It’s the little things that make a baseball team a champion. You need your superstar batters, you need your ace pitchers, but you also need some depth. Sometimes you need multiple players on the bench to spell your infielders, and sometimes you have someone like Erik Gonzalez who can fill in literally anywhere at the drop of a Block C hat.
The superstars are fun to talk about, and deserve a lot of the attention, but when your utility player is as effective as Erik Gonzalez, he deserves some digital ink, too. That’s why you’re here today.
Listening to Terry Francona last year and in the first few months of 2017, you would have thought the Cleveland Indians already had that versatile player in Michael Martinez, but Gonzalez is making it clear what a true utility player looks like — great defense and the ability to hit despite sparse playing time.
Gonzalez has a meaningless offensive sample size so far in his major-league career (30 games, 36 plate appearances), but he has proven that he can come off the bench after sitting days or weeks at a time and contribute, maybe even occasionally go off for a game. That versatility showed in yesterday’s game against the Chicago White Sox when he came off the bench after not playing for a week and promptly had two hits and the first RBI of his career filling in for Jason Kipnis.
Now, it’s important to note that Gonzalez hasn’t done a whole lot offensively in most of his games this seasons. He’s been a part of nine games in 2017, and of those nine games he had multiple at-bats just four times. Of those four multi-at-bat games, he’s gone 5-for-16; he hasn’t walked all season and his first extra-base came yesterday with his RBI double. But he’s played just about everywhere in the infield — third base, shortstop, and second base have all had a dose of Erik Gonzalez this season. Not to harp on Michael Martinez more, but Gonzalez at those positions is not just “let’s stick him here because we can.” No, Gonzalez’s glove can play just about anywhere.
John Sikels over at Minor League Ball had a very favorable report on Gonzalez prior to the season, listing him as the Tribe’s No. 13 prospect with a B- grade, overall. Sikels also notes that Gonzalez can play “every position but catcher.” So, while we haven’t seen him play the outfield yet, he certainly can if need be. It’s just that the Indians are flooded with outfielders right now, so sticking him out there with Daniel Robertson or Austin Jackson on the bench wouldn’t make much sense.
In the scouting report, Sikels also points out Gonzalez’s “excellent throwing arm,” and the fact that he has the ability for occasional power. Gonzalez is still a pretty skinny dude at 6-3, 195 pounds. He’s already 25, so there might not be much left in terms of growing out into his frame, but as he approaches his prime years he may show some more pop. He did so a little bit last year in Triple-A when he hit a career-high 11 home runs for the Columbus Clippers, and he hit five more in just 141 Triple-A plate appearances this season.
Gonzalez has yet to homer in the majors, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen with consistent playing time. He can hit the ball hard as we saw in Saturday’s game. His double left the bat at a ho-hum 83.6 miles per hour, but his single left at a blistering 109.2 miles per hour, and a groundout that he straight into the dirt left at 105.8 miles per hour.
Essentially, Erik Gonzalez looks like the floor projection of Francisco Lindor prior to him taking the league by storm. That is certainly not a knock on Gonzalez, Lindor was just that good of a prospect, but few saw the 20-home run power that Lindor is displaying with the Indians. Gonzalez probably will never get there, but he has the glove (but again, not quite as good because Lindor is a once-in-a-generation talent) and occasional pop that everyone expected out of Lindor. And the Indians have that coming off the bench.
The Tribe have experience taking a utility player like Gonzalez and turning him into an everyday star with what happened with Jose Ramirez. But right now there just isn’t any room to make it happen again. Ramirez, Lindor, and Kipnis are already established, leaving Gonzalez as the odd man out on the bench. His future may be elsewhere post trade deadline, unless Tito absolutely falls in love with him in a bench role. And that isn’t completely out of the question, either, especially if Gonzalez proves he can play the outfield well — he’d essentially turn into the perfect Tito player.
No matter where Gonzalez ends up, take some time to appreciate him while he’s on the Indians. He may not win any games on his own, or make any All-Star teams, but he could prove to be a key cog in any championship aspirations the Indians have.