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Rhapsody In Blue
Joel Guzman's path into the game was anything but ordinary
By Chris Kline
VERO BEACH, Fla.—At first glance, Joel Guzman’s sheer size immediately stands out.
At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, the shortstop in the Dodgers organization moves incredibly well in the center of the diamond, his work ethic is second to none and his bat is one of the best to come through the system since Adrian Beltre. The only major question is whether or not he'll be able to stay at short--a question mark that has followed him throughout his brief three-year career.
Guzman's physical tools have been renowned since he signed with L.A. for a then- club and international-record signing bonus of $2.25 million as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic. And judging by what scouts saw when he was playing as a teenager, as well as how he carried that through now at age 20, the investment appears worth every penny.
"When I saw him, he jumped out at me," says a scout with an American League club. "I had scouted Chipper Jones and A-Rod before and to me, Guzman's bat was better. I mean, at 16 years old, the kid was as good as or better than anyone I'd ever seen."
And while he struggled with breaking pitches early on in his career, Guzman started to live up to those lofty expectations last season. He batted .307/.349/.550 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs in 329 at-bats at high Class A Vero Beach and he was just as impressive after being called up to Double-A Jacksonville, where he hit .280/.325/.522 with nine home runs and 35 RBIs in just 182 at-bats.
"What he did in Double-A was make very quick adjustments in a tough league," a National League scout says. "For a kid to do that at 20 years old is remarkable. He's ahead of the curve and works very, very hard at all phases of his game."
Guzman followed up 2004 with a solid campaign in winter ball with Estrellas in the Dominican League. He batted .298/.344/.412 with a pair of homers and 12 RBIs in 112 at-bats.
"Winter ball prepared me for a lot of things going in to this year," Guzman says. "It taught me how to work harder to get where I want to be. Just being around a lot of big leaguers down there, you get to learn a lot. And I also learned how to stay focused in stadiums packed with people."
Guzman had more of a taste of the latter this spring at Dodgertown, where he got some first-hand knowledge of what Los Angeles fans are expecting of him. Even though he wasn’t on the 40-man roster, he got into a few big league games late in camp. He appeared in six games at Holman Stadium, going 3-for-13 with a homer.
"It was great being there each time," Guzman says. "The fans would yell encouraging things to me, like they can't wait to see me in L.A. I want to be there now, but I understand I still have a lot of work to do."
And the potential position change remains the topic of discussion throughout the organization and with scouts around the game. The Dodgers finally addressed this publicly this spring, working in Guzman at first and third base; for now, he'll still get the bulk of his playing time at short, starting with Jacksonville.
"It's the old adage where he has to play himself off that position," a scout says. "And while he's going to likely get bigger and stronger, he still hasn't done that yet. He makes all the routine plays."
In a country so poor where most kids grow up playing the game fashioning empty milk cartons into gloves, Guzman took a path into the game that was anything but ordinary.
Both his parents were teachers, and although they had to sacrifice to create a comfortable environment for Joel (pronounced Jo-ell) and his two older sisters, the Guzmans were much better off than the average Dominican family.
Because his parents were educators, they insisted Joel learn English from a young age, which only expedited his transition to life as a professional baseball player.
"I always had everything I needed growing up," Guzman says. "It wasn't like a lot of families in the Dominican. I started learning English when I was like 10. And I think I knew it better when I was younger. It was very important for me to learn the language and I knew it would help me become a better player."
While he knew learning English would help him in the long run, Guzman, like most teenagers in any country, wasn't really thinking long term. Because he was so tall and lanky, he focused more on basketball, which was his favorite sport. When he played on the diamond it was on the mound, and he was primarily a pitcher until he was 14.
He didn't play much competitively other than in high school, but played a lot for fun with friends in pickup games on the side. When he was 15, he started hearing some of those friends talking about major league tryouts--an idea that was completely foreign to him.
The way Guzman puts it, it sounds as though he was simply filling out a resume and applying for work.
"I heard you could make a little money," he says. "So I thought it was like a job. Everyone there did. I don't remember too much about it. But during tryouts, different teams were there and they'd bring in 20 or 30 kids. I went to two or three with the Dodgers and then I played in a game for them."
His raw tools and athleticism set him apart from the others and L.A. was all over him.
