The countdown to Opening Day of the 2018 Major League Baseball regular season schedule has reached single digits. We at Did The Tribe Win Last Night continue our march to first pitch by looking back at Tribe players past and present.
Countdown to Opening Day – 9 days
On the first official day of spring, the weather in the greater Cleveland area fails to deliver a feeling that baseball is around the corner, but fans can celebrate being just nine days away from Opening Day of the 2018 Major League Baseball season.
The number nine for the Cleveland Indians is, for the time being, on the back of Erik Gonzalez, utility man extraordinaire hoping to break camp at least one more time on the Tribe roster. That, however, remains to be seen as he is in a spring training battle with Giovanny Urshela and others for a spot on the team’s bench.
Pressure is high on Gonzalez, as he is out of options and will need to be on the Indians roster at the end of camp. If Gonzalez fails to make the club, the Indians could attempt to pass him through waivers to outright him off of the 40-man roster to Columbus, but there is a significant likelihood that if placed on waivers, another club would scoop him up to provide depth for its own roster.
The 26-year-old has long been touted for his defensive work in the field, and at times has drawn praise for being a Gold Glove caliber player. He has logged Major League innings at second and third bases, shortstop, and both outfield corners in a pair of seasons with the Indians and while in the minors, he also saw time at first base (but not since 2013) and center field, although that came in just three games and eleven total innings.
With the Tribe, he has posted errorless appearances at second base, third base, and in the outfield. He has made two errors in 27 chances at short for a .926 fielding percentage, with both coming last season in limited work at the position.
The bat of Gonzalez has been the bigger concern since making his big league debut in 2016. He hit .313 with a .353 on-base percentage in 21 games (just 17 plate appearances) in his first season, recording five singles and a walk (three of the five hits came in the same late September game against Detroit). Last season, he notched 115 plate appearances over 60 games and slashed .255/.272/.418 with 18 singles, six doubles, and four homers while walking three times, but he struck out 37 times (or 32.2% of his trips to the plate). Interestingly, he had nine multi-hit games, which was two more than the number of games that he recorded just one hit. Three different times (including twice in June) he put together three-hit games.
He has rarely excelled as a hitter during his nine years with the organization. He hit .346 in 64 games in 2010 while playing in the Dominican Summer League, and in two stops with Carolina and Akron in 2014, he batted .309 with a career-best 21 stolen bases. He appeared to break out during his 2016 season while with the Columbus Clippers, when he hit .296 with 31 doubles, 11 homers, and 53 RBI, but the power has not remained a strong part of his game since. In his other seasons on the farm, he hit no higher than .258 and just once put together an on-base percentage over .300 as walks have never been a strong part of his game.
This spring, Gonzalez has performed well with his Cleveland clock ticking. In 16 Cactus League games, he has hit .306 with eleven singles and one double. He has shown a bit more patience at the plate, working four walks, and his seven strikeouts in 40 plate appearances (17.5%) have shown an initial improvement over one of his weaknesses from a season ago.
Two of the men standing in his way of a roster spot were optioned to Triple-A Columbus on Monday. Yandy Diaz, who has been more or less limited to action at third base for the Indians, and Eric Stamets, who was added to the 40-man roster following the season, both were returned to Columbus and will work there to start the season.
Diaz has spent some time during his career at second base and in both outfield spots, but his brief work in the Majors in the outfield resulted in an error in three opportunities. It would not be surprising if the Indians sought to increase his versatility while back in Columbus, as his bat seems to have Major League potential but Jose Ramirez and others stand in his way to a spot at third base. Stamets is a bit of a security blanket for the club in the event that they have to part ways with Gonzalez at the end of camp.
Urshela, Gonzalez’s chief competition and a fellow 26-year-old, has performed extremely well in Arizona, hitting .500 in 43 plate appearances with six doubles, three homers, and seven runs batted in. Like Gonzalez, the stick has not been the strong part of his game, but the former third baseman has expanded his repertoire to include all four infield spots, which puts him on par with Gonzalez, from a versatility standpoint.
The battle between the two could come down to the final days of camp and could be very dependent upon the statuses of outfielders Michael Brantley and Brandon Guyer, who both are reportedly inching closer to clean bills of health. If either or both are not ready for the start of the season and need to land on the disabled list, manager Terry Francona could have a little extra time to make an ultimate decision about his bench battle.
Regardless, a decision could be coming within the next week.
Other notable 9s in Tribe 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: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images