Gonzalez Becoming More Than Just Spare Player For Indians

Erik Gonzalez worked his way to the Major Leagues and the Cleveland Indians thanks to his glove. His ability to play every position, other than catcher and pitcher, make him the perfect utility player for any baseball team. It is why the Indians chose to keep him over Gio Urshela when both were out of minor league options and Urshela returned from his spring training injury earlier this month. Gonzalez can play seven spots on the diamond, while Urshela specialized at third base. Neither was know as an exceptionally good hitter, though Gonzalez did alright at the plate in a brief sample size last season.

The Indians are probably pretty happy right that they chose to keep the 26-year-old Gonzalez. Not only has Gonzalez played all four infield spots this season, meaning that he can give almost any everyday player any given day or night off, but he seems to be adding a new flare at the plate to his repertoire.

Gonzalez has been alright at the plate the last couple years going back and forth between Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland. However, he has hit a new gear so far this season. In 38 plate appearances, heading into Sunday night’s game with the Houston Astros, Gonzalez was hitting an eye-popping .361. He had collected 13 hits, including three doubles, a triple, and a home run. He has also driven in seven runners. He has certainly made the most of his early-season opportunities.

He has stepped up big as the spotlight has gotten brighter on him. With the decision looming to keep Gonzalez or Urshela, he went on a hitting tear and has hit .440 for the month of May. He has also come through big in the clutch, hitting .500 with both runners on base and with runners in scoring position. In the latter scenario, he is 5-for-10 with five RBI.

This turnaround from Gonzalez is likely a case of a young player starting to learn how to handle Major League pitching. In 2016, he had five hits in 16 Major League at bats. He appeared in 21 games, mostly as a defensive replacement. Last season, he received more of an opportunity. He was a solid contributor during the Tribe’s 22-game winning streak in August, called upon as injuries piled up with second baseman Jason Kipnis and then a slew of outfield injuries. He played in 60 regular season games for the Indians in 2017, hitting .255 in 110 at bats. He had four home runs and 11 RBI. His performance and versatility even earned him a spot on the postseason roster.

Gonzalez was a .255 hitter in Columbus last year, not exactly tearing up minor league pitching. The thought was if he could hit in the .250-.260 range in the Majors, he could be a pretty good utility player. He would not be a guy to play every day, but when called upon, he would be able to hold his own.

The slick-fielding, jack-of-all-trades may just be forcing Tribe manager Terry Francona to play him a little more often than expected. Granted, what Gonzalez has done this season is a small sample size, but you have to start somewhere. If he were merely hitting .250 or so, there would be no need to stray from the idea of playing him once or twice a week as a defensive replacement to give a day off to a veteran like Kipnis or outfielder Michael Brantley or allow Jose Ramirez or Francisco Lindor to slide to designated hitter and give Edwin Encarnacion a break. Instead, Gonzalez is hitting and hitting well. He is earning more playing time. He has been getting it, too, starting three of four games this past week from Sunday to Wednesday. He had at least one hit in each contest. He also started at three different positions – first base, second base, and third.

A player like Gonzalez is great. He can singlehandedly give almost any player a day off any given night. He also makes it so that the club could carry an extra reliever, if need be. Because Gonzalez can play all four infield spots and the outfield, less players are needed on the bench. Some teams need two back up infielders and two back outfielders to cover everything. Gonzalez can play the role of several backups. It is a dream come true for a manager like Francona, who likes to carry a lot of relief pitchers on the big league roster.

With Gonzalez doing better than expected, it allows Francona to insert his hotter-hitting player into the lineup, giving breathers to some of the struggling ones. Kipnis and Encarnacion, most notably, have not come out of the gates strong this season. Gonzalez can take the field and let those guys take a little step back and regroup, or at least that is the hope. With injuries to Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer hitting the outfield, Gonzalez could also be called upon there.

Gonzalez has been an early season pleasant surprise for Cleveland with the way he has hit. It is too soon to predict, but maybe he could become another Ramirez, who only a few years ago was thought of as a utility player but then blossomed into an All-Star. It took some time, but he eventually proved that he could hit at the MLB level and earned more and more playing time. With guys struggling or hurt, Gonzalez may have that same opportunity this year.

So far, Gonzalez has shown that he may be more than just a spare, part-time player. Francona is surely going to find ways to use Gonzalez more often. It will be easy to do since he can play so many spots on the field. The door is wide open for Gonzalez to work himself into a larger role, he just needs to continue running through it has he has to this point in the campaign.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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