Heading into the 2018-19 offseason, the Yankees’ first base situation remains murky. Sure, the Bombers have two options at the position, but both have their fair share of uncertainty. Greg Bird’s prospect sheen has worn almost completely off at this point, and one wonders if he can ever recapture the glory of his 2015 debut. Meanwhile, Luke Voit emerged out of nowhere to give the Yanks hope at the position, but he has yet to prove that he can sustain an above-average batting line over the grind of a full season.
It’s clear that the Yankees need a legitimate contingency plan at first place, in case both Bird and Voit fail to stick at the position. In my opinion, the ideal man for the job is erstwhile Houston Astro and current free agent Marwin Gonzalez.
We now know Gonzalez as something of a Ben Zobrist lite; he’s someone who can handle every non-pitcher/catcher position while providing solid offense. That wasn’t always the case, though. Gonzalez debuted as the platonic ideal of a no-hit shortstop for those lowly Astros of the early 2010s. In the first two years of his career, his biggest claim to fame was probably breaking up Yu Darvish’s 2013 near-perfecto on a ninth inning, two-out, seeing eye grounder up the middle.
However, Gonzalez was not to be discouraged by a rocky start to his career. After posting wRC+ marks of 65 and 54 in 2012-2013, his first two years in MLB, Gonzalez improved to 110 and 111 in 2014-2015. He faltered in 2016, running a subpar 89 wRC+, but rebounded in a huge way in 2017, when he hit .303/.377/.530 for a 144 wRC+ for the World Series champs.
Gonzalez’s 2018 - .247/.324/.409, 104 wRC+ - isn’t nearly as impressive as his 2017. That said, he has shown that he’s carried over his gains in plate discipline from 2017, which was what fueled his breakout season last year in the first place. Gonzalez’s walk rate of 9.6% is actually a smidge higher than his 2017 mark of 9.5% and represents a career-best figure for him.
Meanwhile, his chase rate, while higher than last year, is well below his career standards. A nearly two-point increase in swinging strike rate from 2017 is the sole blemish on Gonzalez’s plate discipline profile, but even that is hardly cause for alarm. Consider that his 2018 swinging strike rate remained below 10%, even with said increase. This is a hitter that in all likelihood will be able to post a 100-110 wRC+ line next year.
If nothing else, that baseline of performance is what makes Gonzalez an appealing candidate for the backup first base job. Sure, Bird and Voit both have the potential to blow Gonzalez’s batting line out of the water, but both have yet to prove themselves over a full season. Meanwhile, Gonzalez has quietly produced an above-average wRC+ in four of his last five seasons. Expecting Gonzalez to recreate his 2017 career year is foolish, but he can be counted on to not be a black hole. Isn’t that the very definition of a contingency plan?
Gonzalez’s biggest selling point, however, is not his bat, but rather his versatility. In 2018, he saw time at every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher. This means that even if one of Bird or Voit sticks at first, the Yankees can stick Gonzalez at virtually any position of need. Having a player that can do that while not sucking with the bat gives the Bombers’ positional depth a much-needed boost.
For example, outfield depth was a huge issue with Yankees last year, with the team’s offense suffering in a big way once Aaron Judge went down. Gonzalez rectifies that problem, as he can handle both corner spots and even center field in a pinch. What if the Yankees - heavens forbid - miss out on Manny Machado? Well, then the Yankees can let Gonzalez man his natural position at shortstop while Didi is on the mend. Gonzalez provides the Yankees with so many options in terms of defensive alignment, without necessarily sacrificing their offensive thump. He wouldn’t be the sexiest pickup, but he’d be a pretty nifty player to have.
Sure, trading for Paul Goldschmidt or Jose Abreu would be a million times more fun than signing Marwin Gonzalez. But as both the Red Sox and the Dodgers showed in their respective playoff runs, having quality role players can go a long, long way. Marwin Gonzalez can play multiple roles for the Yankees - backup first baseman, plus infield or outfield depth - and play them well. As Plan Bs go, it doesn’t get any better than that.