Sure-handed Gonzalez fulfills what Crew needs

Sure-handed Gonzalez fulfills what Crew needs

Sure-handed Gonzalez fulfills what Crew needs
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's the position almost everybody wants to play as a kid, and the best kids usually do. So why are some Major League teams having so much trouble these days finding a long-term solution at shortstop?

Yes, there are the likes of Troy Tulowitzki, Starlin Castro and Elvis Andrus set on their respective infields for years to come. But then there are teams like the Brewers, Red Sox, Pirates, Giants and Padres, all of whom have cycled through various shortstops in recent seasons.

Baseball faces a shortstop shortage, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin argues, one he knew his club would have to contend with when it traded budding stud Alcides Escobar to the Royals two winters ago to get Zack Greinke.

"If you're in Little League and you've got a plus arm, they want to put you at pitcher now," Melvin said. "And at shortstop, everyone is so emphasized on offense, they're getting away from the most important part -- catch the ball, throw the ball, turn the double play. If you have a shortstop who doesn't get hits, he almost gets crucified or at least criticized."

The Brewers' shortstop carousel began turning when they traded away the home-grown J.J. Hardy in November 2009, a deal meant to free payroll for pitching and to open shortstop for top prospect Escobar. When the Brewers traded Escobar the following December, they got the free-swinging Yuniesky Betancourt in return, and now they are on to Alex Gonzalez, making him Milwaukee's fourth starting shortstop in as many seasons.

Gonzalez is part of a proud line of Venezuelan shortstops from Chico Carrasquel to Luis Aparicio to Omar Vizquel to Andrus and Escobar. He was surprised to hear some teams have had so much turnover at the position.

"Everybody loves to play shortstop," said Gonzalez, who hit a two-run double in the first and a two-run triple in the fourth inning of Wednesday afternoon's game against the White Sox. "But you have to be smart to play shortstop. It's not about going out there to run around and throw. You have to be in command of the infield, in every moment of the game."

Gonzalez has played for five different teams, and his former teammates in Brewers camp include Brooks Conrad (Braves) and George Kottaras (Red Sox). Gonzalez played for current Brewers bench coach Jerry Narron in Cincinnati. When Gonzalez was an All-Star for the Marlins in 1999, one of his teammates was Brewers special assistant Craig Counsell.

That's what happens when you bounce around. Gonzalez, known for his sure glove but also for having some pop in his bat -- he hit 23 homers for the Marlins in 2004 and for the Blue Jays and Braves in '10 -- has played for four teams in the past four seasons.

He spent the past two seasons with the Braves, who acquired Gonzalez and the prospect who would eventually take his job -- Tyler Pastornicky -- in a five-player swap with the Blue Jays. Atlanta declined to offer Gonzalez arbitration in November, a clear sign it was moving on.

Gonzalez picked the Brewers at the Winter Meetings, signing a one-year, $4.25 million deal, with a $3.5 million club option for 2013. If Gonzalez makes 525 plate appearances in '12, that option will vest at $4 million.

The pitching staff, the Brewers figure, should benefit from Gonzalez's arrival. Among qualifying hitters in the National League, only Betancourt had a lower on-base percentage than Gonzalez's .270, but he was third in the league with a .981 fielding percentage. Only Tulowitzki and Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins rated better in that basic defensive measure.

The more advanced metrics, including's Ultimate Zone Rating, put Gonzalez in the middle of the NL pack. All agree he is a defensive upgrade over Betancourt.

"He's a smart player, so he knows where to position himself," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He's got range, he's got good hands and he's got a nice arm. I know with the age, maybe he's not what he was 10 years ago. But he's still really good."

Said Gonzalez: "That is my priority, to help my team on defense. I do the best I can with my bat. If you play good defense, you can play a lot of games."

The Brewers also pursued free agent Clint Barmes, who got a two-year deal from the Pirates, and Rollins, who wound up re-signing with the Phillies.

The Brewers made a strong play for Rollins, making it clear to agent Dan Lozano that they would be willing to offer a four-year deal. But Lozano was busy with another high-profile free-agent client, Albert Pujols, and the Brewers decided they couldn't wait to address the offensive void left by Prince Fielder. They shifted focus to third baseman Aramis Ramirez and signed him in mid-December.

Rollins, as expected, re-signed with Philadelphia.

"That would have changed our offseason dramatically," Melvin said.

It also could have changed the franchise's immediate future. The Brewers admit they are relatively thin at shortstop in the Minor Leagues, where Edwin Maysonet is slated for Triple-A Nashville and organizational newcomer Jeff Bianchi could go to Double-A Huntsville.

The Brewers like two of their prospects: Orlando Arcia, who spent last season in the Dominican Summer League and is at Maryvale Baseball Park for Spring Training, and Yadiel Rivera, a ninth-round Draft pick in 2010 who ranked 12th on's list of the Top 20 Brewers prospects. Rivera topped out at Rookie level Helena last season. Both players are years away from the big leagues.

Gonzalez turned 35 shortly before reporting to Spring Training. He's already appeared in three postseasons and is hoping to add to that list.

"A lot of players go a whole career and never get there," Gonzalez said. "I've been lucky. I want to get to the World Series again, and I think we have a chance."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.