If you’re hiking, or on a boat, or trekking anywhere where you are largely on your own, having a first aid kit around gives you infinite piece of mind. Slip and jam your shoulder? Ibuprofen! Accidentally rip off a finger nail? Neosporin and a band-aid! Case of the bubble gut? PEPTO TO THE RESCUE!
Not only does it help you out in most every scenario imaginable, it also gives you the confidence to stay out that extra night on the trail, or to take that boat a few miles further from shore than you otherwise would.
A surefire, verstaile utility player in baseball can be a a front office’s first aid kit, especially given the constraints of the 25-man roster. Teams simply can’t carry a back-up at every single position, especially not with the proliferation of using relief pitchers and carrying a larger bullpen than in previous eras. Ben Zobrist, for instance, has made a career of not just backing up everyone everywhere, but being good enough to build in routine days off for players across the diamond during the 7 month slog of the season. The Chicago Cubs recognized that flexibility in the form of a 4 year, $56 million contract prior to their 2016 World Series squad despite the presence of promising middle infield options (Javier Baez, Addison Russell) and an already loaded cadre of outfielders on hand (Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, Jon Jay, Ian Happ, Albert Almora).
Zobrist posted a .789 OPS in 586 games in the four seasons prior to signing with the Cubs, at which point he was entering his age 35 season. Though he’s not nearly as accomplished to date as Zobrist was at that time, free agent Marwin Gonzalez ended his tenure with the Houston Astros as he heads into just his age 30 season, but he’s hit to the tune of a .772 OPS over his previous four years (540 games) and offers a similar - perhaps even more varied - range of defensive options. Like Zobrist, he’s also a switch-hitter.
From the Cincinnati Reds perspective, there’s no question that Gonzalez would be an excellent fit. He fits anywhere, on any roster, which was the initial danged point I was making. The question, though, is whether he’s too much of a luxury item for a team in need of many, many things, and whether or not his contract demands would then price the Reds out of making other, more needed pieces (read: pitching).
To highlight why I’m even bringing up a player who has played LF more than any other position over the last two years - where the Reds have an admirable glut of players already - is, in part, because of the uncertainty many of those players bring to the overall structure of the roster. Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, for instance, are set to be free agents after the 2019 season, meaning they’re not yet tied down as pieces for the long term. Similarly, Scooter Gennett is set for free agency at the end of 2019, and a quick tally shows Gonzalez has played 131 games in the middle infield over just the last two seasons. On top of that, top prospect Nick Senzel is still a positionless nebula, with talk suggesting he might get time in CF, LF, 2B, 3B, and SS all having surfaced over the last year, with none of it at all yet a certainty.
(Not to mention the Reds still don’t really have anyone who profiles as a regular CF after non-tendering Billy Hamilton).
So, the allure of the Reds adding Gonzalez isn’t so much predicated on what he is certain to bring to the roster for a few years, but more about the uncertainty that so many other parts of the roster will in that time - and his ability to fill in for almost all of them. And the obvious potential hang-ups with that allure is whether his cost - predicted to be $36 million over 4 years by the folks at MLB Trade Rumors - is too pricey an insurance plan, or if that amount of money would be better spent trying to lock down one of Puig, or Gennett, or invested elsewhere into pitching.
The single largest bugaboo about the Reds targeting Gonzalez would be the lack of time he’s spent in CF, since that’s the most obvious positional need for the Reds at the moment. While there’s talk of either Puig or Schebler covering there for the time being - Puig has played their 67 times in his career, Schebler 49 - neither is a natural fit there at this juncture, and Senzel hasn’t yet spent a single professional inning in CF at any level. Gonzalez, meanwhile, has played a grand total of just 3 innings in his big league career in CF despite his otherwise endless versatility. Even in the minors, he only logged 12 starts in CF, 8 of which came back in advanced A ball during the 2009 season. There are certainly reasons to believe he’d be plenty capable there - his 15.3 UZR/150 last year ranked 6th among 114 defenders who spent at least 500 innings in the OF - but it’s hard to truly trust a player to play there who never really has when the other options for CF are already significant questions marks as well.
Still, there’s certainly reason to think he could be a solid contributor going forward. If the Reds were truly committed to letting Kemp, Puig, and Gennett walk in free agency (or via trade at some point in 2019), Gonzalez could feasibly be penciled in for any of their roles beyond next year. Also, he can pretty effectively be counted on to play wherever Nick Senzel doesn’t, which would keep the Reds from the need to shoehorn him into a lone open spot on the roster. His lack of CF experience is certainly a red flag, but even compared to some of the existing, experience CF options on the free agent market - Adam Jones, for instance - there’s a chance he’d be a better, even cheaper option (by average annual value).
Under the previous era of the Reds, the idea would’ve been a completely foreign one, as the concept of positional versatility and rotation was largely nonexistent, particularly under Jim Riggleman. Under David Bell, though, things might well be a bit different, which would go a long way to unlock some of Gonzalez’s latent value. Of course, there’s also a chance that the Reds plan to use Nick Senzel precisely in the manner I’ve suggested for Gonzalez, and he’d be doing so with significantly more upside and at a much cheaper cost - just with significantly less certainty and insurance.