Jeff Schugel, then a special assistant to Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone, was seeing tons of young Dominican players every day. As one front office official says, "For the most part, you sign numbers down there. You aren't normally looking for the next big thing. But when you see it, you know almost immediately."
Such was the case for Schugel. Guzman's agent, Rob Plummer, gave Schugel the heads-up on the potential teenage sensation that was showing the ability to hit for average and had plus-plus raw power. Without a first-round pick, the Dodgers were willing to spend more to make sure they got Guzman.
"When I saw him, he was a man among boys," Schugel says. "His body had a lot of projection and he had a very, very live bat. You just saw so much offensive potential in him, it was unreal. And then when I met him, he wasn't like a lot of the other kids. He was educated. He spoke to me in English. I knew we had something special."
While area scout Pablo Peguero gets the credit for signing him, it was Schugel who brought down then-scouting director Ed Creech to Santo Domingo to see the young shortstop, and Creech gave Schugel the go-ahead to make signing Guzman a priority.
After they inked the 16-year-old to his record million bonus in 2001, Guzman remained grounded. While he treated himself to a few items with his bonus, the first thing he did was buy his parents a house. But his values prevailed over what a normal teenage millionaire might do. Over the last four years, he put both his sisters through college, then helped his father through school to earn his law degree, further enhancing the educational environment he grew up in.
"When you get the money and all that, even though you are very young, you have to act like a grown man with it," Guzman says. "It was my dream to buy a house for my mom. I know how lucky I was to grow up the way I did and I wanted to give back to my family for how hard they worked to take care of me. It feels good to be able to give them some things, to take care of them."
Even though he might have taken the game lightly at first, focusing more on basketball, and even though he signed for so much money after so little time on the field, Guzman's main focus is to get to the big leagues--soon.
"I didn't like the game very much when I started, but now that it's my job I take it very seriously," Guzman says. "And since then, it doesn't feel like a job (anymore). I like the game very much. I want to play every day and I want to learn too. I didn't really know what I wanted to be when I got older, but it's good when you know something about what you want to do.
“I'm pretty happy about having the job I have. It's tough when your parents don't know what you're doing far away from home, but they know you're working. That's all I do. I work hard to get to the next level. That is my goal."
Will Guzman be able to stay at short? Will he be moved to first or third or possibly the outfield down the road?
Where exactly does he fit in on a team that has seen a complete overhaul on the major league roster at every position except shortstop (Cesar Izturis) since general manager Paul DePodesta took over in February 2004? These are the questions that will affect Guzman's future impact in the big leagues. The immediate future will bring much of the same, with one new position mixed in, farm director Terry Collins says.
"The maturity he showed in the second half of last season, and what he did over the winter, is really something," Collins says. "He's still going to play the majority of time at short this season, but we'll mix him in some at third base, too."
Guzman is the first one to admit that all the talk of him moving off shortstop works on his nerves. It's gotten to the point where he's more determined than ever to prove the critics wrong, to show everyone that big shortstops--a la Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez--can be successful at the position. The only problem is he's bigger and arguably stronger--though not as agile--as those all-stars.
"I get tired of hearing all that," he says, ironically after taking about 20 extra ground balls at third base. "I've been hearing that from the time I signed. But I was playing short four years ago and I'm still playing short. I like it there and I'm comfortable there. But everyone says it because of my height. I can't help it if I'm this tall. I still feel like I can make plays, still feel like I can get to balls and get good jumps.
"I have something to prove by staying at short. From the beginning, they said I was too tall to play short and maybe in two or three years I was going to slow down and wouldn't be able to make plays. It hasn't happened yet. They say that every year and it hasn't happened yet."
"It's funny in a way, because these were the same questions back when he signed," Schugel says. "Make him make you move him, and he hasn't done that yet. The fact is, while he can't do a lot of things agility-wise that a lot of smaller guys can do, he still has very good body control of that 6-foot-6 frame. It's uncanny how easy he makes things look."
Adds another scout: "The way this game is advancing with players getting bigger and stronger every year, you can't tell me that there is never going to be a 6-foot-6 shortstop. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have believed it, but why not? He could be the guy that makes it a reality."
