When Jose Iglesias went down for the season with stress fractures in both legs it left the Tigers stuck between a rock and a hard place. Shortstop was already a position lacking depth, and the timing of the injury made an external acquisition difficult. Stephen Drew was the only remaining free agent solution, but he carried the burden of a compensatory draft pick. The Tigers didn't want to lose the potential in that pick in exchange for a temporary stopgap. Several upper tier players were supposedly available in trade, but few teams are willing to deal valuable pieces in March and April. Most of these players would come at a premium, and Detroit doesn't have much to harvest down on the farm.
But after the team deemed Danny Worth and Hernan Perez worthy of the big leagues, and Steve Lombardozzi unworthy of the shortstop position, they began looking elsewhere for a cheap replacement on the trade market. The first acquisition was Andrew Romine, a 28-year-old switch hitter from the Los Angeles Angels who cost the low price of left-handed Mud Hens starter Jose Alvarez. Romine spent the last season as a utility infielder for the Angels, hitting .259 with little to no power in 123 plate appearances, but he did show a solid glove and the ability to draw a walk on occasion.
The second move the Tigers made was to trade Lombardozzi for veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez from the Baltimore Orioles. Gonzalez was a very good fielder in his younger days and even showed some pop in his bat, posting a .404 SLG to go with a .249 average over his ten years as a regular player from 2001 to 2011. The downside, and the reason Gonzalez came at a discount, is that he is 37 years old and has been dealing with injuries during the last two seasons. In 2012 and 2013 Gonzalez only played a total of 65 games, and only 27 of them were at shortstop.
And that’s how we entered the season, with Gonzalez as the primary shortstop and Romine available off the bench. Twelve games in we've seen Gonzalez get about 75 percent of the playing time, and he’s off to a slow start. His 0-for-3 performance in yesterday's game brings his 2014 triple-slash line down to .167/.219 /233 in 32 trips to the plate. His performance in the field has been disappointing as well, and even though he turned a fine double play yesterday he also committed an error, bringing his total for the season to three in 31 chances. DRS has him costing the Tigers five runs with his glove.
We’re still very early in this season. We can’t tell much of anything from this year’s stats yet, and with all of the off days thus far it’s difficult for players to get comfortable with a regular routine. However, there are more than just 32 plate appearances as evidence that Gonzalez may not be able to handle this role. He’s 37 years old and hasn't had much playing time over the last few years, especially not at shortstop. He hasn't been able to put up an OPS above .700 since 2010, and last year the Brewers had essentially given up on trying him at shortstop, with 90 percent of his innings coming at first- and third-base.
Brad Ausmus insists that Gonzalez can provide better defense than what we've seen, and I’m inclined to believe him. After all, he watches Gonzalez take dozens of grounders every day and I've only seen him take a couple dozen all season. His track record also shows that he has the ability to be productive with the bat, or at least he used to. It’s probably too early to give up on him now. Or is it?
Romine is available on the bench but has only seen 35 innings of game action. The light hitting infielder is almost surely an upgrade over Gonzalez in the field, the holes in his game primarily residing in his bat. Though one bright spot can be found; he has posted an OBP of .301 against right-handed pitchers in his major league career, a tick higher than Gonzalez’s career .290 OBP. Fortunately the Tigers might already have the perfect complement for Romine in Danny Worth, who has posted a slash line of .298/.373/.375 against lefties in his major league career, and .272/.346/.474 in the minors.
|Romine vs RHP||56||144||123||11||29||0||5||3||0||11||36||.236||.301||.244||.545|
|Worth vs LHP||53||119||104||13||31||1||7||1||2||13||20||.298||.373||.375||.748|
So what would a Romine-Worth platoon actually produce at the plate? Based on their career splits, I think a .250/.300/.300 slash line is very reasonable. While that is far from stellar, can we expect Gonzalez’s numbers to look much better? In his best seasons he was hitting about .250/.300/.400. Even if he can get back to that level, is the extra 100 points of slugging enough to cover up the dropoff in defense?
A platoon of Romine and Worth at shortstop would be a significant defensive improvement over Gonzalez, even if Ausmus is right about the veteran’s glove. The platoon could actually be an improvement on the offensive side of the ball as well, depending on how much Gonzalez has been affected by Father Time over the last three years. Romine and Worth might never provide the power that Gonzalez may still have, but they might just be the preferred answer at shortstop anyway.