Alex Gonzalez isn't really that great. For just about every Major League Baseball team, he would be a mediocre option. For many teams, he would be a downgrade from their current shortstop. But for the Milwaukee Brewers, who just signed Alex Gonzalez to a one year deal with a vesting option, Gonzalez is like an angel sent from heaven.
Alex Gonzalez hit .241/.270/.372 in 2010. He's certainly not a good hitter. He does have some power in his bat though, and hit 24 homeruns just two seasons ago, in 2010. That year, he had a .250/.294/.447 line, good for a .319 wOBA. Gonzalez isn't going to come in and push the Brewers to another level. He won't fill a hole in the middle of the order.
But Gonzalez isn't Yuniesky Betancourt. Sure, they both profile as similar hitters. Both are free-swingers who don't get on base very much. The main offensive talent of both is a little bit of power and decent contact rates. Gonzalez is a little better than Betancourt. Gonzalez has hit over 20 home runs in a season, something Betancourt has never done. Gonzalez has been over a .310 OBP three times in his career, something that Betancourt has never done. Are these pretty low benchmarks? Yes. But Betancourt was truly so bad that Alex Gonzalez is better than him.
And that's just hitting. The Brewers aren't going to be paying Alex Gonzalez to be a hitter. It would be nice, but the big reason the Brewers are signing Alex Gonzalez is because he can actually play defense. And he plays defense pretty well, too. Gonzalez has played shortstop his entire nine-year career, with five different teams. His UZR/150 in that time is 6.3. Here are his UZR/150s since 2006:
A single season represents a small sample size. Several seasons give you a pretty good idea of how good Gonzalez can be at defense. It looked like he was worse in 2011 and it may be true that he has lost a step over the years.The guy is 34 years old now. But that looks like an outlier and the bigger picture still shows him at or near elite status as a defensive shortstop.
Being that good of a defender brings immense value to the Milwaukee Brewers. For a team that looks like it might be relying heavily on their starting staff, the Brewers needed to solidify their defense. Gonzalez could very well ease the minds of the starting rotation, who had to be frustrated with Yuniesky Betancourt last season. Zack Greinke has shown an awareness of his defense, and it could have something to do with why he struggled with giving up the long ball last season. Instead of pitching to contact, Greinke decided to go for strikeouts. While he struck out hitters at a better rate than ever before in his career, that strategy may have also caused Greinke to throw more mistake pitches which increased his HR/9 to his highest rate since 2006.
Now, the Brewers have a player who can reach grounders that are headed up the middle. A shortstop who looks like he actually cares and takes pride in his defense. Alex Gonzalez won't let this ball get by him. Alex Gonzalez probably gets to this ball, too. If you didn't look at those links, you could probably guess that they demonstrate the sterling defensive play of Yuniesky Betancourt.
Alex Gonzalez signing with the Brewers isn't a flashy move, nor is it a move that, in and of itself, will win the Brewers many games in 2012. But putting Alex Gonzalez into the context of replacing Yuniesky Betancourt turns this from a blah move to a very good move. Just on defense alone, Gonzalez might be worth well over 1.0 fWAR more than Yuniesky Betancourt.
But Gonzalez really might be worth even more than that. Yuniesky Betancourt potentially lost the Brewers several games with shoddy defense, including at least one playoff game. While Alex Gonzalez won't exactly win games for the Brewers, he also isn't going to lose them, either. Gonzalez is not going to let ground balls go right past him. He won't show absolutely no effort getting to balls that are more than a couple meters away from him.
Even better, Alex Gonzalez is going to come fairly cheap. For the cash-strapped Milwaukee Brewers, that's nothing but a good thing. It could even afford them the flexibility of still searching out a decent bat to help negate the loss of Prince Fielder. That all depends on what Brewers owner Mark Attanasio signs off on, of course, but the Brewers are showing they still want to win.
Alex Gonzalez isn't exactly going to be a run scorer. But he is going to be a run saver. It's what he does. And that's very good news for the Brewers.