Gonzalez ready to flash some leather
Cincinnati sees promise in shortstop's defensive skills
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Free agent acquisition Alex Gonzalez arrived at Reds camp on Thursday. His sterling reputation for defense had already preceded him."He's a great player," Reds second baseman and new double-play partner Brandon Phillips said. "He's one of those shortstops you like to watch take ground balls and you can learn a lot from him." The Reds ranked second in the Majors last season with 128 errors, had the second-lowest fielding percentage and were prone to mistakes not reflected in stat books. Improving in the field was a high offseason priority for management, which was why Gonzalez was signed to a three-year, $14 million contract in November. Although Gonzalez has never won a Gold Glove, he is regarded by many as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. His former team, the Red Sox, were keenly aware that their loss was the Reds' gain. "I think Gonzo is the greatest shortstop I've ever seen, including growing up and watching Ozzie Smith," Boston starting pitcher Curt Schilling said. "I don't think there's anybody who's ever played the position better than he played it." "The thing we're going to battle is that the guy who was here last year played maybe the best shortstop we've ever seen, maybe the best shortstop I've ever seen," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Nobody in the league is going to do that, unless Gonzo does it again in Cincinnati. That's how good he is." Perhaps the endorsement for Gonzalez that Reds fans would most care about comes from shortstop legend Davey Concepcion. Gonzalez grew up with Concepcion's son in Venezuela and played ball with him as a kid. Concepcion, who will come to Reds camp on March 8, told a reporter over the winter that Gonzalez is better than he was. "It's exciting. [Concepcion is] one of the best shortstops in the world," Gonzalez said of the compliment. "For a guy to say that, you have to be proud and live up to it every day." Gonzalez played for the Marlins from 1998-2005 and won a World Series with Florida in '03. The 30-year-old went to Boston under a one-year deal before last season. His lifetime fielding percentage is .970 and he was at .985 last season with a career-low seven errors committed in 475 total chances. There are only four shortstops in the Majors who have committed fewer than 17 errors in at least 100 starts over the past four seasons. Gonzalez is one of them, along with Derek Jeter, David Eckstein and Jimmy Rollins. "I'll try to help this team the best that I can with my defense and all things," Gonzalez said. "I'll try to play every day, be healthy and try to help this team."
The Reds pitching staff isn't loaded with a bunch of strikeout guys. Many of them put the ball in play and will benefit from having Gonzalez behind them."It should give our pitchers more confidence," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "It should give our other infielders more confidence. It should give our manager more confidence." Last season after it acquired Phillips to play second base in an April trade with Cleveland, Cincinnati lacked stability on the left side of the infield. Offensive-minded Felipe Lopez didn't concentrate as much defensively. When Lopez was traded to Washington in July, veteran replacement Royce Clayton didn't click well with Phillips. Poor defense can lead to extended innings, which definitely leads to opponent rallies. "There were like four or five times last year, we had double-play balls we should have turned and we didn't, and they hit a home run after it," Narron said. "It was unreal. It seemed like 40 or 50." Phillips has his own solid reputation as an athletic second baseman. Narron couldn't help being optimistic about the new double-play combo up the middle. "I'm hoping [Gonzalez] and Brandon can work together extremely well," Narron said. "If they do, we'd have something special up the middle for the next three-four years. They could be as good as anybody." Strong shortstop-second base duos aren't usually forged overnight, but Phillips believed the learning curve could be shortened during camp while working with Gonzalez. "I think we'll make a good double-play combination, honestly," Phillips said. "We'll go out there and make the fundamental plays and maybe some spectacular plays also. It might not take as long because we're both athletic and can do some things out there. It's all about communication. If you can't communicate, things aren't going to get done. I'll try to build a friendship with him so it'll be easier." A third excellent glove man could also be sharing the field with Gonzalez and Phillips. Narron indicated that utility player Juan Castro, also one of the slickest fielders in the game, will get some chances at third base. Castro would often likely replace regular Edwin Encarnacion late in games when the Reds need extra defense to hold leads. The compliments have been less bountiful when Gonzalez's hitting skills are brought up. He batted .255 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs last season and is a .246 career hitter who strikes out a lot more than he walks. "Right now, no one talks about him offensively," Narron said. "That's kind of a plus in his favor, to be honest with you. He could kind of sneak up on everybody." Maybe, but Gonzalez knows why he was brought to Cincinnati and aims to make good on his reputation. "If I do nothing with my bat, I'll do it with my glove," Gonzalez said. "You can win games with the glove and make a difference. That's part of my job."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.