Winter Player Of The Year: Carlos Gonzalez

Gonzalez earns another accolade

CAROLINA, P.R.--At 21 years old, Carlos Gonzalez was doing things in his home country of Venezuela that players his age and experience level only dream about.

That performance earned one of the top prospects in the Diamondbacks system Baseball America's 2007 Winter Player of the Year award.

Gonzalez spent the last two weeks of the regular season in the United States at Double-A Tennessee, where he hit just.213/.294/.410 in 61 at-bats. The 2006 Futures Gamer wasn't sure he even wanted to play winter ball back home, but after being hit by a pitch twice--once in the neck--before being promoted to Double-A, he ultimately decided he needed to work through some issues.

"There were some things I was doing wrong after I got hit those couple times," Gonzalez said. "Sometimes it was lowering my back shoulder too much, sometimes my balance struggled because I couldn't get that right feel under my legs, and sometimes I was worried about it happening again--especially right after it happened."

So Gonzalez went to play for Zulia and was immediately a star for the Aguilas, hitting .319 in hitting and tying for the second in the league with nine home runs.

"He's a guy you just didn't want to pitch to--runners on base or not," Aragua manager Buddy Bailey said. "He has this quiet approach; probably a lot of people could take him the wrong way and say he was cocky. But being cocky is part of this game, and it's even more so in winter ball.

"It's not show-you-up cocky, but it's confidence. He was a hell of an out."

He was even more so in Zulia's postseason run, when Gonzalez batted .348 and drove in 10 in 11 games and lowered his strikeout rate along the way. Gonzalez did not play for the Caribbean Series club Venezuela sent to Puerto Rico, opting instead to rest for spring training, where he will get his second shot at Double-A in April.

"He's a classic right field guy," a scout with an American League club said. "He had real pull power in the Cal League (at high Class A Lancaster) last year, but he's starting to show some consistent (opposite field) power.

"His hands are very quiet in his approach, not a lot of moving parts to his swing. He runs OK, probably average now with 40 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) potential. But the arm strength is there, the bat speed is definitely there and the power . . . the ball jumps off his bat."

The biggest downside for Gonzalez continues to be the cockiness Bailey mentioned, which often gets thrown under "makeup." Such questions have followed Gonzalez since he broke out in 2005 at low Class A South Bend, where he hit .307/.371/.489, totaled 52 extra-base hits (including 18 homers) and scored 91 runs in 515 at-bats.

Some scouts say he didn't always play hard, run every ball out, and was a negative presence in the clubhouse at times. Diamond-backs farm director A.J. Hinch doesn't agree with the perception that Gonzalez' makeup is a negative.

"I'm not sure where exactly that started, but just look at what he's done," Hinch said. "He's a very loose, very laid-back guy. Every manager that's had him the last two years hasn't had any complaints about his work ethic, and certainly not about what he's done on the field.

"He still has some work to do, but I like what he's been able to do this winter--controlled the strike zone better, performed in a tough environment and really got back to a positive place confidence-wise. That started to come around the last two weeks (in Double-A). He started feeling better physically, and he was definitely a little gun shy after getting hit twice. But we're very pleased with his development this winter overall."

Top Prospects: Caribbean

Most of the other prospects in the event weren't as impressive, as the 2007 Caribbean Series featured mostly established big leaguers and retreads. Twins righthander Yohan Pino for Venezuela made the list for example, however his breaking ball was inconsistent and his fastball command remained erratic. Venezuela also had Yorman Bazardo, who was designated for assignment by the Mariners just before the Series, and later traded to the Tigers for outfielder Jeff Frazier. Then there was Mets second baseman Anderson Hernandez who set the tone for the Dominican Republic club, and whose development grew leaps and bounds while playing in the same middle infield as Miguel Tejada. Hernandez has been a star of winter ball in each of the past two seasons, but his awful 2006 campaign with the Mets organization diminished his chances of ever being a big league regular.

But the player that made the most strides, and turned it on during the Series, was Braves outfielder Gregor Blanco.

Back in 2002, Blanco was considered an elite prospect, a toolsy 18-year-old who walked 85 times, stole 40 bases and hit .271/.392/.385 at low Class A Macon. His progress had stalled since then, though, as his power potential failed to materialize. However, he had hit best season in 2006, hitting .290/.403/.360 with 31 steals (in 46 attempts) between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Richmond.

Added to the 40-man roster in October, the 23-year-old center fielder's development had seemed to stall, but he continued his return to relevancy in winter ball, playing in his native Venezuela.

Blanco batted .319 in 182 at-bats during the regular season for Aragua, then turned it up to .359 through the postseason with a .438 on-base percentage in 64 at-bats.

 "It always takes time for Latin players to develop, and that's been the case with him," a pro scout with a National League club said. "He's never really shown he could be a consistent leadoff hitter, hit with any authority and control the strike zone. But we're seeing a little growth in all those phases of his game.

"I'm not sure he's an everyday big league player, but is he a valuable fourth outfielder? Sure."

Venezuela manager Buddy Bailey had Blanco in each of the last two seasons while playing for Aragua, and he's seen him mature physically, mentally and perhaps most important, fundamentally.

"He'd always kind of lose focus like young players do, but I think from being around this team and seeing how big leaguers get after it every day, he's grown up some," Bailey said. "He has better body control, he's learned to lay off bad breaking balls and work counts.

"But the biggest thing with him is he's gotten bigger and stronger. That and commanding the strike zone a little better. He's been our best player in the postseason and here in this Series. His outfield defense has improved. He's going to play for somebody in the big leagues."

While his raw power won't translate into big home run power anytime soon, Blanco hit 28 doubles in 2006 and has enough juice to keep pitchers honest, the scout said.

"He's not a guy that jumped out at me when I saw him two years ago," the scout said. "But he's a different player now. He's just not a slap hitter any more. He's getting the bat head out earlier and has a pretty good trigger. He moved his hands out from his body a little more, and has shown enough strength to drive balls into the gap the other way. For a lefthanded-hitting outfielder with some speed, he could have a nice career in the big leagues."

With Andruw Jones set to enter free agency after the upcoming season, there is likely going to be a void in center field in Atlanta. Though it does not appear that the Braves' see Blanco as the heir apparent, he could give them reason to be considered should he continue to develop as he has over the past year. No matter what, he now looks like a big leaguer.