ZEBULON, N.C.–Gio Gonzalez has already been traded for two big leaguers in his brief career, but the 21-year-old White Sox lefthander is about as loose and laid back as it gets.
Getting dealt first to Philadelphia for Jim Thome after the 2005 season and then again back to Chicago for Freddy Garcia, Gonzalez finds himself back in pinstripes, this time at Double-A Birmingham.
On this particular day, two days after he struck out 12 over six innings against Carolina, Gonzalez is running sprints from pole-to-pole across the outfield at Five County Stadium. His iPod firmly attached to his left bicep, the music is blaring. So much so that nearly every one of the Barons’ players says something about it as they walk past him from the clubhouse to the field.
Running in the outfield grass between players shagging fly balls during the opposition’s BP can sometimes be a health hazard. Throw in the volume level on Gonzalez’s headphones and that health hazard quadruples.
“I have to block EVERYTHING out,” Gonzalez says. “I don’t care . . . if it hits me, it hits me. I need to imagine I’m some place else when I’m running.
Currently second in the minors in strikeouts behind Brewers righthander Yovani Gallardo, Gonzalez is 4-3, 3.17 with 82 whiffs in just 60 innings. But he had to battle with the mound during his 12-strikeout performance, constantly scooping dirt, stomping the ground and trying to find a comfort zone on the hill.
That didn’t stop the young lefthander from firing 93 mph fastballs and continually freezing hitters with his knee-buckling breaking ball.
“We all know he’s capable of becoming a power pitcher at some point in his career and he’s showing that now,” Barons manager Rafael Santana says. “It’s not just his fastball. He’s able to control his breaking ball to where he can use it at any time he’s in trouble. It’s good to have a 21-year-old like Gio with the combination of a good fastball and that breaking ball.”
We caught up with the 2004 supplemental first-rounder after his running ended to talk about being back with the his mound maintenance against the Mudcats, being back with the White Sox again and what he’d be doing if he wasn’t one of the top lefthanded pitching prospects in the game.
Baseball America: So what was going on with you and the mound the other night? You look like you could have used a rake.
Gio Gonzalez: Oh man–you know, I probably could have. (Carolina righthander James) Russ–the pitcher who was pitching with me–he ended up digging a swimming pool there. I guess it was in his delivery where every time he landed, he split the clay and he had his footprints with like two mountains on either side of it. So it was pretty hard for me to smoothen it out. Every time I did it was another inch, going deeper and deeper.
BA: Did you move over on the rubber at all?
GG: I did. He had a hole in front of the rubber and a hole at his landing spot. I had to make up something there. I tried to stay as far off the rubber from where I stand (on the third base side) and I tried to stay on the corner of the rubber because his footprints on the front and the hole really had that thing a mess. It was like a swimming pool and a Jacuzzi and I just had to work around it. If it works for him, great. It just wasn’t working for me.
BA: The one thing people always say about you is that you get too emotional on the mound when things go wrong. We saw a little bit of that on some close calls with your breaking ball . . . You feel like you got squeezed?
GG: I would say yeah I did. I had (Carolina third baseman Lee) Mitchell twice, but that didn’t work out so I had to come back with a high fastball. As long as I didn’t walk him I was fine. The umpire was doing a great job back there. He was a little tight at times, but as long as I didn’t walk the guy I was happy. I’m really trying to minimize the number of walks this year.
BA: You and Mudcats righthander Gaby Hernandez are from the same area and pitched against each other in high school. Have you guys faced each other in pro ball?
GG: I can’t even remember the last time I faced Gaby. We were in the South Atlantic League together, but didn’t pitch against each other either. I’ve seen him, but we haven’t “dueled.”
BA: Are you guys tight?
GG: Oh, of course. I was out throwing my bullpen today and he comes out and starts yelling, “Throw it harder! Throw it harder!” So I’m trying to concentrate, but I’m still listening to him and ended up trying to throw as hard as I could. It’s a little joke we have between each other–who can throw harder. He’s a great guy and we go way back.
BA: Happy to be back with Chicago?
GG: It’s been hard to get rid of them. I’m kidding. I don’t know, but it’s great to be back here. We have a great offense, great defense. It always puts a smile on your face when you can get both.
BA: Any differences about the two organizations you’d care to share?
GG: I can’t take anything away from the Phillies. They’re professional and they work hard just like the White Sox. The only thing that’s different, really is the White Sox have to wear their pants down and the Phillies have to put their pants up. That’s the new rule now, so that was it. That was the only difference. Two great organizations to play for.
