By JOHN PESETSKI Special to FOXSportsWisconsin.com
PHOENIX — Milwaukee Brewers’ center fielder Carlos Gomez has blinding speed.
One of baseball’s premier defensive outfielders, Gomez tracks down balls that many outfielders only waive at. He’s also one of the game’s top base stealers, ranking fifth in the National League last year with 37 stolen bases.
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But to focus too much on Gomez’s speed is to lose sight of his considerable power and his potential to be a complete player. And it’s that combination of speed and power, plus incredible character, that led the Brewers to sign the 27-year old native of the Dominican Republic to a three-year $24 million contract extension earlier this month.
“Based on what he did last year and over his last 600 at-bats, we made a decision to sign Carlos long-term,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said Friday. “Over his career, people have told Carlos a lot of different things. He’s been told to hit the ball on the ground and take advantage of your speed. But he’s got power, too. We’ve told him to just go out and be the player that he is.”
Acquired by the Brewers in a 2009 trade with Minnesota that sent shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Twins, Gomez is happy to be in Milwaukee for the next several years.
“I’m very happy with the contract,” he said. “I see it as a great opportunity. I’ve been working for this all of my life. I’m going to spend at least seven years here, and that’s great. We’ve got a good team with a good bunch. This is the opportunity I’ve been looking for.”
In 2012, the 6-foot-3 right-hander posted career highs with a .260 batting average and 19 home runs while starting 98 games for the Brewers. Along with teammate Ryan Braun, he was one of only five major leaguers with at least 15 home runs and 30 steals in 2012. Gomez was particularly hot in the second half of the season, emerging as the team’s starting center fielder while hitting .278 with 14 home runs and 33 RBI.
Gomez cites a change in his approach at the plate as the reason for his late-season production.
“I started trying to drive the ball more up the middle,” he said. “People have always tried to make me hit ground balls and use my speed, but I have some good power, too. Last year I started to drive the ball. Not chop at it but hit line drives. Line drives don’t have to go out of the park. With a line drive in the gap, I can use my speed for extra bases.”
Looking ahead to 2013, Gomez is determined to further hone is approach at the plate.
“I’m working on responding to all pitches instead of just looking for one pitch,” he said. “I’m taking more pitches, too. I want to do a better job of getting on base for my teammates and let them bring me around.”
If Cactus League action is any indication, Gomez’s work is paying off. Although he’s sat out the last two games with lower back stiffness, he’s hitting .375 with a .500 on-base percentage and a 1.000 OPS. His seven walks in 32 at-bats this spring are only 13 fewer than the 20 walks he notched in 415 regular-season at-bats last season.
Gomez also has a good chance to become the first Brewer to win a Gold Glove since Robin Yount in 1982. With incredible range and an above-average arm, he’s regularly ranked as one of the game’s top fielders by most every advanced defensive metric. In 2012, he tied for the lead among National League outfielders participating in four double plays.
Invisible on the stat sheet are Gomez’s attitude and clubhouse presence.
“He came into camp with a great attitude,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “I know he had the contract on his mind. I think with just the type of person he is, he’s always up and he picks other guys up, too. He’s always got everything on the field.”
“He’s a great teammate,” Melvin added. “That was a part of our decision to sign him and why we want him here. He’s got energy and attitude and the kind of clubhouse character we really like.”
Both Melvin and Roenicke are excited to watch Gomez develop in the coming years.
“Hopefully, he’ll be a guy that hits first or second in your lineup someday. But right now, he’s got to hit for a very high average to do that because he’s not an on-base guy. And for Carlos, it’s a big advantage if he can get on base for you because you want him stealing bases. There aren’t too many guys in the league who can steal bases like he can.”
“When you get a young player as skilled as Carlos, with speed and power, they try to impress by showing you everything they can do,” Melvin said. “He’s playing much more under control now and that’s helped him improve. And, he’s still working on his game. If he can improve on getting on base, with his skills, he’s got All-Star potential. It’s just about getting him in a position to use those skills.”