Flash-forward to spring training or June or July of this season. Jed Lowrie is traded to Oakland or Baltimore or any number of places and there's not a major league-ready shortstop coming back to Houston in return.
Or, in another scenario, Lowrie suffers another severe injury and has to miss significant time next season. Where does that leave the Astros? Who fills in at shortstop? Jonathan Villar probably needs at least half a season in the minors before he gets called up. Tyler Greene has the bat at home, but his defense could leave something to be desired.
That leaves Marwin Gonzalez, a Rule 5 pick who played a little last season and got some time at short. He certainly looks the part of a major leaguer with a big frame and good arm, but does that mean he'll be a good fit to start for Houston? What did the Astros see out of him last year and could it make him a viable option if things go sideways with Lowrie?
Let's break things down into three categories.
Heading into last season, Gonzalez had a reputation as a pretty good defender in the minors. He didn't have the flashy plays that someone like Villar did, but he made all the routine plays and showed the same propensity in 347 innings at short last year.
The defensive metrics we have show that he was perfectly average. He had no positive or negative defensive runs saved at short, and his UZR was right around zero. What does that tell us? Well, here's a snippet from an interview with Tom Tango at ESPNChicago:
The issue with the fielding stats that we have now is that we have to infer a lot simply because we aren't recording enough. You'd rather record the fielder's positioning rather than infer it. You'd rather know how many hops a ball takes to get to the shortstop rather than infer it. Basically, all the things we see and we know and we take for granted as a baseball fan isn't being recorded. Even something as simple as hangtime took forever to finally get recorded. You and I know looking at a seven-second lazy flyball is going to be caught by every outfielder in MLB, and is therefore noise. But, if the systems aren't being told that it was a seven-second flyball, it tries to guess based on other parameters on its difficulty, and therefore might suggest it had a 90 percent of being caught rather than 99.9 percent. Instead of that data being treated as noise, the fielding system treats it as valid useful data.
But, just because a metric has bias or noise doesn't mean we should discard it altogether. We need SOMETHING. As long as the bias and noise isn't too extensive, then something is better than nothing.
If we've got reports that Marwin is solid defensively and then see the metrics saying he had a perfectly average season, that tells us something, right? We can't predict how Marwin will do with an increased innings load, and we can't predict that he'll stay as average as he looked last season.
In 219 plate appearances last season, Gonzalez hit .234/.280/.327 with two home runs, 29 strikeouts and 13 walks. That's good for a walk rate of 5.9 percent and a strikeout rate of 13.2 percent. Both of those numbers match his career numbers from the minor leagues, suggesting that his patience should stabilize around this rate in more playing time.
It's the bat that could improve. Don't expect Gonzalez to hit many home runs. His two last season was pretty much par for the course in the minors. But, I do think you can expect him to hit a bit higher than .234, seeing as his BABiP was one of the lowest of his career.
His line drive rate was decent at 19 percent and a slight uptick in him BABiP could lead to a .270/.330/.320 line pretty easily. That's not great, but it would be playable in the short term.
Add in decent speed numbers, despite not being very good at stealing bases, and Gonzalez would be an offensive plus at short if he can keep up those average defensive numbers.
Here's the rub. Gonzalez has never had more than 465 plate appearances in a single season. He got just 262 between Triple-A and the majors last season, so there's not telling how he will hold up over 500-600 plate appearances or if he'd be able to make it that far without getting injured.
There's no reasons he couldn't, though. Just because a young guy hasn't played that much doesn't mean he can't. We just have to adjust the likelihood down a bit.
Could Marwin start? By all indications, he'd be perfectly normal and average at the position. Given the lack of shortstops on the free market at any given time, having a backup plan who can provide average production at a premium position is very handy.
At the very least, Marwin showed enough last season that he could be a capable fill-in for however long the Astros need him. If that's until Villar is ready or until Lowrie comes back from an injury, they shouldn't be hurt by having to play him at short for an extended time this season.