Utility Infielders, Branding and the 40-Man Roster

Kenny Karst-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians enter 2017 with perhaps the most settled roster they have carried in over a decade. The competitions are limited with the only ones of note being that of the final bullpen spot and utility infielder. The Indians utility infield spot is different, however, and perhaps does not fall under the traditional concept of the position.

The Indians 25-man roster is founded upon flexibility. Jose Ramirez can easily handle second base, third base, shortstop and left field. Brandon Guyer can play every outfield spot, Lonnie Chisenhall can flex between right field and third base. Abraham Almonte can play every outfield spot, Austin Jackson as well. Tyler Naquin can flex between center field and right field. While the Indians may not have an ideal defender in center field, they have enough guys to always have options to create platoon advantages throughout a game—they even play Carlos Santana in left field! This conversation of course does not include Yandy Diaz, a competent defender at third base and in the outfield.1.

In some ways, the Indians are once again on the cutting edge of baseball, collecting a core of solid athletes with strong platoon advantages. This method allows Francona to constantly manipulate early and late in games to create matchup advantages. It is with this sense that I assert that the Indians “utility infielder” role is quite different: Because the Indians have the built in flexibility which makes a traditional all-defense 25th guy on the roster a waste of a spot. Jose Ramirez has taken reps at shortstop in spring training, de-emphasizing the need for a shortstop-type utility infielder. Rather, the Indians can parse their options to select someone with less positional productivity and more offensive upside for the position.

Accepting the proposition that rather than being considered a utility competitor, Diaz is insurance for Michael Brantley, the Indians have two substantive candidates for the role of utility infielder: Erik Gonzalez and Ronny Rodriguez.2 Emphasis on infielder because the Indians outfield is loaded with versatility as well as that of Jose Ramirez. If one was to include the historically embarrassing footnote of Michael Martinez, there are a few indicators which could alter the decision.

The first is roster priority. Gonzalez is the only player currently on the Indians 40 man roster:

This is not a deciding factor as the Indians are carrying a few fringy relievers on the backend of the 40-man who may be jettisoned when camp breaks, but Gonzalez certainly has the leg up out of the gate. He is also the best player of the three possibilities with the highest Steamer/600 projection as well as prospect pedigree. Fangraphs Eric Longenhagen had him at No. 8 in the Indians system and Baseball America at No. 9.

From Longenhagen:

He has a comfortably plus arm. After spending seven season in the minor leagues, Gonzalez is now poised to yield respectable big-league value. Scouts who like the defense at shortstop enough think he could be a low-end regular if given the opportunity but scouts generally put a high-end, high-probability utility grade on him.

Gonzalez has put in time at nearly every position on the diamond and has offensive skills that won’t hurt in the nine hole. Solid contact skills to complement a contact gifted lineup as well as the capacity to add base running value off the bench. Further, Gonzalez is average-to-above average offensively against right handed pitching, providing the Indians with another highly versatile, platoon advantage creating chess piece to use to rest starters or manipulate late in ball games.

Erik Gonzalez enters March with an advantage to nail down the utility role in Cleveland. Outside of injury, Gonzalez should be the choice.3

  1. Baseball America had him as the best Double-A defender at third base a year ago, and Clay Davenport’s model had him at above average in right field defensively. []
  2. Michael Martinez does not count as “substantive” and I refuse to believe the Indians would be foolish enough to make this mistake again. []
  3. P.S. Yandy lovers, I think he should make the team in another role. []