Note: This is the second feature for the May issue of Gameday, which Jesse edited for John Bonnes, a.k.a. TwinsGeek. Some of you might find the the points familiar. But I wrote it for the general audience. So bear with me on that. Hope you like it.
"Wow!" That's the sound you hear from the fan next to you when Carlos Gomez makes a play you've never seen before. The speedy center fielder, obtained from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade, has started strong for the Twins in 2008. As of this writing, he was hitting .326/.356/.465 with five steals in six attempts and several sparkling plays in center.
"Ugh!" That's the sound you hear from the fan next to you when Carlos Gomez overthrows the cut-off man or runs into his own bunt in fair territory or strikes out on three pitches with the bases loaded. The raw center fielder has struggled at times to make contact and hit pitches the opposite way. As of this writing, he has struck out 11 times against just two walks in 45 plate appearances. Extrapolating that over 700 plate appearances, he'll strike out 171 times with only 31 walks--hardly the kind of numbers you would expect from the everyday lead-off hitter.
Few players in recent Twins history have been such a study in contrasts. At just 22 years old, Gomez has plenty of time to smooth out the rough edges. But unlike prospects such as Jason Bartlett or Matt Garza who were kept in the minors to work on things, the Twins expect him to file off the burrs at the major league level, while playing a key role in helping the team win. And unlike Bartlett and Garza, Gomez does not have the raw minor league numbers that might suggest that he's ready for this challenge. The question is, why do the Twins think Gomez is ready now?
Examining his minor league record, the answer isn't as difficult as it seems. The first thing you notice is that Gomez was rushed to the majors, where he made his debut as a 21-year-old in May of 2007. As you might do with his both beautiful and ugly play, you can read that in two ways: He either could use more minor league seasoning or he thrives on tough competition. The Twins have chosen to interpret it in the second way. To see why, you have to look not just at raw numbers, but at trends.
This won't be the first time Gomez was thrust into a role where it appears he's being rushed. In 2006, Gomez skipped a level, going straight from Low A Hagerstown to AA Binghamton--a tall order for a 20 year old. He struggled to make the adjustment to AA early, but when he did adjust, he became a force in the Mets' line-up, finishing with a .281/.349/.423 line with 41 steals in 50 chances. His raw numbers don't suggest dominance, but he did dominate in the second half of that year.
Gomez used the confidence he gained in AA as a springboard to early success in AAA New Orleans to start the 2007 season, where he hit .286/.363/.414 with 17 steals in 21 attempts. At that time, Mets vice president of player personnel Tony Bernazard had this to say to Baseball America: "Carlos Gomez showed last year that he can adjust to a league. He can adjust to difficult periods of time. He doesn't panic. He maintains his confidence level."
The Mets liked Gomez's ability to adjust enough to call him up to the majors on May 13, 2007. Just as he had the year before, Gomez initially struggled with the adjustment to the new level. But in early June, when he began to see regular playing time, he thrived, finishing the month with a .299/.351/.403 line with 7 steals in 9 tries. In early July he broke the hamate bone in his wrist, and his season was basically lost at that point. The Mets brought him back primarily as a pinch runner in September, but the long lay-off and spotty playing time took a toll, and he only went 3 for 17, finishing the year with the these disappointing numbers: .232/.288/.304.
This spring the blogosphere was abuzz with the debate over whether Gomez was ready to stay in the majors or he needed more seasoning in the minors. Considering the Twins history of being careful not to rush their top prospects, most polls favored sending him down for a couple of months to work on things. For the first two weeks of the season, the Twins have been rewarded for bucking their conventional wisdom and letting him learn at the major league level. Twins fans can only hope they find themselves saying "Wow!" much more often than "Ugh!" in 2008.