Can Gonzalez Fulfill the Role of Utility Man for Cleveland?

As Erik Gonzalez climbed through the ranks of the Cleveland Indians organization, he watched his chance of becoming the Tribe’s every day shortstop disappear with the drafting and development of superstar-in-the-making Francisco Lindor.

While the Indians may have looked around Gonzalez to be the team’s permanent shortstop, the team felt strongly enough in his abilities on the field to try to find a way to help him contribute to the Major League club for years to come. After getting some opportunities to showcase his athleticism at a few different positions at Triple-A, he got his first taste of Major League action this past season.

With last season’s utility man Jose Ramirez appearing locked in as the team’s third baseman moving forward, the Indians will need a replacement off of the bench to help rest the everyday players. Michael Martinez has returned to the organization for a third straight year and will come to spring training on a minor league deal with a chance to earn a spot with the Indians, but the 25-year-old eight-year pro Gonzalez should also get a significant look for a role with Cleveland when spring training begins in Goodyear, Arizona, in February.

Gonzalez signed with the Indians just days before turning 17 in 2008. The Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic native spent two seasons of work with the Indians’ Dominican Summer League team and a third season in the Arizona League in 2011. By the time he arrived on the scene with short-season Mahoning Valley in 2012, Gonzalez had sampled roles all over the diamond.

Lindor joined the club in 2011 with his first round selection and beat Gonzalez to Mahoning Valley. Gonzalez would chase him through the farm system, but Lindor won the race to the show.

After several seasons working solely as a shortstop, Gonzalez got a look at other positions as he began his second season with the Columbus Clippers in 2016. He saw work at short, second, third, center field, and right field defensively. At the plate, he was thriving – through his first 81 games, he was hitting .296 with 100 hits (22 doubles, one triple, and six homers) and 39 RBI and landed on the International League’s All-Star team, putting the team on the board in the second inning with a solo home run.

The next day, he was promoted to Cleveland and he made his Major League debut a few days later on July 16. Several days after that, he notched his first career hit, a single, in a 7-3 win in Kansas City while making the start in right field. He went hitless over his next seven games (six plate appearances) before he was optioned back to Triple-A on August 5.

Back with the Clippers, Gonzalez continued to hit well at the plate, hitting .297 over the final 23 games with nine more doubles, five homers, and 14 RBI. He returned to the Indians roster on September 1, but played sparingly over the final month. He had his best game of the season on September 27 in Detroit, when he went 3-for-3 with three singles in his second career start. He added a fifth career single in the second-to-last game of the season in Kansas City.

The strong efforts at the plate pushed his season batting average with Cleveland to .313 (5-for-16). Combined with his numbers in Columbus, he slashed .297/.330/.445 over the course of the 2016 season with 31 doubles, a triple, eleven homers, and 53 RBI. He stole 12 bases, but was caught eleven times.

He flourished away from home, hitting .331 on the road, but seven of his home runs for the year came at his home field Huntington Park in Columbus. The right-handed hitting Gonzalez hit .309 with 22 of his doubles and nine of his homers against right-handed pitching. He hit .257 against left-handers.

The numbers were a good improvement for Gonzalez, who had hit .223 in 65 games during the 2015 season in his first stint at the Triple-A level.

With Ramirez now entrenched as the Tribe’s third baseman moving forward, the club could benefit from a depth option on the bench with multiple position flexibility. Gonzalez has age and a better stick at the plate working to his advantage against the likes of Martinez or any other option the club might consider over the remainder of the offseason. It will be an important spring for Gonzalez if he hopes to break camp with the Indians, instead of returning north again with the Clippers.

Photo: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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