Brad Miller and Marwin Gonzalez Find New Homes

As we near the opening of spring training, two more players have found new homes, as utility players Brad Miller and Marwin Gonzalez signed major league contracts for the 2021 season. Gonzalez’s deal is a one-year contract with the Red Sox worth $3 million; Miller signed with the Phillies for similar compensation.

Utility players have always been a part of baseball, but they got a special showcase in the 2020 World Series, as the Dodgers and Rays are two teams that highly value defensively flexibility. Role players of this type tend to live a fairly anonymous existence, though there have always been special cases such as Tony Phillips. For Los Angeles, Enrique Hernández (now with Boston) and Chris Taylor were both key members of the team in recent years, and even in big seasons, the team’s been willing to have star players like Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy play extensively at multiple positions. Tampa Bay, on a self-imposed shoestring budget, has utilized Joey Wendle, Mike Brosseau, Yandy Díaz, and Yoshi Tsutsugo (among others) at multiple positions. The Padres appear to be showing few qualms about using last year’s NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, Jake Cronenworth, at multiple positions, as well as the recently re-signed Jurickson Profar.

To look at how this has changed historically, I went back to 1950 (when we started getting dependable outfield positional breakdowns every year) and tried to make a definition of a “supersub” season. I used seasons in which a player played at least four positions for at least 10 games apiece, not including DH, with those limits reduced proportionally for seasons with fewer than 162 games. In 2019, 17 players fit this description, more than the entire 1950s combined; as recently as 1990, there were only three supersub seasons total (Lance Blankenship, Casey Candaele, Eric Yelding). Both Miller and Gonzalez are among this group.

There was a bit of a downtick in 2020, but it was also an odd year, and teams had fewer roster constraints that necessitated supersubs. The trend towards teams valuing versatility is real, though, and in some ways, it comes full-circle to early baseball history, when positions were considered more fluid, even for Hall of Famers like Honus Wagner.

Miller, a former Mariners shortstop prospect, never quite stuck at the position full-time. There’s some statistical disagreement about how much of a problem he was at short, with UZR pegging him at -3.6 runs per 150 defensive games and DRS a significantly worse -15.5 per 150. Whatever the universe’s “true” position on his defense is, teams stopped using him at the position after a 2015 season in which he logged 854 innings at short, with defensive numbers in Bad Hanley Ramirez territory.

Miller hasn’t really excelled at any other defensive position, but he can at least fake enough of them for his bat to have value as a reserve. In three seasons as a versatile backup, he’s combined for a .247/.329/.468 line and a very respectable wRC+ of 113. Just for context, all first basemen combined for a wRC+ of 108 in 2020; a 113 would have been right in the middle of the pack for starters at the position. A lousy shortstop isn’t a tempting starter, but a player who can hit like a decent first baseman and play a lousy shortstop or second base? There’s value there.

In Miller’s case, the fact that he has an exploitable platoon split adds to that value. His career .245/.326/.447 line against righties is an extremely solid triple-slash, and his career platoon differential of 153 points of OPS is much larger than for the typical left-handed hitter; the average split was 98 points of OPS in 2020, 67 in ’19. With the Phillies, Miller will likely play everywhere but catcher, shortstop (the team has better options), and center. Scott Kingery is a right-handed hitter and should see a ton of time in center, so he’s not likely in direct competition with Miller for playing time in many cases.

ZiPS Projection – Brad Miller
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .224 .319 .449 321 44 72 15 3 17 59 43 112 2 100 1 1.0

 

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Brad Miller
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .237 .341 .525 316 49 75 18 5 21 66 48 98 4 124 2.0
80% .233 .332 .506 318 47 74 17 5 20 64 46 103 3 118 1.6
70% .229 .327 .483 319 46 73 16 4 19 62 45 106 3 111 1.4
60% .225 .322 .469 320 45 72 16 4 18 60 44 108 2 106 1.1
50% .224 .319 .449 321 44 72 15 3 17 59 43 112 2 100 1.0
40% .224 .316 .447 322 44 72 15 3 17 58 42 115 2 99 0.9
30% .220 .311 .433 323 43 71 15 3 16 56 41 118 2 94 0.7
20% .219 .308 .420 324 43 71 14 3 15 55 40 123 2 90 0.5
10% .215 .303 .394 325 42 70 13 3 13 52 39 131 1 83 0.1

