Indians manager Terry Francona is entering 2017 with some crucial roster decisions to make.
Francona already awarded the starting catcher’s job to Yan Gomes over Roberto Perez, but he still needs to decide on who will win the final spot in the bullpen and who will temporarily replace Jason Kipnis in the starting lineup at second base.
But Francona has another important decision to make in who will earn the right to be the club’s utility infielder when the season starts.
Last season, Jose Ramirez made the opening day roster as the club’s utility man behind Kipnis, Francisco Lindor and Juan Uribe. Ramirez learned quickly from Uribe and had a hot 2016 season, so that opened up the door for a new successor for the utility role. Michael Martinez and Erik Gonzalez entered the fold as the replacement for Uribe following his release and Ramirez’s permanent residency at third base, but that position became somewhat of a revolving door in 2016.
Fast forwarding to 2017, provided Kipnis is not out any longer than expected, the Indians have a somewhat good situation on their hands with a World Series infield that returns fully intact with Ramirez at third base, Lindor at shortstop, Kipnis at second base and Carlos Santana at first base. But the utility spot is still up for grabs as we near the middle of spring training. Four names seem to be in the pot for the position, including Gonzalez, Ronny Rodriguez, Michael Martinez and Yandy Diaz.
The case for Yandy Diaz as a utility infielder out of camp simply does not add up. He is, however, a candidate to replace Kipnis on the Opening Day roster, which could move Ramirez to second base in the process. Diaz would not make sense as a utility infielder, and Francona himself has avoided including him in the discussion for the role, given his 2016 transition to corner outfield and his potential to hit .300 as an everyday player. As someone who is mostly a corner infield and outfield type, he’s not a good fit for a utility role since that person often needs to be able to back up at shortstop.
That leaves us with Erik Gonzalez, Michael Martinez and Ronny Rodriguez for the utility infielder position.
Even though Gonzalez does have some Major League experience, the younger Rodriguez has showed flashes of improvement and has progressed faster throughout the system than Gonzalez has. In 2016, Rodriguez slashed .258/.293/.400 in AAA in 2016, and while his batting average dipped from the .286 he hit in 2015, his production increased with playing time. Also, he had 116 base hits in 116 games and his K/BB ratio was 4:1, compared to 6:1 back in 2015.
Erik Gonzalez has taken a longer road to get to the show, but the belief seems to be that if Francisco Lindor was not in the Indians system, then Gonzalez would have been groomed to be the club’s starting shortstop. In 2016, Gonzalez slashed .296/.329/.450 with 11 home runs and 127 hits in 104 games in AAA. He did this following posting a .309 average in 2015, and his previous two season have been his best offensively in his minor league career.
By comparison, the Indians have a choice between the long, athletic and dexterous Erik Gonzalez or the versatile, powerful and improving Ronny Rodriguez. Gonzalez has been the favorite to land this position out of camp and he’s impressed in spring training thus far. Entering Tuesday, Gonzalez has eight hits in 25 at bats with one home run, seven RBI, and four runs scored. Rodriguez has struggled to get on base while in Goodyear. He has five hits in 26 at bats with one homer, four RBI, and four runs scored.
So while the Indians have two young and prepared prospects to take on the utility infielder role, the decision should be clear on who wins it. Erik Gonzalez not only has posted better numbers so far in spring training, but he also has the few games of Major League experience and poses as a better compliment to Lindor. The argument for Rodriguez would be that he has a little more pop in the bat than Gonzalez and is coming off a very good showing in winter ball so has created some momentum.
Gonzalez should be the guy to begin the year, but that should not count out Ronny Rodriguez as a future infielder for the Indians. And yes, I did not forget Michael Martinez who is in the mix and a clear favorite of Francona – and might make the roster now with Kipnis sidelined.
But for now, the edge goes to Erik Gonzalez.
Corey Crisan is a columnist for the Cleveland Indians and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers on Indians Baseball Insider on Scout.com. You can listen to him on IBI’s Farm Report Podcast and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cdcrisan.