Introducing the Bench Mob
Cleveland's utility group playing key role in team's success
By now, most of us are well acquainted with the “Bullpen Mafia” moniker as the Indians relief corps has established itself as the team’s strength over the past several seasons. Well now allow me to introduce you to quite possibly the next group of guys to earn a nickname branding: "The Bench Mob".
It’s not very often that a team’s group of utility players gets recognition, let alone even gets noticed by the fans, but nearly two months into the 2013 season, the Indians’ bench has become quite a personable group offering versatility in the field as well as prowess at the plate. As it stands now, the bench consists of super-sub utility men Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn, backup catcher/infielder Yan Gomes and veteran DH Jason Giambi.
The Indians made a lot of headlines in the offseason by signing top free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and others to high-priced deals. However, the Tribe did also make numerous under-the-radar acquisitions that so far have paid dividends for the team. The bench in particular has been entirely replaced with new personnel since last season and so far has proven to be one of the stronger ones in the league.
Call it wheeling and dealing, shrewd negotiation or even highway robbery, the fact remains that the Indians appear to have gotten a steal in the trade of hard-throwing right-hander Esmil Rogers to the Toronto Blue Jays for utility infielder/outfielder Mike Aviles and catching prospect Yan Gomes. While at the time it seemed to be a minor trade that would go relatively unnoticed, the success of Aviles and Gomes thus far has highlighted the deal as one of the better ones in recent Indians history.
Mike Aviles was drafted in the seventh round by Kansas City in 2003 and spent the better part of his pro baseball career with the Royals organization. In 2011, Aviles was traded to the Red Sox where he played under current Indians manager Terry Francona. Aviles spent 2012 as the starting shortstop for Boston, but was traded to the Blue Jays shortly after the season ended to Toronto, who in turn traded him along with Gomes to Cleveland the very next month. The Indians then signed him to a two-year, $6 million extension with a team option for 2015.
Aviles is primarily a shortstop, but can also play third base, second base and even the outfield if needed. In addition to his versatility, Aviles offers solid production at the plate being a career .277 hitter and averaging 14 home runs and 66 RBI’s a season. Francona and the Indians saw the value in Aviles as the primary backup to all-star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as well as a guy who can play every day if a starter falls to injury. So far this season, Aviles has been all the Indians have hoped for hitting .280 with three home runs and 14 RBI’s in 29 games thus far.
Brazil has never been what you call a breeding ground for future baseball stars, but the success of MLB’s first Brazilian-born player, Yan Gomes, may just put Brazil on the map as far as player development goes. Gomes had never been a marquee prospect. He was, after all, selected in the tenth round of the 2009 draft by Toronto. Gomes made his big league debut with Toronto in 2012 and while his numbers weren’t all that impressive (.204 average with four homers and 13 RBI’s in 43 games), it was apparently still enough for general manager Chris Antonetti to have him included in the Rogers trade.
After being called up to step in for the concussed Lou Marson, Gomes assumed the primary backup catcher’s role and has now started in 17 games for the Tribe. His defense has been nothing short of impressive as he has a perfect fielding percentage and has thrown out seven out of 11 (64%) potential base-stealers. Several Indians pitchers have also gone out of their way to compliment Gomes on his catching and game-calling skills. In fact, the Indians are 14-3 in games he’s played in. Coincidence? Maybe, but Tribe pitchers are definitely confident when he’s behind the plate.
Gomes has also swung the bat well for the Tribe this season. In 53 at-bats, the “Yanimal”, as fans and teammates have begun to call him, has hit .302 with four home runs and nine RBI’s. In Monday’s series finale against the Mariners, Gomes put on quite a show at the plate going 3-for-5 with two home runs and four RBI’s. One of his homers was a three-run walkoff jack in the tenth inning which completed the Tribe’s four-game sweep of Seattle. With Gomes’s success both at and behind the plate it makes one wonder if the Lou Marson era is over in Cleveland.
In Detroit, Ryan Raburn was to Tigers fans what Chris Perez is to Cleveland fans: the whipping post. Every team has one regardless of their talents or abilities. Despite spending his entire major league career there since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2001 draft, getting out of Motown may have been the best thing for Raburn. The Tigers tried to make him into a starting player, but it just wasn’t working out. Finally, after having a career worst season in 2012, the Tigers released him to free agency where he was signed by Cleveland in the offseason to a minor league deal.
In spring training, Raburn hit his way right onto the Indians starting roster finishing Cactus League play with a .341 batting average with five home runs and 12 RBI’s. His offensive streak didn’t stop when the regular season started as he hit .320 in the month of April including back-to-back two home run games which earned him American League Player of the Week honors. Currently, Raburn is hitting .299 on the year with five home runs and 14 RBI’s as the team’s backup right fielder and utility infielder.
I’ll be the first to admit I was not on board with the Jason Giambi signing when it was first announced. From a distance, all I could see was an aging veteran with waning power and limited flexibility as a player. He could still play first base from time to time, but his primary use would be as a DH. Giambi does have an impressive resume, though, as a five-time All Star and a former MVP winner spending time with Oakland, New York and Colorado over his career.
The Indians signed Giambi to a minor league deal in the offseason and although he did have to prove himself somewhat in spring training, he was still a heavy favorite to land a spot on the bench given his veteran presence in the clubhouse and wealth of baseball knowledge to share with a generally young Indians team.
In 16 games, Giambi hasn’t gotten many hits as he owns a .176 average on the year, but when he does put the ball in play, it’s usually productive as he’s hit two homers and driven in 12 runs. Giambi has also set a great example for the younger hitters on the team on various occasions, the most notable being when he beat out a groundball sliding into first base for an infield single in the eighth against Philadelphia despite the Indians already being up 14-2 in the game. His hustle set the tone for every player young and old to give 100% on every play even if nothing becomes of it.
There you have it, a group of guys with personality, experience and talent even though they are just reserves for the starting players. That’s quite an improvement over the bench of 2012 which included the likes of Brent Lillibridge, Jose Lopez and Jason Donald. In addition to versatility, this year’s utility corps can also hold their own at the plate hitting a solid .270 as a group compared to the .219 mark posted by last year’s bench.
So when the injury bug bites or players must take time away from the team, don’t be alarmed. The Bench Mob is available to hold down the fort.
Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.