Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers: #11 Alex Gonzalez

Good day.

In so much as we have discussed, over the course of this countdown, how a certain jersey number can become identifiable or even in some cases synonymous with a player, that’s not always the case.

Today’s subject wears the number 11 on his jersey, which is a number he’s worn before during his professional career, however it’s not close to his only one.

Having worn 2, 3, 8, 11, 13, and 22 across the five cities he has called home through the end of the 2011 season, today’s subject has worn 11 the most times (three, Milwaukee will make four) so when he signed with the Brewers and the number was available, it’s the one he requested.

I’m talking about the new starting shortstop of your Milwaukee Brewers:

Alex Gonzalez.

With the nickname “Sea Bass” in tow, Alexander Luis Gonzalez comes to the Cream City by way of Atlanta, Toronto, Boston (on two separate stints), and Cincinnati after having made his Major League debut for the Florida Marlins back in 1998.

(If you’re a faithful reader of the series, you’ll now know — if you didn’t before — that the new starting left side of the Brewers infield both debuted in the same year.)

A veteran of 13 big league seasons (Gonzalez skipped 2008 to handle of personal issues), the 35-year-old native of Cagua, Venezuela officially stands 6’1” and weighs 210 pounds.

Gonzalez was brought to Milwaukee by General Manager Doug Melvin when the two sides signed a free-agent contract on December 12, 2012 worth $4.25 million for one year with a vesting option for the 2013 season. The vesting option is worth $4 million and becomes guaranteed if Gonzalez makes at least 525 plate appearances by the end of the 2012 regular season. That is a benchmark easily reached in both of the previous two seasons.

What he does at the plate isn’t the reason why Gonzalez was signed by the Brewers. Instead it is his play in the field which former Brewers and current Braves radio broadcaster Jim Powell said this winter made him believe that Gonzalez was the best defensive shortstop he’d ever seen play on a regular basis.

In fact, Gonzalez’ stick might be eerily reminiscent of last year’s starting shortstop, Yuniesky Betancourt, but after we started calling Yuni B by the unfriendly “YunE6” for his lack of defensive ability, I think Brewers fans will happily accept a wash at the dish for the upgrade on the grass.

As a matter of record, though, Gonzalez’ 2011 offensive linescore looks thusly:

149 G, 564 AB, 59 R, 136 H, 27 2B, 1 3B, 15 HR, 56 RBI, 22 BB, 126 K, 2 SB, 0 CS, .241/.270/.372

While Betancourt’s 2011 ended up:

152 G, 556 AB, 51 R, 140 H, 27 2B, 3 3B, 13 HR, 68 RBI, 16 BB, 63 K, 4 SB, 4 CS, .252/.271/.381

Those are quite similar in the grand scheme of things, especially when stretched out over roughly 150 games played. 150 games is a total that the Brewers may very well need out of Gonzalez. While likely backup Cesar Izturis exists, he isn’t a capable starter anymore and there’s really not anyone waiting in the minors to help out in a pinch quite yet.

Gonzalez’ first Spring Training in the Cactus League is inarguably his best to this point, which hopefully is acting as a harbinger of things to come once the games start counting 11 days from today.

What shouldn’t be in question, despite some contrarian national voices stating otherwise, is that Gonzalez is no longer an above-average defender. I understand that he’s 35 now, but age is just a number. If he’s feeling well, that’s all that matters.

Look at Jamie Moyer competing for a job in Colorado’s rotation this spring at the age of 49. He said in a TV interview yesterday that he knows that at some point he’ll be told when it’s time to stop playing either by his body or by the hitters. He also said that since neither side is speaking up right now, he knows he can still play.

In my opinion, such is the same for any capable ballplayer.

Sure, Gonzalez UZR was down last year, but it’s hardly a death sentence. First of all, UZR fluctuates pretty wildly in enough cases, and it wasn’t like it became some grotesquely negative number in the double-digits or something. It went from 5.1 in 2010 to -0.3 in 2011.

For the record, Betancourt’s UZR was -6.9 in 2011 helped out immensely by the Brewers shifting and positioning. Betancourt was as bad as -16.7 in 2009.

Career WAR difference? Gonzalez +44.3, Betancourt -48.8. In other words, the track record exists to demonstrate that the new shortstop in Milwaukee is far superior to the previous one.

Enough about Gonzalez’ defense. What about that suspect stick?

Shaun Marcum was Gonzalez’ teammate in Toronto in 2010 when Gonzalez played half a season there and said that his offense is better than what you might expect from the numbers, and that he’s got more power than people think.

That may be true, and if it is…great. But even if it isn’t and Gonzalez strikes out 130 times and only hits 12 home runs all year, I won’t care as long as he’s playing capable defense and converting outs into outs.

His range has been on display more than once this spring. So long as a bruised heel which has now kept him out of the last two Cactus League games doesn’t become a lingering issue, I except more of the same in Miller Park and on the road.

Consistent defense from a premium defensive position? It has happened in Milwaukee before.

With Gonzalez in the field, it stands to reason it’ll happen again real soon.

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