BA: You also wear the tag of being homer prone, allowing 24 bombs last year in Double-A. But you shut that down in the ultimate hitter’s league–the Arizona Fall League. How important was the AFL for you to get back to being yourself again?
GG: The one thing I had in the Fall League that I didn’t have in Reading was confidence. I had no confidence with any of my pitches when I was in Reading. I was trying so many new things that I didn’t know what to do anymore. It was like, ‘All right, I have to throw a fastball, I have to grip it, I have to throw my changeup, I have to learn this, I have to locate it’ . . . and then I had to try not to walk people. Every game I was giving up two, three home runs. There was just so much going on, that it didn’t give me time to just step outside the box and just think. In the Fall League, I had time to myself. I got to go back home, talk to my dad on the phone about what was going on. When my dad came out to the Fall League, he’s the one that really helped me out. He got me back into what worked for me before and it’s been working for me since. My leg kick isn’t where I want it to be–I want it to be a little higher, but it’s there. It’s workable now where I’m not going to be dead tired after every game.
BA: But you do have this aggressive style and tend to elevate in the zone–it’s just part of who you are.
GG: Yeah, and sometimes that works to your benefit, sometimes it doesn’t. If you can get away with it and it works for you . . . there are a bunch of pitchers who pitch up in the zone and have success. For me, I’m trying to stay away from it, but if it works in certain situations I’m not going to be afraid to throw it up there. It’s going to work either way just to keep their eyes moving up and down in the zone. You never want to keep it in one zone or your fastball is going to eat like crazy.
BA: How’s your changeup coming along?
GG: My changeup is ummm . . . . I’m working on it now. We just worked on it today. Dot (Barons pitching coach Rich Dotson) taught me a new one with a different grip than I’d been using. So far it looks a lot better than what I’ve been using lately. It’s probably the best changeup I’ve thrown in a long time.
BA: OK, it’s ‘finish the sentence’ time. The Arizona Fall League is . . .
GG: The Arizona Fall League is . . . . a great experience and definitely somewhere you want to go. Let’s say you didn’t have a great season, it helps you work it out in a relaxed environment. It helps you bounce back. It helped me completely.
BA: If I could go to dinner with three pitchers, they would be . . .
GG: Tom Glavine, Andy Pettitte and if I had the chance, Sandy Koufax. Those are three guys who I would love to just read their minds. If I could throw in a fourth, I’d go Johan Santana. These are guys I’d like to pick their minds and follow in their footsteps while at the same time try to become my own historic icon. I’d love that.
BA: No righties?
GG: There are so many righties out there, it’d be tough to pick. If you could pick lefties, those are the guys I’d go with to follow by, but as a righty, man, we have just so many of them that it’d be tough to pick.
BA: So as a lefty, are you a little bit of an oddball?
GG: I guess so. A lot of people just zone out when the game starts or when they’re pitching, like (Adam) Russell. Russell’s the type of person when he pitches, you cannot talk to him. He’s so into the game, you could talk to him and it does in one ear and out the other. He wouldn’t even notice another person in the dugout. Me, I’m either talking to the guy next door, talking to the grounds crew guy or the photographer–I’m just all over the place and then when the game goes back on, I’m back into focus. It’s just something I grew up with, something that helps me take a lot of pressure off myself.
BA: If I weren’t a baseball player, I would be working . . .
GG: I would be working in South Beach with my dad in a scooter shop. He has this scooter shop called Bad Boys Scooter Inc. He’s always bragging about it down there in Miami, so I might as well go help him out if I wasn’t working here. It’s a great place to go on vacation. That’s exactly where I’d be right now–working in South Beach. I’d be selling, designing and fixing scooters. I have my own personal scooter and it’s got everything you could possibly imagine. It’s more like a show scooter. I have rims, I have designs on it, there’s a real expensive paint job on it. Whenever someone walks into the store, sees it and says, ‘Oh, wow, look at that,” that makes you feel good because you designed it.
BA: So you drive this thing around? Do you wear a little helmet?
GG: You got to. I mean, you don’t have to, but in my case I have to. I pretty much have to get on it with full catcher’s gear. I look like a goalie driving down the street on the thing. It’s something fun. I don’t go around looking to crash into cars or anything like that, but if I need to go pick something up quick, it’s the way to go.
BA: Pretty good on gas, too.
GG: Two dollars to fill up the tank! I think that’s a lot better than $60 or $70 of gas in your huge SUV!