I was playing third base, playing first, even some left field. When I got here I got to work with Kevin Cash and Sandy Alomar, they helped me tremendously.
"With catching, you’ve got to be able to relax and get into good position. We worked a lot on that. When I was here going from different positions, I wasn’t exactly getting a consistent position at all times. So that helped me."
In return he helped the Indians into the wild-card game last year, and has kept the production up this season with five home runs and 14 RBIs. His single in the eighth off Brett Cecil nearly tied the game, but Melky Cabrera threw out Santana at home to end the frame.
Gomes still shakes his head at a whirlwind 18 months in which he went from the roster fringes to a core piece with a contract.
"My wife and I couldn’t believe what was going on, just to see how far we’d come. We just wanted to get it done," he said of the extension, laughing. "I’m so thankful for what’s been going on."
He has good reason to be, while the Blue Jays are left to lament a player that slipped through the cracks.