It’s a good problem to have, a healthy roster and more well-performing players than there are spots in the lineup. In particular, White Sox manager Pedro Grifol has the enviable conundrum of figuring out playing time for Elvis Andrus and Romy Gonzalez at second base.
Andrus went on the injured list on May 13 with an oblique strain, and Gonzalez played like a starter in his absence. That’s the dream, though. Teams talk a lot about needing the next man up to step in and produce, and Gonzalez has done that. In his last seven games, Gonzales owns a 1.048 OPS and he’s hit three home runs. And his defense is drawing praise from teammates.
But Andrus was activated Friday, so Grifol has to determine the best spots to use his two second basemen. For now, he said, it will be matchup-based.
“We look at the pitching we’re facing, and we’re looking at who matches up better against that particular pitcher and that’s how we’re gonna play it,” Grifol said. “If somebody takes it and runs with it and he becomes the guy that takes on the majority of the [at-bats] then so be it. But we’re looking at matchups and who’s pitching and what kind of pitch shapes they have and swings that we’ve got and so on and so forth.”
On Friday, Gonzalez got the start against Reese Olson, who was making his major league debut for the Tigers, and he broke up a no-hitter in the sixth inning. The next day, Andrus was in the lineup. It was Gonzalez who factored into the 2-1 win on Saturday though; he pinch ran for Andrew Vaughn in the eighth inning and then in the tenth, his sacrifice bunt moved Yoán Moncada to third. Moncada scored the walk-off run on a wild pitch that struck home plate umpire Cory Blaser in the face mask. Saturday’s game was the first time in MLB history that teams combined to score three runs on wild pitches without scoring any runs by other means.
Two games are not enough of an indicator for how Grifol will use Andrus and Gonzalez, but working that out only succeeds when both players are on board with sharing playing time. In Gonzalez’s case, he’s the relatively unproven commodity. He has just over 200 career major league plate appearances across three seasons. Andrus is a 15-year veteran. Really, making this work is about convincing him to yield days in the lineup to Gonzalez.
Thankfully, Andrus is embracing the shared playing time.
“That’s good, that’s baseball,” Andrus said of the competition. “I told him, ‘Don’t feel bad, man. I did the same thing when I was younger.’ That’s just baseball. I want all my teammates, even if we play the same position, to do the best. At the end, it’s all about winning. Now me and him are gonna, I don’t say compete, but share playing time. If it’s for the best of the team, that’s what it’s all about.”
Philosophically, Grifol believes that healthy competition like this is good for his squad. Like a group of starting pitchers working to outdo each other when they get the ball, he believes that having playing time split like this between two guys can be a good thing.
“It raises your level of focus, it raises your game, it takes you to another level,” Grifol said. “Whether you’re competing against somebody else on your team or you’re competing against the other club. Competition is really, really healthy.”
Balancing playing time between players like this is also about finding other ways to get them days in the lineup. There’s opportunity to move them both around some defensively to do that. Gonzalez can play a little outfield – he has logged innings at all three outfield spots this season along with shortstop and third base – and Andrus can spell Tim Anderson at shortstop when needed.
“That versatility certainly allows them to continue to keep their bat in there if they’re hot,” Grifol said.
As a first-year manager, Grifol has not yet had to manage a player’s ego in a situation like this one. He said he has dealt with that kind of problem as a coach in the past, and he said he won’t shy away from the hard conversations when they inevitably come up in Chicago. In this case, there isn’t an issue, thanks largely to the veteran player embracing the big picture.
“He’s a team guy, and he understands what this is all about,” Grfiol said of Andrus. “He’s been on winning teams before, and he’s probably been the guy who has been on the other side. He comes in and takes some ABs from whoever was there. So he understands this.
“He’s got a really good mind for this, and he understands the game, he understands everything that is at stake, the expectations.”
Again, part of the reality here is that this has been a problem for two games. Gonzalez started one, Andrus the other. It is very possible that an injury elsewhere could force Grifol to lean on the defensive flexibility of either player. It is also very possible that one could emerge as the regular second baseman by performance. Andrus is batting .199 with a .526 OPS this season. Gonzalez has a much healthier slash line, but he rarely walks and has only recently started hitting all that well.
Playing time at second base is a competition between Andrus and Gonzalez for now, but unless either of them starts commanding the majority of at-bats, they could both yield the position to someone else. Jake Burger has sort of been in the conversation since April, and he made his first appearance at second this season during the series against the Angels, entering the May 31 game as a substitute in the eighth inning.
Ultimately, it will be up to one of those players to show that the job should be his on a full-time basis. But even if that doesn’t happen, Grifol has multiple good options to plug into his lineup. That’s a good problem to have.
“This is major league baseball. We’re here to do one thing. That’s win baseball games,” he said. “So there’s always competition. Even with guys that are every day players, there’s always competition. There comes a time when somebody’s coming up and you have to continue to perform.”