When looking at the upcoming position player free-agent class, the big names stand out immediately: young superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. So do the names of longtime stars Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Josh Donaldson, among others, though it's uncertain how they'll be valued due to age or injury. Though this class isn't as historic as we once thought it could be, there's a lot of talent out there, the kind that could excite a fan base.
If you were to look at the list, one name that probably wouldn't stand out to you is Marwin Gonzalez. In the same way that we suggested looking pastCody Allen, Zach Britton and other big-name closers to focus on Adam Ottavino, Gonzalez won't be the biggest name out there -- but he might just be the player who surprises you with the amount of interest he receives this winter.
It's not hard to see why. In the age of bullpenning, openers, shifting and short benches, positional versatility isn't just desirable -- it's all but required, which is why one-position or mainly pinch-hitting veterans had such a hard time on the free-agent market last year. You can't carry endless numbers of pitchers and only three or four bench options if those bench options can't play multiple spots. (This increasingly goes for starters, too, as Kristopher Bryant, Jose Ramirez, Matt Carpenter, Javier Baez, and Whit Merrifield, among others, would remind you.)
In fact, there's something that each of the final four teams this year had in common, aside from the obvious commonalities of superstar-level talent: They each had one of baseball's premier utility players. There's no one right way to define "utility player," of course, so let's go with this: How many players had at least 300 plate appearances this year and played at least three games at all four infield spots and one outfield spot?
The answer is six players, and all four League Championship Series teams had one of them.
Marwin Gonzalez, Astros
Hernan Perez, Brewers
Enrique Hernandez, Dodgers
Brock Holt, Red Sox
Ehire Adrianza, Twins
Niko Goodrum, Tigers
If we also add "was a league-average hitter or better" to the requirement, then we're left with only four names: Gonzalez, Holt, Goodrum, and Hernandez, as Adrianza and Perez would no longer qualify.
Now, let's not overstate the effect. Adrianza's Twins and Goodrum's Tigers combined to lose 184 games. Having a player like this doesn't guarantee success; then again, even having Michael Trout doesn't guarantee success. That's not how baseball works.
But it is how baseball is trending. Consider this: In the history of integrated baseball, dating back to 1947, there have only been five seasons where at least three players that year fit our definition of utility man -- 300 plate appearances with at least three games at all four infield spots and left field (just left here, rather than "outfield," because that's how the search works and that's what Gonzalez did). One came back in 2001. The other four have all come in the last four seasons.
Gonzalez is responsible for four of those years by himself, the most of anyone. While there's definitely a difference between "playing a position" and "playing a position well" -- he's not exactly a highly regarded shortstop defensively -- his role isn't to play anywhere every day. It's to fill in capably all over, as needed. That's how Houston manager AJ Hinch viewed him, anyway.
"He's a unique player because I can put him anywhere," Hinch said after the Astros beat Cleveland in the ALDS earlier this month. "I push him into left field because of the makeup of our team. At any given point on any team, this guy can literally play six positions every day. … As I've said before, he's the answer to everything. We have a problem, we insert Marwin, and no matter what, he steps up in a huge way."
That includes at the plate, too, though his breakout .303/.377/.530 (with 23 home runs) last season feels like something of an outlier. Set aside the poor .227/.266/.323 line from his first two partial seasons in 2012 and '13; as a Rule 5 pick following the 2011 season, he was required to stay in the Majors in 2012 despite clearly not being ready, and he was up-and-down that year.
In the five seasons since, he's hit .271/.328/.438, a line that's about 12 percent better than league average. (We'll use Weighted Runs Created Plus, or wRC+, which is park-adjusted and sets "league average" as 100. Gonzalez has a 112 wRC+ since 2014.) There have been 330 hitters to receive 1,000 plate appearances in the last five seasons, and that mark is tied for 87th, or just outside the top quarter.
For reference, compare Gonzalez's line from 2014-18 to last year's biggest-ticket free-agent signing.
Gonzalez: .271/.328/.438 (112 wRC+)
Eric Hosmer: .281/.344/.438 (111 wRC+)
If we look just at 2017-18 and just at hitters with at least 500 plate appearances, we have 298 players. Gonzalez and his line of .274/.349/.467 (123 wRC+) rank 48th, or just inside the top 20 percent. In fact, if we compare his line over the last two seasons to that of one of this year's:
Gonzalez: .274/.349/.467 (123 wRC+)
Machado: .278/.339/.505 (122 wRC+)
Let's be clear: Absolutely no one is suggesting Gonzalez is as talented as Machado or as valuable, and his next contract will be a fraction of what Machado gets. As we noted, Gonzalez's 2017 was likely a fluke, and he got off to a cold start this year (.230/.305/.355, 84 wRC+ first half) before picking it up late (.275/.352/.492, 134 wRC+ second half). Still, he's been an above-average bat in four of the last five seasons, and few can match his versatility.
All of that, plus the fact that he's a switch-hitter with some youth on his side -- he turns 30 next March -- means that he's likely to be quite in demand on the market this offseason. That makes it a little complicated to figure out who might be interested, because the answer is "everyone, probably." Unlike a Hosmer-type who is limited to one spot, anyone could fit Gonzalez in.
That includes his current Astros team, of course. But you could easily see the Mets wanting insurance for young infielders Jeff McNeil and Amed Rosario, as well as a righty-hitting option for a potentially lefty-heavy outfield. The Rockies, potentially likely to turn to Garrett Hampson or Brendan Rodgers at second base and with their own set of lefties in the outfield, would be an option. You imagine the Phillies finding a fit, or the Yankees, or the Nationals, or Indians, or ... and that's the point, really. His marketplace won't be limited.
As the World Series continues this week, we're watching a 2018 Dodgers team that can arguably be called the "most flexible team" ever. Hernandez started at seven positions this year, Chris Taylor at four spots, Player Page for Max Muncy three, and Cody Bellinger just became one of the very few players ever to regularly play both first base and center field.
Versatility isn't the only way to success, clearly. But teams no longer treat players like Gonzalez as "backups." They're starters, just at many different spots. The best teams have one. All teams need one. Gonzalez couldn't be hitting free agency at a better time. He might just be the perfect free agent for this particular time and space in the baseball universe.