Braves' Due Diligence on Marwin Gonzalez

Braves' Due Diligence on Marwin Gonzalez

Braves

Braves' Due Diligence on Marwin Gonzalez

(This is the fourth part of this series. I previously looked at Patrick CorbinBryce Harperfive free agent catchers, and Manny Machado.)

Overview: While many like to compare Johan Camargo to Martin Prado, maybe the better comparison is Marwin Gonzalez. After all, Camargo was a light-hitting utility infielder who turned into a major leaguer with some legit power and value. As you’ll see, Gonzalez’s story isn’t too dissimilar.

For a number of years, Gonzalez was a minor league utility infielder with an interesting, though quite unspectacular, hit tool. But once he was able to get established in the majors as a 25-year-old with Houston in 2014, he started to flash power unlike ever before and, two years later, transitioned into an integral piece of the resurgent Astros. His breakout season of 2017 garnered MVP consideration and ended with a World Series win after a 4.0 fWAR regular season.

But his follow-up wasn’t quite as good. After a .303/.377/.530 slash, he fell closer to his career norms this season (.247/.324/.409). The super utility option continued to move around, playing every position except for pitcher and catcher. Still, heading into free agency, it wasn’t quite the campaign the 29-year-old switch hitter wanted.

His value as a Ben Zobristian option is certainly there, though as most utility players go, he’s more of a short-term fill-in around the field because he’s not particularly gifted defensively outside of first base and left field.

Should the Braves be intrigued in adding Gonzalez? I’ll get there, but first, let’s talk financial commitment – and I’m not talking about putting a ring on it.

Predicting a Contract: There are some difficult contracts to predict and then, there is Gonzalez. The problem with Gonzalez is that he has never been an everyday player. He’s played at least 120 games each year since 2015, but never more than 145 and has never started more than 136 games in a given season. There are full-time players at every position and then you have Gonzalez, who can play everywhere, but maybe isn’t a starter.

Of course, that’s not entirely his fault. He has earned the playing time, but the Astros have made the choice to use him in a super utility role because that’s what is more valuable for their team. Still, the lack of a full-time gig heading into free agency for the first time should affect his contract. As should the fact that he’s never been 2017-good in any other season of his career. He has wRC+ of 110, 111, 89, 144, and 104 over the last five seasons and a wRC+ of 103 over his nearly 800-game career. Going back to the five-year sample, his overall wRC+ is 112. That’s not nothing and it’s better than Eric Hosmer, Nick Castellanos, Eugenio Suarez, and Todd Frazier.

But the problem for his agent, which is the ever popular Scott Boras, is that Gonzalez (1) enters free agency after a slightly disappointing 2018 rather than an amazing 2017 and (2) teams aren’t exactly sure how to pay super utility players. Ben Zobrist is kind of the gold standard here and he received $56 million over four years. However, was Zobrist a classical utility man or just a starter that moves around? Teams interested in Gonzalez will argue the latter and they’ll also point out that Zobrist was a better player before he joined the Cubs. And, well, they’re not wrong. Zobrist was coming off seven consecutive seasons with at least 3 fWAR. Boras would counter that Gonzalez is younger that Zobrist was when he joined the Cubs, but I think he’s dreaming if he’s hoping to touch an annual average value of $14 million. Gonzalez is not just a poor man’s Zobrist – he’s also a poorer version of Zobrist.

Another contract to consider is Josh Harrison’s four year, $27.3 million extension. With this, however, we are talking about an extension that bought out a few years of arbitration so it’s a bit different. The contract also includes two options that the Pirates control which could increase the value to $48.8 million over six seasons. For Boras’s sake, however, he might want to focus on the final years of Harrison’s contract, which called for $7.5M last year and $10M this year. Add in the other two option seasons and you get a four-year contract worth $39M. Another super utility contract might be Howie Kendrick’s two-year, $20M deal that ran from 2016-17.

But possibly the low-end of what Boras will look for was created yesterday when the Diamondbacks agreed to a three-year, $21 million contract with Eduardo Escobar. Like Gonzalez, Escobar was seen as a super utility guy – though that did change in 2018. Full-time gigs are important.

Before the Escobar deal, I had higher expectations for what Gonzalez may receive. But now it’s difficult for me to see Gonzalez getting much more than Escobar. In many ways, Escobar is the better player here especially when you’re talking about a starter. Neither guy is a capable shortstop, but Escobar is, at least, an average option over at third base – a position of higher defensive importance than Gonzalez’s best work in left field and at first base. Further, Escobar would have hit free agency on a high note following his 3.5 fWAR 2018 season. Historically, Gonzalez is the better hitter, but recent results lean toward Escobar.

But I got to predict something here. Without really knowing what Gonzalez’s market may become, I’m going to give him a bit of an edge and project $24 million over three seasons for an average annual value of $8 million per year.

