One of my favorite players to watch on a daily basis is San Diego Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. He plays Gold Glove caliber defense and is a better hitter than most folks realize. The fact that he’s a local kid is a nice bonus.
Taken by the Florida Marlins as the first pick overall in 2000, Gonzalez at the time was thought to be a signability pick. In retrospect, the first round didn’t feature many impact players. Beyond Gonzalez, the only guys who have made it to the big leagues for more than a cup of coffee are Rocco Baldelli (Devil Rays, No. 6), Joe Borchard (White Sox, No. 12), Chase Utley (Phillies, No. 15), Boof Bonser (Giants, No. 21), Adam Wainwright (Braves, No. 29), and Scott Thorman (Braves, No. 30).
Scouts liked Gonzalez’s game but questioned his power. From the Baseball America 2001 Prospect Handbook:
Gonzalez has a smooth stroke and easy actions around the bag. His hitting has drawn comparisons to Rafael Palmeiro, while his glove evokes Mark Grace. He has tremendous makeup and a willingness to take instruction. His hand-eye coordination makes him tough to strike out and a treat to watch in the field. Gonzalez has gap power but some wonder if his wiry frame will ever produce 20-plus homers in the majors.
Stuck behind Derrek Lee and Jason Stokes in Florida, Gonzalez was traded to the Texas Rangers in a July 2003 deal for righthander Ugueth Urbina. After knocking 17 homers in 2001 and again in 2002, Gonzalez saw his total slip the following year to just five at Double- and Triple-A. He bounced back somewhat in 2004, but with Mark Teixeira establishing himself in Texas, Gonzalez found his stock falling. From the Baseball America 2005 Prospect Handbook:
He has a smooth, sweet lefthanded swing that gives him the ability to hit line drives from foul pole to foul pole. He’s outstanding defensively at first with soft hands, an accurate arm and good footwork. His total package resembles that of Doug Mientkiewicz. Some scouts have never believed in Gonzalez’s power, and his modest slugging numbers against Triple-A and major league pitching didn’t allay those fears.
In 2006, Gonzalez caught a couple of breaks. The first came in January, when the Rangers shipped him, Chris Young, and Terrmel Sledge to San Diego for Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka, and Single-Al catcher Billy Killian. The second came in March, when starting first baseman Ryan Klesko injured his shoulder, opening the door for Gonzalez. After a slow start (.250/.301/.399 through the end of May), he caught fire and hit .326/.387/.542 the rest of the way.
Because of the hype that comes with being a former No. 1 pick and because he’s bounced around so much, it’s easy to forget that Gonzalez still is fairly young, turning 25 this past Tuesday. In fact, one interesting way to look at a player’s performance is by calendar year rather than by season. Yes, both are fairly arbitrary, but sometimes it’s possible to pick up things from one that might not be immediately evident in looking at the other.
With that in mind, I decided to examine how Gonzalez performed as a 24-year-old (5/8/06 – 5/7/07). Because context is everything, here’s how he stacks up against several other big-league first basemen during that same period (ranked in descending order by OPS):
First off, and having nothing to do with Gonzalez, I find it utterly fascinating that guys like Jose Bautista, Brandon Phillips, and Tadahito Iguchi have more homers than Todd Helton over that stretch. Second, and more relevant to our discussion, notice how similar Gonzalez’s line is to that of Teixeira, the man who blocked him in Texas. Gonzalez relies a little more on batting average to achieve his results, but generally, these two guys are mighty close. I suspect a lot of people will be surprised by this. Heck, I’m an unabashed Gonzalez fan and I was surprised.
We also can take a look at how Gonzalez’s age 24 line compares to those of other current players. The usual disclaimers apply—past performance is no guarantee of gold at the end of the rainbow, tea leaves may settle during shipment, and in rare cases people have reported flipper babies. That said, this sort of comparison does give us some perspective:
Nice company, but where does Gonzalez go from here? He’s just entering his prime, he isn’t susceptible to lefthanders (.293/.388/.683 so far in 2007), and he is the rare Padres batter that doesn’t seem to mind Petco Park (.299/.354/.479 hitting there since joining the Padres vs .302/.366/.538 away). Sounds like a recipe for success to me.
Gonzalez’ career could move in many different directions, and I hesitate to guess which path he’ll take. He’s made the Mientkiewicz comparisons look silly, and perhaps Palmeiro isn’t as much of a stretch as we might have thought. The question no longer is whether Gonzalez can hit 20+ homers a year at the big-league level; it’s whether he can crank out 30-35 of them. We’ll have to wait and see, of course, but if the past year of his life is any indication, the answer would appear to be yes.
So, how good is Gonzalez? At the risk of getting overly technical, he’s pretty darned good.
References & Resources
Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference and David Pinto’s Day-by-Day Database.