It’s that time of year again, with nothing going on and still weeks from even seeing an equipment truck loading up for Arizona, that the intrusive thoughts start wending their way into the mind of the baseball fan.
Coming off a lovely surprise in 2022, there’s a lot to be happy about with the Guardians. The lineup seems pretty locked in, rotation is strong, bullpen is lockdown, manager is Tito, farm system is bursting — just all rad things that help build a dreamy picture of the future of baseball in Cleveland.
But unbidden, the idea pops up in my mind: trade Oscar Gonzalez.
I know, what madness is this, right? Like, he wasn’t just pretty good for a Guards rookie last year, he’s literally a top 10 right fielder by OPS+, he has one of the strongest arms in baseball, he hits the ball real hard, and he’s fast. He’s only 25 with a bit of room to grow, so this could just be the beginning of a brilliant little run.
That’s the good. The bad is all those peripheral things that could be bellwethers for regression to somewhere not too pretty. Like how he hits grounders at a 49% clip despite having those crazy exit velocity numbers, or his .345 BABIP last year that makes you worry about how sustainable it all is, or how he walks less than 4% of the time, or his 1st percentile chase rate and 37th whiff percentile, or his dreadful defensive numbers despite those physical gifts.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a guy who can really beef a play in the outfield but still make up for it sometimes with raw power. Guys like Manny Ramirez or Yasiel Puig were joys to watch defensively, both for the good and the crazy. But seeing all these markers against Gonzalez, I can’t help but worry. After all, with a farm system so bursting with talent, and a ton of other guys who just haven’t gotten a real chance because of ever-growing logjams across the roster, what if they miss out on greatness by focusing on just the pretty good?
You know what this sounds like? Sure you do. It’s literally this:
But hear me out. I wrote last year how on the razor’s edge he is performance-wise, and any drop in luck or discovery of a hole in his swing is going to crater his value. He does make good contact — 82% in-zone and 61% out of it, both above league average — but it’s not quite the elite level that, say, Stephen Kwan shows. He also doesn’t have a modicum of the sense of plate that his fellow outfielder is graced with. In short, he has a very small margin of error, and any little degradation of his talent, especially paired with a wrong turn in the luck department, means doom for his stats.
Honestly, for some reason, I’m just a big stupid Will Benson fan. Which, again, is a mad reason on the surface to look at him over Gonzalez, mainly because of those aforementioned results. While Gonzalez was ensconcing himself in right, Benson played a smattering of 28 games in 2022, garnering 61 plate appearances and amassing all of ten hits and an additional three walks. Not ideal at all, and much worse than his teammate. That said, his recent minors stints at least suggest that he has a more traditional, sustainable offensive makeup. In 2021 he posted a .206/.349/.434 line across three levels, and in 2022 after settling into Columbus hit a sterling .274/.426/.522. He walked 75 times in 89 games, and while the 29.6% strikeout rate in the minors is a bit too Bobby Bradley for my taste, Benson cut that to 22.6% in 2022. That’s something Bradley was never able to do, so I’m a bit more encouraged by Benson’s ability to make the transition.
Still, this seems silly, right? Trade in the found money for another lottery ticket? Probably not the smart way of doing things, and likely not what the Guardians are going to do. They see something in Gonzalez, though it did seem like he lucked into a few hits over the course of the season that seemed to stave off a looming demotion to the bench. Maybe I’m just misremembering, because it turns out he actually hit .312/.351/.489 in September with a .339 BABIP, a smidge lower than his season rate. Like, by the numbers (and some highlights) he was pretty excellent.
Part of it has to be just a feeling of missing out on something that could be grand. I’ve been bombarded over the last couple of years with tales of how talented this farm system is. And sometimes it seems sometimes like Cleveland has let bats leave and they got good elsewhere, though when you look back on it it’s really not that bad. Just a season or two there where Gio Urshela or Jesus Aguilar or Willi Castro outperformed their expected output. Yandy Díaz is about the only one that I can look at and frown at, but when you think about it, that’s not a bad track record of missing out on talent in their system. Certainly not as bad as, say, the White Sox or Padres.
So maybe instead of Gonzalez, just trade Straw and put Benson in center. That guy can go and get it, sure, but so can Benson, plus he can hit bombs, and he did this a couple of times:
Dreams, dingers, and highlights, is there anything else we really need? Certainly not in January.