The Case for Signing Marwin Gonzalez: If you are searching for bang for your buck, it’s hard to do better than Gonzalez. If you hold him under an average annual value of $10 million per season, you are getting him for much less than comparable hitters like Eric Hosmer (8-year, $144M), Russell Martin (5-year, $82M), Shin-Soo Choo (7-year, $130M), and Dexter Fowler (5-year, $82.5M). All of these hitters have had a wRC+ over the last five years that is comparable to Gonzalez.

Further, signing Gonzalez makes you deeper. As we saw with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Braves just didn’t have a deep enough roster to compete with the eventual NL Champions. Gonzalez helps as he can play all over and not embarrass you at the plate.

As a switch-hitter, Gonzalez shows little platoon difference (i.e. have a dominant side). As a result, he makes for a perfect platoon option. For instance, if the Braves add a left-hand hitting outfielder who struggles when losing the platoon advantage – or just keep Ender Inciarte (check out Ryan’s column on Inciarte trades) – Gonzalez can move to the outfield to help out. You don’t want him to play center and he has very little experience in right, but he has decent metrics in left field.

A few other final things that do improve Gonzalez’s case. While his overall numbers fell during 2018 compared to 2017, his hard-hit rate improved from 36.6% to 41.4% with similar rates as far as exit velocity and launch angle.

The Case Against: It’s pretty simple – signing Marwin Gonzalez fills a want, not a need. Sure, the Braves want a much deeper bench, but do they need the best option available? Not necessarily. What they need is improvement in the rotation and bullpen along with a catcher and a starting corner outfielder. I guess technically Gonzalez could be that starting outfielder and he would be perfect if Cristian Pache was ready to jump to the majors at some point soon. Essentially, that was John Coppolella’s thinking with Sean Rodriguez. Sean-Rod could fill in as a starter before Ozzie Albies was ready and Rodriguez would transition back into a super utility player. That didn’t work, but it could work with Gonzalez – if Pache was ready for the majors in 2019 which seems highly unlikely.

There’s another problem with finances despite expectations of a higher payroll. The Braves were already sitting on $40-$50 million available before a pending payroll bump, but spending $8M or more on a utility player is a tough sell. Especially by year 3 and 4 of a contract when a number of players that are cheap now begin to reach arbitration.

Beyond that problem, however, is the question of which Gonzalez are you getting? Let’s take away both outliers from the last five seasons (0.3 fWAR in 2016, 4.0 fWAR in 2017). You’re looking at about a 1.5 fWAR player. Now, in crude financial terms, that will likely still bring you decent bang for your buck (assuming a win is worth about $8M). But a career .319 wOBA is pretty…meh. Randall Simon, Scott Podsednik, and Robert Fick had the same career .319. And if you think I’m being unfair by using his career wOBA against him based on his weaker play during the early part of his career, his wOBA in 2018 was just .318.

Gonzalez has value, but much like it’s difficult to nail down a contract prediction, it’s difficult to really put his value in simple concrete terms. You’re not signing him to be your everyday right fielder. You want him in the same role he has played so well for the Astros. That’s plenty useful. But is it enough to justify the spending?

My Two Cents: At Eduardo Escobar’s rate, I pass on Gonzalez. While I see the advantages of adding Gonzalez to the bench in a super utility role, I also might already have that with Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo. The latter hasn’t played in left field and I’m dubious whether he can, but I think the two of them can combine to do much of what Gonzalez does.

But there’s one more issue I haven’t really discussed – The Scott Boras Factor You might think that would push me to not want Gonzalez, but that’s not really what I’m trying to get at here. Boras, for all that he does so well, can overplay his hand at the detriment of his client. That has led to many drawn-out free agent periods for players that might not be highly desired with many suitors. Gonzalez could be the next player to suffer. For all the reasons that Gonzalez is a tough fit for the Braves, he’s a tough fit for many ballclubs out there.

As teams sign free agents and add salary commitments, they could find themselves priced out of even considering Gonzalez, shrinking his market. If all of this plays out, Gonzalez could hit January without a home provided the Astros want to save their money for other players and not bring him back. Maybe the Braves become a better fit at that point with a player more willing to accept a two-year contract. Of course, how much money the Braves have available by January is debatable, but let’s say they have already added a few relievers, a catcher, and a starting outfielder. Maybe even a starting pitcher. And they are still sitting on $15-$20 million

I have my worries about Year 3 or Year 4 of a Gonzalez contract when he’s 32 and 33 – especially with increased salary commitments for younger players. But on a two-year contract in the $13-$16 million range? I can get on board with that. That fits the schedule a bit more.

What do you think? Is there a fit at all or should the Braves not even consider Gonzalez? Let me know below.

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