If I didn’t spend a considerable amount of time staring at the Yankees’ active roster and trying to figure out what to write about, I think I would probably forget that Marwin Gonzalez is still part of the team. The Yankees have used him so sporadically that it would not be a surprise if most fans did not recognize him as part of the team. Since the start of August — which is now half-over — he has a grand total of six plate appearances with no hits (though with one walk and a hit by pitch). This begs the question: Why is he still on the active roster?
Realistically, the Yankees are probably not keeping Gonzalez around for his offensive prowess. His triple slash line sits at .215/.289/.347 with an OPS of .636 that is mostly inflated by an above-average June. He followed it up with a 2-for-28 July (.309 OPS) that featured nary an extra-base hit, and he has barely played since then.
Those overall numbers are not great, but in the context of using Gonzalez as a backup utility player, they could be a lot worse. In addition, he does have some pop. During his limited playing time of 136 plate appearances, he has three home runs (albeit none since June). For some context, Isiah Kiner-Falefa has just 1 home run in 385 plate appearances. If Gonzalez’s offense is not enough to keep him around, then what is?
It’s all about that defense. In contrast to Kiner-Falefa (only FanGraphs gives a positive value), both FanGraphs and Baseball Savant grade Gonzalez as having positive defensive value. Using Baseball Savant’s outs above average metric, he has four outs above average across defensive positions all around the field. This can be seen in the visual down below.
This visual is an imperfect way of showing how many defensive attempts that Gonzalez has made and whether he has been more or less successful than other fielders. The larger the box, the greater the number of attempts on getting the ball. In addition, the redder the box, the greater the number of better than average plays that he has made. If he did not make the plays that an average fielder would make, then the box would get bluer.
For the most part (with the exception of some plays at second base), Gonzalez has been an average or better defensive player at all of the positions that he has played (right field, left field, second, short stop, and third). This breaks down to Gonzalez being able to make most of the plays that utility fielder needs to make as seen in the visual below.
This visual indicates that at nearly every position that he has played, he has been able to make more plays than the average player would be expected to make. The lone exception is his time at second base. However, this could be an issue of limited playing time making the available data noisy. More time at second base could result in better defensive metrics as his performance evens out. In addition, FanGraphs has Gonzalez at 3 total DRS (defensive runs saved) against the average player across his five positions. Ultimately, Gonzalez provides both defensive versatility and the ability to play those positions well. That is traditionally what teams want in a utility fielder.
Does it make sense for Gonzalez to continue to take up a roster slot with the current Yankees? As Andrés noted in his piece last week, the Yankees have two very good options in the minors right now. Both Oswaldo Cabrera and Oswald Peraza offer a higher offensive ceiling than Gonzalez with additional baserunning skills that he lacks. Additionally, the Yankees seem to trust Cabrera’s ability to play all over the field with time in the outfield and most positions (except first base) in the infield.
There’s some mildly reasonable pushback on Peraza, as if he’s being called up, it wouldn’t make sense to keep him on the bench in a Gonzalez-like role. At the very least, he would need to split time with Kiner-Falefa, and their internal metrics seem to like IKF’s defense quite a bit. Perhaps they should do that regardless (the man does have a 133 wRC+ since the beginning of June), but for the sake of this argument, let’s take the Yankees at their word that he’s not ready and could use more development.
So what’s the hold-up over Cabrera? Yes, he could theoretically develop further, but he does not have Peraza’s ceiling. Baseball America’s midseason update had Cabrera as the No. 12 prospect in the system. When you’re looking for lightning in a bottle to help the MLB club and someone whose development is not nearly as high-priority, you’re looking for a guy like Cabrera. He’s hitting .337/.421/.652 with a 180 wRC+ since returning from the IL on July 12th. If you’re not rolling the dice on him now, then when? It just does not make a ton of sense to keep Gonzalez on the roster when you could instead take your pick of two prospects with greater potential at the plate and solid defensive versatility.
In contrast to most fans, the Yankees seem to put a very big emphasis on defensive prowess (see IKF). There’s a reason why they’re so high on IK This makes the likelihood of the Yankees swapping Gonzalez out for Cabrera or Peraza unlikely. Gonzalez is a known positive on defense, and he performs in that role well. The Yankees are also loathe to cut insurance policies loose for limited gain, as the current bullpen suggests. They seemingly refuse to cut the out-of-options Albert Abreu in favor of the superior Ron Marinaccio because they don’t want to lose Abreu, and it appears as though they’re treating Gonzalez’s roster spot the same way — even if they don’t use him very often.
Of course, the entire situation could change depending upon whether DJ LeMahieu’s foot/toe injury is serious. Right now, he seems to be fighting through inflammation. If he does go on the injured list, this could open up a position for one of the aforementioned prospects while making Gonzalez’s position more important on the roster. At this point, it is hard to know what will happen.
Maybe the Yankees will even start winning games again and render the point moot. We can only hope.