If you are Erik Gonzalez, Indians minor league infielder and member of the parent club’s 40-man roster, it has to be a little discouraging to see the road blocks ahead of you at the Major League level. With seven seasons logged in the Cleveland farm system, the 24-year-old Gonzalez has his work cut out for him.
Gonzalez was added to the Indians 40-man roster prior to the 2015 season despite playing just 31 total games at the Double-A level in his professional career. A member of the organization for many years, he has been surpassed on the organization’s depth chart by several players who joined the team after him, including those who stand in his way with the Indians now in second baseman Jason Kipnis, shortstop Francisco Lindor, third baseman Giovanny Urshela, and utility guy Jose Ramirez.
“Francisco has been such a good player and been a level ahead of him the last couple of years,” said Akron manager Dave Wallace at the beginning of the season. “But Erik has never shown that it has affected the way he has gone about his business, or the way he has played the game at all. That is one of the things we love about him. He is focused and determined to be the best shortstop and best baseball player he can be, regardless of what is going on around him, and that is very encouraging.”
Gonzalez began his career in the organization at the age of 17, getting work with the team’s Dominican Summer League club for two seasons before playing in the Arizona League in 2011. In 2012, he joined the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers before getting his first full season of work in the minors in 2013 when he split his season between the Lake County Captains and Carolina Mudcats, hitting .254 with 32 doubles, a dozen triples, nine homers, and 76 RBI in his offensive breakout on the farm.
He impressed again in 2014, although he appeared in just 105 games. He hit .309 for the season between Carolina (74 games) and Akron (31 games) and hit a combined 20 doubles, ten triples, four homers, and drove in 62 runs with a career-high 21 stolen bases.
He started last season slowly at Akron and appeared in 72 games there in his second stint at the Double-A level, hitting .280 before a midseason promotion to Triple-A Columbus. He struggled there, hitting .223 with a .277 on-base percentage in 65 games. He has spent his offseason playing winter ball for Escogido of the Dominican Winter League for the third straight season.
Gonzalez has played all over the diamond during his minor league career. He played the majority of his games as a second baseman in 2009 and 2010, with a scattering of games at short, first base, third base, and both left and right field. In 2011, he logged twice as many innings at third than first base as the organization looked to build depth at a depleted third base position.
With Mahoning Valley in 2012, he played 27 games at first, 24 more at third, and eight games in right. The following season, he worked primarily at third for the Captains before his promotion to the Mudcats, where he worked instead at short his entire stay. The trend has continued the last two seasons, as he played every inning at short in 2014 and 2015.
The versatile Gonzalez gives the Indians some unique depth at the Triple-A level moving into the 2016 season, but he is far from Major League ready. He hit just .255 last season with a .292 on-base percentage. He does not draw walks, amassing no more than 30 in any combined season in his career. He has been a threat when on the bases and has had plus numbers in the doubles and triples categories while driving in a fair number of runs for a middle infielder type. His higher strikeout rate is amplified by the lack of walks he provides, implying a level of aggressiveness at the plate.
With his natural shortstop position blocked by the phenom Lindor, Gonzalez likely best sees a career with the Indians made possible by the further refinement of his play at other positions in the field, similar to what has become the expectation for Ramirez in Cleveland. Gonzalez shows good range at short, but has a minor league career fielding percentage at the position of .952. He has been slightly better with a .959 mark at second and .984 at first, but has just a .906 score at third, a position he has manned the second most frequently in his seven minor league seasons.
“There’s a lot of guys that feel his defense is right there with Francisco’s. It’s that good,” Wallace shared in July 2014 with Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “From what I’ve seen, I’d give Francisco a slight edge right now all around but, defensively, Erik’s right there with him.”
Gonzalez remains a name to know within the Indians farm system. He slots in currently as the tenth ranked Indians prospect on MLB.com’s 2015 Prospect Watch. While he now has the honor of being the top ranked middle infielder in the organization, he will have some work to do to fulfill the dream of becoming a Major League ball player, but with the skill set he possesses, it is not out of the question.
Photo: Eamon Queeney/The Columbus Dispatch