Braves sign veteran Gomes for bat and leadership

When the Braves decided to pursue veteran outfielder Jonny Gomes, they did so knowing his offensive statistics weren’t as strong as they once were, but that his ability to lead was not at all in decline.

Gomes, 34, signed a one-year, $4 million contract Thursday that also includes a $3 million vesting option for 2016. The option becomes a team option if it doesn’t vest.

“Good player who fits our club as left-field power, and wears out left-handed pitching,” said John Hart, Braves president of baseball operations. “Equally attractive is his passion for the game, his clubhouse presence, and ability to impact his teammates through good times and bad. And winning player who has an old-school approach to the game.”

The bearded, burly Gomes could be used in a left-field platoon with offseason free-agent signee Zoilo Almonte.

Gomes has a .244 career batting average and .335 OBP with 155 homers and 500 RBIs in 1,108 games over parts of 12 seasons with five teams, and played in four postseasons with Cincinnati, Oakland and Boston, including a World Series championship with the Red Sox in 2013.

He hit just .234 with a .327 on-base percentage and six home runs in 321 plate appearances last season with Boston and Oakland, setting career-lows for home runs (six) and slugging percentage (.330). Gomes was dealt to the A’s with ace Jon Lester in a July 31 trade for Yoenis Cespedes.

Gomes has been, and continues to be, far more effective against lefties, with a .277 career average, .376 OBP and .485 slugging percentage. Even as his power against lefties declined last season along with his general offensive production, his overall stats against lefties remained consistent: .276/.373/.371 with four homers in 170 at-bats in 2014, after posting a .277/.387/.494 line with 22 homers in 415 at-bats during 2011-2013.

Gomes has hit 20 or more homers three times including back-to-back years with the Rays in 2005-2006. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound California native hit 18 homers for Oakland in 2012, when the A’s won 94 games and the AL West title before losing to Detroit in a five-game division series.

He was the fiery, undisputed leader of that Oakland team that had a lot of young players and castoffs, and the A’s offered him a two-year extension before the Red Sox blew their offer out of the water with a two-year, $10 million contract.

Boston and other contenders pursued him that winter as a platoon player, and the Red Sox were willing to pay as much as they did because of the other dimension he brought: In the baseball vernacular, he’s a great clubhouse guy. He provided plenty of that with the 2013 Red Sox, and Gomes also hit .346 (28-for-81) with runners in scoring position that season, posting a .448 OBP and .543 slugging percentage in those situations.

The Braves like the idea of a Gomes-Almonte platoon, at least initially. Cuban signee Dion Toscano is among their other left-field possibilities, if not in spring training then later, if they decide he could use some at-bats in the minors before being brought up. The Braves also have outfielders Joey Terdoslavich and Jose Constanza on the roster.

Over the past two seasons in Triple-A and the majors, Almonte, 25, had an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) below .600 against lefties, but the switch-hitter batted .272 with a .468 slugging percentage and 18 homers against right-handers in that period.

Almonte is coming off a particularly encouraging season in the Dominican Winter League, where he was second in the batting race with a .338 average, 15 extra-base hits and a .395 OBP in 35 games for Aguilas. Against right-handers, Almonte hit .360 with a .973 OPS in 86 at-bats.

Unlike the defensively limited Gomes, Almonte is a solid outfielder who can play center as well as the corners. He was one of only two qualifying hitters to have an average above .315 in the Dominican through Jan. 21 (Manny Ramirez, by the way, was fourth with a .313 average.)

Evan Gattis was penciled in to replace the traded Justin Upton in left field before Gattis, too, was traded last week. As recently as Thurday afternoon, the Braves still weren’t sure if they’d get Gomes, who had been pursued by several possible contending teams this winter and was still being courted heavily by the Rangers.

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