Gonzalez’s skill set is not that dissimilar from Miller’s. He’s not quite as much of a defensive liability, which has enabled him to get full-time plate appearances more often in his career, highlighted by a 23-homer, four-WAR season in 2017. His offense has slipped in the years since, and his .211/.286/.320 triple-slash was his worst performance since breaking into the league a decade ago. Probably not helping his case is the fact that he was a member of the Astros during the sign-stealing scandal years. It’s a very open question whether Gonzalez received much of a direct benefit from the signals, but the question is out there, and it strikes me as a bigger unknown for a role player than for someone like George Springer or Carlos Correa.

Gonzalez played four positions for at least 50 innings in 2020 and will likely fill a similar role for the Red Sox this season. I’d probably play him at short sooner than Miller, but with Xander Bogaerts at the position and Christian Arroyo available on the roster, it’s unlikely that this was a key part of why Boston had interest in him. Gonzalez doesn’t have wide platoon splits like Miller — some switch-hitters do, in fact, have very large splits — so he’s unlikely to be used strictly as a platoon partner for someone like Franchy Cordero. He’ll also see some time against righties that Hernandez will not; Kiké hits lefties much better.

ZiPS Projection – Marwin Gonzalez
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .262 .327 .426 439 51 115 25 1 15 66 38 95 2 98 2 1.1

 

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Marwin Gonzalez
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .273 .348 .477 432 54 118 29 1 19 75 45 79 3 116 2.1
80% .270 .342 .463 434 53 117 28 1 18 71 43 87 2 111 1.8
70% .266 .335 .443 436 52 116 27 1 16 69 41 90 2 104 1.5
60% .265 .331 .438 438 51 116 26 1 16 67 39 93 2 102 1.3
50% .262 .327 .426 439 51 115 25 1 15 66 38 95 2 98 1.1
40% .259 .323 .414 440 50 114 24 1 14 65 37 98 1 94 0.8
30% .259 .323 .414 440 50 114 24 1 14 64 37 102 1 94 0.8
20% .256 .317 .396 442 49 113 23 0 13 63 35 105 1 88 0.5
10% .255 .313 .385 444 48 113 22 0 12 61 33 110 1 84 0.2

It’s always nice to see utility infielders get guaranteed contracts worth multiples of millions, especially in a winter where teams appear even less eager to spend money than usual. The Red Sox and Phillies both have uphill climbs to make the playoffs and need a lot more than Gonzalez or Miller to go right. But both have a lot of use with their new teams.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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tomerafan
Member
tomerafan

I think you can put Jonathan Villar into the same general category in his role with the Mets…and, unlike Miller or Gonzalez, Villar can also play CF in a pinch.

As far as Marwin Gonzalez goes…. his 2017 season is such an outlier at the plate (144 wRC+ compared to about a 97 wRC+ for all other seasons) that whether it was trash-can related or not, I’m shocked that he got a guaranteed $3M. His last 1200 PA’s produced a 93 wRC+. I’m genuinely shocked that he got a ML deal.

proiste
Member
proiste

I mean he’s not great or anything, but a 93 wRC+ with passable defense at a bunch of positions is definitely majors-worthy. His 50% ZiPS is exactly 1.0 WAR; $3M seems just about right for that level of production, especially for a Sox team that desperately needs depth.

tomerafan
Member
tomerafan

I guess… if you think the defense is passable… and if you think his knee surgery after the 2019 season has nothing to do with the decline… and if you think Gonzalez at $3M is really a meaningful upgrade over Jonathan Arauz at the league minimum salary… and if you think Arauz needs a full season at AAA to refine his skillset…

I don’t think any of those things are true, except for maybe Arauz being AAA bound, but I understand where others might disagree.