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Countdown to Opening Day – 9
Indians utility man Erik Gonzalez got a bit of a scare on Friday when he was hit by a pitch in the right hand/wrist area. He left the game in the eighth inning, but the injury appears to be just a bruise. While he hoped to get back out on the field on Saturday, the team was opting to hold him out for a day.
For Gonzalez, this spring is a big one as he looks to crack the Opening Day roster for the first time as one of the bench options for the Indians. His odds increased substantially with the injury to second baseman Jason Kipnis, as the Tribe’s former All-Star will miss at least the first month of action and possibly a little bit more while dealing with an ailing shoulder.
Gonzalez remains in the mix for a utility spot on the roster, fighting primarily with veteran supersub Michael Martinez, who is in camp for a third straight season on a non-roster invitation. Other candidates are in the mix too with the injury to Kipnis, including prospect Yandy Diaz, Giovanny Urshela, and offseason addition Richie Shaffer, so it is hardly a two-man race.
The Indians have preferred to have someone with a bit of flexibility on the bench in recent years. That spot was left open to some degree last year, when Jose Ramirez was expected to fill the role on the roster but was seen playing regularly in left field to start the season and third base to end the year to fill more pressing needs for the club. It opened the door for playing time for guys like Gonzalez and Martinez to see more time on the field in a variety of positions.
Gonzalez made his Major League debut on July 16 of last season. He appeared in 21 games for the club over the second half of the season, logging innings at second base, shortstop, third base, and right field. He had five singles and a walk in 17 trips to the plate, posting a .313 batting average and a .353 on-base percentage. The alarming side of his numbers was his high strikeout total – he struck out eight times in those 17 trips.
Prior to finding a spot on the Indians bench, Gonzalez was a midseason All-Star in the minors for the third time in his professional career. After making similar appearances in 2010 and 2014, he was a part of the International League’s team while representing the Columbus Clippers. He appeared in 104 games at Triple-A over the course of the season, hitting .296 with a .329 OBP and a .450 slugging mark with 31 doubles, a triple, eleven homers, and 53 RBI. It led to his fourth consecutive season being named an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star for the Tribe.
After his call-up to Cleveland in July, he did return to Columbus for nearly a month when he was optioned on August 5, but he was part of the call-ups on September 1 and saw eleven games of action in the final month of the regular season, working almost exclusively as a late inning defensive replacement. The bulk of his offensive production came in one game on September 27 in Detroit against the Tigers, when he went 3-for-3 at the plate with three singles. He added another single on October 1, giving him four hits in his final five plate appearances after getting just one hit in his first 12 trips over his first 18 games.
Now 25 years old, it could be a make-or-break season for Gonzalez. He proved during his second stint with the Clippers last season that he can handle Triple-A pitching, but his limited sample size at the Major League level leaves room for question. He showed himself to be a strong defender in the field, regardless of his position, last season when he made just one error combined between Cleveland and Columbus after committing 23 with Columbus and Double-A Akron the season before. He has played at six different positions during his minor league days, with the majority of the work coming at shortstop, but that path to regular time in the Majors is clearly blocked by superstar-in-the-making Francisco Lindor. Third base has been strife with problems for him, as he holds a .910 fielding percentage at the position over six minor league seasons at the hot corner.
The Indians coaching staff has some tough decisions to make in the coming days and the status of Gonzalez and the bench position is certainly one of them. He has not hurt his cause this spring at the plate, as the right-handed hitter has slashed .298/.327/.489 over 47 at bats in 21 games with one double, one triple, a pair of homers, and ten RBI from Arizona.
Other notable 9’s in Indians history: Bob Feller (1936), Mickey Rocco (1943-44), Ken Keltner (1946), Luke Easter (1949-54), Ralph Kiner (1955), Minnie Minoso (1958-59), John Romano (1963), Duke Sims (1965-70), Buddy Bell (1972), Rico Carty (1974-77), Ron Hassey (1978-84), Matt Williams (1997), Carlos Baerga (1990-99), Brady Anderson (2002), Jody Gerut (2003-05), Ryan Raburn (2013-15)
Photo: Kansas City Star