It’s still not likely. Third base is probably the best option for Guzman, with Adrian Beltre gone to Seattle via free agency, potential Gold Glover Izturis signed for the next three seasons and Jose Valentin in Los Angeles as a stop-gap on the hot corner for this year. Guzman has all the tools to play third, with good range, decent hands and a plus arm--not to mention that he’s expected to put up the power numbers expected out of the position. Right field also has been mentioned as a possibility due to his arm strength and athleticism.
"To me, you don't want to waste a guy with that much arm strength and use him at first base," an NL scout says. "I see him as a guy who can easily play third, and is much better suited for third based on his size and power. I don't really want to see him in the outfield, but he's a guy who could probably play everywhere on the diamond except catcher. You can't argue with what (the Dodgers) are doing. They're keeping their options open."
And, while he has a quiet confidence and determination to stay at a premium position, Guzman knows deep in his heart that ultimately it is not his decision. He remains open to the idea that the club is going to experiment with him at multiple positions this season, looking at him to fill a need and quicken his path to Chavez Ravine.
"I know I can play short and the Dodgers know I can play short," Guzman says. "But the thing is, I play for them and this is my job. If they want to move me someplace else, I have to do what they want me to do. For me, it's no big deal if they want to move me. I'll play wherever they want me to play. It's different playing third base, but I can play there."
The position might be up in the air for now, but the reason that has been such a huge question is the impact of Guzman's bat, which is far and away his best tool. And the Dodgers want that bat in their lineup--no matter where he plays.
"He's improved every year," Collins says. "He really has become a more complete hitter in the last, maybe 10 months or so. He has the ability to take pitches on the outer half the other way and crush anything over the inner half, and the power to hit any of those pitches out of the ballpark. There really isn't too much more you can ask for."
Guzman has slightly changed his approach at the plate this season. Guzman started standing back further in the box during winter ball, just inside the lines. He feels as though with this adjustment, he can take more pitches on the inner half of the plate as pitchers try to tie up his long arms on inside fastballs. By standing out as far as he does, he still has the reach that allows him to have enough coverage of the outside corner.
"The thing you worry about with that is as he moves up to the higher levels, guys are going to be able to hit that outside part of the plate more consistently," Collins says. "He wasn't that far off the plate last year, but it's worked so far this spring. And he's the type of guy who, if it doesn't work for him somewhere down the line, can usually make fairly easy adjustments and have success. There's a track record there."
The new adjustment also allows Guzman to see breaking pitches longer. He struggled recognizing pitches when he first came to the States, especially with offspeed stuff.
"He's still going to strike out some and I think there might be a little (Adrian) Beltre in him in that," an AL scout says. "He used to really pull off and looked bad a lot on offspeed pitches, but you're starting to see that less and less. I'd like to see him really drive the ball the other way a little more on a more consistent basis. He can take it that way, but he's really starting to show signs where he can get good leverage on even bad pitches. And the best guys who you see do that right now are Albert Pujols and Carlos Beltran.
"Those guys get good swings on just about everything. And I think Guzman is starting to get like that. He has huge upside and that natural ability to fight pitches off, and when he doesn't get a pitch he can drive in an at-bat, he's starting to make good contact consistently with bad pitches. You can't teach that."
Guzman looks at comparisons to his game and breakdowns of his approach a little less scientifically. He says he makes subtle changes all the time at the plate, depending on what he's seeing from an opposing pitcher or just how he's feeling on any given day.
"Sometimes I like to get a different feel at the plate," he says. "Sometimes I don't even realize where I am (in the box). I just go to where I feel comfortable and where I feel like I can get a good look at pitches coming in. If they're going to set me up away, I know I'll be able to handle pitches on the outside. If they pitch me inside, I'll either let it go for a ball or, if it's right there, I can't miss it. I know pitchers are going to try to keep me off balance. It's my job to react to those pitches."
He'll have the opportunity to do that in Jacksonville this season, at least to start. The way he progresses defensively is likely to dictate how quickly he moves up the organizational ladder, though if the lightning in his bat is on full display, he could force the Dodgers' hand and make the decision for them.
"I just want to keep moving, perform well, keep learning and stay healthy," Guzman says. "If I can do that, everything will fall into place. I can't think about what's happening (on the big league roster). I have to learn some new things here and keep working to be ready when they call me."