Prospect Retro: Adrian Gonzalez

Prospect Retro: Adrian Gonzalez

Adrian Gonzalez is one of the best first basemen in baseball and the centerpiece of the San Diego Padres franchise. He was a highly-regarded amateur player as well, but his path from top prospect to superstar first baseman was not a smooth one: he had some ups-and-downs. Let's take a look at how Gonzalez developed as a prospect, and how his career stands in context.

Adrian Gonzalez was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the first round, first overall, in the 2000 draft. The high school star from Chula Vista, California (part of the San Diego metro area) was considered the best pure hitter in the high school ranks, with quick wrists, a great swing, and strong plate discipline. There was some question about how much home run power he would develop, but considering his youth (along with his sharp defensive skills at first base) he was not considered an overdraft at first overall in a relatively weak draft class. Gonzalez was assigned to the GCL Marlins after signing, where he hit .295/.397/.359 on 53 games, not showing much power but demonstrating sound plate discipline. I gave him a Grade B in the 2001 Minor League Scouting Notebook, writing that I was optimistic about his chances but wanted to see how his power developed before going higher with the rating.

Moved up to Class A Kane County for 2001, Gonzalez hit .312/.382/.486 with 37 doubles, 17 homers, 103 RBI, 57 walks, and 83 strikeouts in 516 at-bats, posting a +22 percent OPS, very impressive performance especially in the pitching-oriented Midwest League. He also impressed everyone with his defense at first base. I gave him a Grade A- in the 2002 book, writing that "I'd like to see a few more walks and a bit more power, but that's quibbling. Gonzalez looks like a winner to me."  I ranked him as the Number 16 prospect in baseball.

The Marlins jumped him to Double-A for 2002, giving him 138 games at Portland in the Eastern League. This resulted in a .266/.344/.437 line, with 17 homers, 54 walks, and 112 strikeouts in 508 at-bats. His OPS was just +6 percent against league average, but he was just 20 years old and had skipped High-A. I maintained him at Grade A- in the 2003 book, ranking him as the Number 14 hitting prospect in the game.

Gonzalez began 2003 with Double-A Carolina, where he hit .307/.368/.409 in 36 games. Promoted to Triple-A Albuquerque, he struggled with a  .216/.286/.288 mark, showing virtually no power. Questions were raised about his work ethic in Triple-A: some scouts believed he was coasting on his natural talent and was resistant to coaching. He also had a wrist injury that sapped his power, and scouts complained that his body was too soft.

His stock dropped as the summer progressed, and he ended up getting traded to the Texas Rangers in a trade for Ugueth Urbina. Gonzalez hit .283/.326/.393 in 45 games for Double-A Frisco after the trade, but overall it was a very disappointing campaign. I lowered his rating to Grade B in the 2004 book, noting that he was still a good prospect, still very young and had time to address his weaknesses.

2004 was considerably better: .304/.364/.457 for Triple-A Oklahoma. A healed wrist helped, but his power production remained fair rather than dominant, and there were still some rumbles in the Pacific Coast League about a substandard work ethic and soft body. He hit .238/.273/.381 in 16 games for the Rangers. I left him with a Grade B in the 2005 book, noting that he was still very young at age 22.

Gonzalez split 2005 between Oklahoma (84 games, .338/.399/.561) and Texas (43 games, .227/.272/.407). He went past rookie status with 150 at-bats, so he wasn't in the 2006 book. The work ethic rumors from '03 and '04 faded, but he was blocked in Texas by Mark Teixeira. He was traded to his hometown San Diego Padres in the December '05 Adam Eaton trade.

Gonzalez seized control of the first base job in when Ryan Klesko got hurt in  '06 and never looked back, hitting .304/.365/.500 his first season then improving his home run production each year since then. He's now one of the elite first basemen in the game, showing excellent plate discipline and increasing home run production as he enters his peak seasons, along with fine defense. WARs: 2006 3.9; 2007 3.3; 2008 3.5; 2009 6.4.

Although he is a hometown hero for the Padres, it seems unlikely that the franchise will be able to meet his financial demands. His agent wants a lot of money, using Mark Teixeira as a baseline. Fangraphs has a good comparison piece between the two players:

Gaslamp Ball (SB Nation's excellent Padres blog) has this roundup of Gonzalez statements and rumors back in late February.

The contract speculation honestly doesn't interest me too much; I went through enough of that as a Twins fan with Joe Mauer. I always prefer it when a player stays with his hometown team, but it may just not be possible in this case, though it would be nice to see the Padres make a surprise pennant run and perhaps that could help.

Sim Score Comparables: Justin Morneau, Fred McGriff, Paul Konerko, Tony Clark, Carlos Delgado, Alvin Davis, Richie Sexson, Jeff Bagwell, Mo Vaughn, and Danny Tartabull. Not a bad player in the bunch, though some of them aged poorly. PECOTA comps are Eddie Murray, Mark Teixeira, Hal Trosky, Fred McGriff, Boog Powell, Kent Hrbek, Chipper Jones, Todd Helton, Gil Hodges, and Jim Bottomley. McGriff is the only repeater, but this is also an impressive list, with a couple of Hall of Famers and some borderline candidates.

Keep in mind that Petco Park inhibits his production: he's hit .245 with 26 home runs in his last 159 home games, but .307 with 50 home runs in his last 161 road games. Putting Gonzalez in a more neutral environment, let alone a genuine hitter's park, would likely result in a big burst of production. You can bet that Gonzalez (and his agent) is aware of this, hometown pride notwithstanding.

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