Not a Rookie: Carlos Gonzalez
Many readers have asked me recently about Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Here is a look at his background as a prospect.
Carlos Gonzalez was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Venezuela in 2002. His strength, size, and speed reminded club officials of Bobby Abreu at the same age. Assigned to Missoula in the Pioneer League in '03, Gonzalez hit .258/.308/.404 with 12 steals in 19 attempts, with a 16/61 BB/K in 275 at-bats. He drew positive scouting comment for his tools, including a strong throwing arm, range, and power potential, but his strike zone judgment was poor and his offensive production was below average for the league. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2004 book, writing that despite his weakish performance, "physically, there is much to like here, so we'll give him some benefit of the doubt due to his youth."
Gonzalez began 2004 with South Bend in the Midwest League, hitting .275/.288/.412 in 14 games before breaking a hand. He was recovered in time for the Northwest League in late June and was sent to Yakima, where he hit .273/.327/.427 in 73 games, with 22 walks and 70 strikeouts in 300 at-bats. He was much less aggressive on the bases, stealing just two in two attempts. He continued to impress with his range and throwing arm, but plate discipline remained a problem. I gave him another Grade C+ in the 2005 book, writing that "statistically, there isn't much to like yet except age-relative-to-league" (he was 18 in ‘04).
A healthy Gonzalez returned to South Bend for '05 and hit .307/.371/.489 in 129 games, with 18 homers, 48 walks, and 86 strikeouts in 515 at-bats. His strikeouts came down, the walks went up, and he posted a +19 percent OPS in a pitcher's league. One negative was a slight decline in running speed compared to his first two seasons, but his strong throwing arm and outfield instincts continued to draw raves, and his bat was obviously improved. I moved him up to a Grade B+ in the 2006 book, noting that he could be a Seven Skill player and that his ceiling was very high. I ranked him at Number 31 on my Top 50 Hitting prospects list.
Moved up to full-season Lancaster in 2006, Gonzalez hit .300/.356/.563 with 21 homers, 30 walks, and 104 strikeouts, posting a +20 percent OPS (granted his home park was friendly). Promoted to Double-A Tennessee for the stretch run, he hit .213/.294/.410 in 18 games with seven walks and 12 strikeouts in 61 at-bats. His plate discipline remained the biggest concern, but he was just 20 years old and playing in the California League, so I cut him some slack on that. I kept him with a Grade B+ rating and ranked him Number 23 on the 50 list.
Gonzalez spent most of 2007 with Double-A Mobile, hitting .286/.330/.476 for a +10 percent OPS. He hit 16 homers with a 32/102 BB/K in 458 at-bats. Promoted to Triple-A Tucson in late August, he hit .310/.396/.500 in 10 games, with six walks and six strikeouts in 42 at-bats. He was traded to Oakland that fall in the Dan Haren deal. I gave him another Grade B+, ranking him as the Number 11 hitting prospect in the game.
He split 2008 between Triple-A Sacramento (.283/.344/.416 in 46 games) and Oakland (.242/.273/.361 in 85 games, with a 13/81 BB/K in 302 at-bats). His strike zone judgment was an obvious hindrance during his major league time, but he was just 22 years old and had been rushed to the majors with just 56 Triple-A games under his belt. It was far too soon to give up on him based on 302 at-bats. If he hadn't exceeded rookie qualifications, I would have given him either a strong Grade B or a weak B+ last year; probably ranking in the 40-50 range among prospects.
Oakland traded him to Colorado last winter. He began '09 in Triple-A, hitting .339/.418/.630 in the friendly environment of Colorado Springs. Promoted to the majors, he hit .284/.353/.525 for the Rockies in 89 games, with a 28/70 BB/K in 278 at-bats. He was aggressive on the bases again, swiping 16 bags in 20 attempts. His career slash line is now .262/.313/.440 in 580 at-bats, with 36 doubles, 17 homers, 20 steals, 41 walks, and 151 strikeouts.
Strike zone judgment is still an issue here, but he looked more comfortable in the majors last season and I think that most of his problem in '08 was simply due to being rushed too fast by Oakland. On the other hand, Coors Field fueled much of his improvement: .305/.361/.582 at home, .263/.344/.467 on the road, though even the road numbers are acceptable for a player his age in the majors. He was more effective against right-handers (.896 OPS with .255 ISO) than lefties (.809 OPS with .190 ISO), though he wasn't helpless against the southpaws. His minor league splits were stronger (.764 vs. lefties, .901 vs. righties throughout his career) but the split was not as pronounced over the last two seasons. I don't think he has to be platooned at this point.
Defensively, Total Zone was not impressed with him in the minors, his numbers varying between above average and substantially below average depending on the season. UZR likes his major league performance so far, giving him a 12.4 UZR/150 as a center fielder in '08 and 14.1 UZR/150 as a center fielder last year. Scouting reports on his glove have always been good, so perhaps UZR has a better read on his glove than Total Zone did. We will know more about that once we get another season worth of data out of him.
Going forward, I don't think there's any real secret regarding Gonzalez. If he can improve his strike zone judgment a bit more and improve along a normal curve, he can emerge as a consistent .280-.300 hitter with 25 homer power, 15-20 steals at year until his speed starts to slip, and great defense. If his discipline stagnates, I think he'll still be useful but more erratic from season to season, hitting anywhere from .240 to .290 in a given campaign, with concomitant swings in his other slash numbers.
He's still just 24, still three or four years away from his prime if his age curve is anywhere near normal. At worst, I expect him to be a usefully productive player for a long time. At best, he could still develop into a consistent All-Star.