Why Detroit Tigers’ AJ Hinch has made ‘versatility’ the name of the game

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Looking back, Marwin Gonzalez is thankful for the transformation that reshaped his career. In a backup role with the Houston Astros, he played a career-high 103 games in the 2014 season, his third year in the majors.

At the time, Gonzalez considered himself a shortstop.

Then, manager AJ Hinch showed up.

“He was the one who gave me the opportunity to play left field,” Gonzalez, who signed a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox in February, told the Free Press this spring. “He told me in spring training. That’s how everything started.”

Hinch, now the manager of the Detroit Tigers, loves defensive versatility. Historically, a utility player is defined as someone who can’t operate as an everyday player. That’s simply not true, Hinch explains, if performance warrants more opportunities.

With the Astros, Hinch had to help create Gonzalez’s foundation. For the Tigers, Niko Goodrum has fallen into his lap. The 29-year-old has already played all four infield positions and all three outfield positions during his four-year MLB career.

“They all want to be in the lineup,” Hinch said, “so you have to demonstrate or show them a roadmap on how to get in the lineup the most.”

Goodrum would prefer to be the team’s everyday shortstop, especially after being a Gold Glove finalist at the position last season. Entering 2021, however, the job belongs to Willi Castro — fresh off a fourth-place finish in American League Rookie of the Year voting.

In the early stages of his remodeling, Gonzalez craved the same title. He knows how Goodrum might feel.

“I’m not going to lie,” Gonzalez, 32, said. “Every guy who plays baseball wants to be an everyday guy at one position. … It was hard because you have to process everything and understand that your dream is going away. If you ask every player, they will tell you they want to play one position. Kind of an ego thing, too.”

‘The best thing ever’

In 2015, Hinch met with the switch-hitting Gonzalez at the beginning of spring training and offered a solution to what many viewed as a problem: Produce as my versatility guy, and you’ll receive more playing time.

This message is tough for almost any player to accept, but Gonzalez had no choice. The transition, as he later learned, benefited him greatly. “I’m thankful that happened to me,” he said. “That was the best thing ever.”

As Hinch promised, Gonzalez played 120 games in 2015. The next year, in 2016, he played 141 games with usage at six positions: first base (92 games), third base (22), left field (18), second base (14), shortstop (11) and center field (1).

“The idea was to optimize your roster,” Hinch said. “If you’re not a star and a primary player at one position, the way to continue your career and contribute on multiple teams is by doing that.”

Gonzalez emerged offensively in 2017 with a .303 batting average, 23 homers and 90 RBIs in 134 games, and finished 19th in AL MVP voting. Once again, he played six positions, helping the Astros win the World Series.

He achieved a career-high 145 games and 552 plate appearances in 2018.

“I let it go,” Gonzalez said about wanting to play one position. “I’m always thankful, especially to God, because he kind of made me understand and opened doors for me to take it with responsibility. When I talk to young guys trying to do that, the advice is to be proud. That’s the only way to do good.

“If you keep your ego and your pride of wanting to be an everyday guy at one position, I don’t think everything is going to go well. Especially for guys coming off just playing shortstop.”

Gonzalez said he had an easier time swallowing his pride as a utility player, at least compared to some of his peers. Considering his former Rule 5 draft status, he never expected to be an everyday player.

He wasn’t even supposed to make it in the majors.

“I got to the big leagues as a backup,” Gonzalez said. “I think it was kind of easier for me to process that change. Even in 2015, I was happy because I was getting at-bats while other teams weren’t playing the guys on the bench. I felt lucky.”

Gonzalez spent seven seasons with the Astros (2012-18), and four with Hinch. He has played 962 games — playing every position except pitcher and catcher — with 96 home runs, 369 RBIs and a .261 batting average across his nine-year MLB career.

In the most unconventional way — Hinch’s way — Gonzalez made it.

And he got paid, signing a two-year, $21 million contract with the Minnesota Twins before the 2019 season.

“I think it’s become more valuable across the industry,” Hinch said. “Guys are getting paid that can do that. That’s one way (to make the utility role attractive for players), just letting them know how good guys have succeeded in those roles. Also, being very direct. You can’t hide it from players. Communication is key. Honesty is key.

“You got to explain the motivation to the player on why you’re doing it. This is a generation of players that want to know why, and I think they deserve the explanation.

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Where Goodrum fits

Hinch has set a plan in motion for Goodrum to be his defensive Swiss Army knife. But unlike Gonzalez, the offense is an issue for Goodrum. He didn’t hit well last season, with a .184 batting average in 43 games.

If his bat comes around, the Tigers will have a Gonzalez-esque player. But does Goodrum still crave the everyday shortstop role? He didn’t seem pleased when it was taken from him by an up-and-comer last season.

“I think he still has aspirations to be an everyday player at one spot,” Hinch said. “I see his best use for this particular team and in our situation is being a jack of all trades. … The buy-in part of it is like, their choices are one of two things: Don’t buy-in and don’t play, or buy-in and find a spot to contribute.”

“I just handle my business,” Goodrum said. “Gold Glove finalist at short, so that speaks for itself. I can play defense, it’s not an issue. That’s always going to be there. So what it boils down to, if we’re speaking facts, is hitting. … If I take care of my business at the plate, it’s not going to be an issue if I’m playing short every day, or whatever I’m at.”

[ Niko Goodrum enters 2021 with one goal: ‘My focus is just hitting’ ]

Goodrum struggles as a switch-hitter. Last season, he had a 38.6% strikeout rate.

As a left-handed hitter, Goodrum has a career .206 batting average, 29 home runs and 97 RBIs in 788 at-bats, with 289 strikeouts and 81 walks. From the right side, he hits .323 with four home runs and 21 RBIs in 254 at-bats, with 60 strikeouts and 26 walks.

“He’s going to have to figure out a swing for him to make more contact,” Hinch said. “He’s hit a ton of homers left-handed. Being more than just a home run threat left-handed is going to be really critical for him to get the playing time he wants. He’s going to have to compete for that.”

Along with being malleable, the reliability Gonzalez provided on offense helped him into the lineup, even among Houston’s stars.

Gonzalez can’t cure Goodrum’s woes from the left side, but he knows about playing for Hinch and trusting the process his manager sets in place.

“My advice to him is to do it with passion,” Gonzalez said. “If he does a good job, AJ will know how to use him. Having a guy like Niko, with all that potential, it’s going to be easy for him.”

Hinch’s philosophy

Back in Houston, it wasn’t just Gonzalez.

He was the prized multi-positional player, but it helped when third baseman Alex Bregman — a former two-time All-Star — shifted to shortstop in 2019 when ex-AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa went to the 60-day injured list.

That’s an example of elite players utilizing secondary positions.

“I’m pushing Al (Avila, general manager) to acquire as much talent as possible,” Hinch said. “It’s nice to say a guy can go to a different position and we can fill the hole with a player we want to acquire, instead of just having a guy locked in for the future.”

[ AJ Hinch, the Tigers and the fairy-tale ending he’s seeking ]

Hinch is developing 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson at first base and third base, despite the organization deeming him a career third baseman on draft night. “We can’t perfectly predict exactly when or where his opportunities are going to come,” Hinch said, “so we’re going keep (first base) as part of his skillset.”

He got third baseman Isaac Paredes to play second base this spring, and the 22-year-old looked crisp. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario already knows first base. Jonathan Schoop is slated to compete at second base, third base, shortstop and first base this year. Harold Castro has taken the field at seven positions through 125 career games in his three seasons.

“If we just lock guys into one spot, they are immovable and we have a very rigid roster,” Hinch said. “If they’re all going to be All-Stars and high-end contributors, I’m all in. But if they’re not — and the majority of the league is not — (versatility) benefits the organization, our team and, ultimately, the players.”

On the timeline of Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson’s MLB arrival ]

Hinch wants prospect Daz Cameron, primarily a right fielder, to focus on center field. Another prospect, second baseman Kody Clemens, picked up the first baseman’s glove in camp. Catcher Eric Haase manned left field and took practice reps at first base.

But defensive versatility in Detroit starts with Goodrum.

“We overdramatize what possibly could happen, as opposed to just getting comfortable with the uncomfortable setting,” Hinch said. “To me, playing Marwin around the field, playing Niko around the field, I’m going to believe before I’m going to doubt.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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