Brewers' patience with Gomez paying off
Ron Roenicke would often shake his head and proffer that half smile that has become a trademark when talking about centerfielder Carlos Gomez.
Sometimes it was a smile borne out of frustration, sometimes out of wonder.
Such is the one they call "Gomey."
What is certain was that this past season was Gomez's most complete in the major leagues, filled with far more smiles of amazement than not for the first time in his career.
In 2012 Gomez made 452 plate appearances, his most since 2008 with the Twins. He posted career highs in home runs (19), stolen bases (37), batting average (.260), on base percentage (.305), OPS (.768) and WAR (2.3).
"When you take his defense, which is what we like him out there for, and anything you put offensively that he's in the plus and he helps you score runs, then this guy is very valuable to your team," Roenicke said. "When he's patient, when he battles up at the plate, I think he's a tough out. There's times he goes up there and the wild swing puts the first pitch in play, not hit very hard, those are the ones he wants to stay away from. He's had a nice year."
Ah, patience. It's been the word perhaps most associated with Gomez since he was called up by the Mets as a 21-year-old in 2007. He became a full-time player for the Twins after he was a key piece of New York's deal for former Cy Young winner Johan Santana.
After a free-swinging two seasons in Minnesota where he had nearly as many strikeouts (214) as hits (221), the Twins moved him to Milwaukee for J.J. Hardy. Gomez's time as a full time player ended just as quickly, as he became a rotational player in the Brewers outfield.
Patience, it seemed, was wearing thin.
"I was called up when I was 20 years old and it's hard to learn when all the people are professional and all big league players," Gomez said. "But that's what I got. I felt happy when I got called up but three years later they say you should've played at least a year and a half in the minor leagues to become prepared for this. I wasn't prepared. I recognize (that) now. Before, I'm happy. It's a dream you get called up. But that's before and now I'm still young – 26 years old – I'm still a lot of way to go and hopefully this is the start of my career."
In 2010 and 2011 he played in fewer than a 100 games and posted the same number of strikeouts as hits (72) in 2010 and whiffed 64 times, compared to 52 hits, last year.
Something clicked this past season however.
As veteran Nyjer Morgan struggled, Gomez played well enough to earn increased field time. The end result was his best offensive season at the age of 26.
Early on, there was the usual mixture of flashes of brilliance and frustration. There would be the first pitch swing that led to a weak ground ball, and then the powerful moon shot home run after showing some plate discipline.
Gomez credited a lot of his turnaround this year to the addition of veteran third baseman Aramis Ramirez, as well as the powerful lineup around him.
"The last few years have been tough," Gomez admitted. "This year I got a little more chance to play and I figured it out and put it together. My hitting coach, my teammates, all had some help. Aramis, we've been talking together. I think it's a time to be growing."
Gomez feels like this is just the start of his career, the natural arc of a young hitter.
"I never hit as many homers like that, but it's not surprising because I know," he said. "You see me in BP and I can hit the ball as far as anyone on the team. I just had to put it in the game. I work hard every day and I have right now and I'm going to start doing it again. I'm not surprised at anything I did because I know what kind of ability I have, I know what kind of player I can be. The only thing I needed was an opportunity, and they gave me the opportunity to be more successful."
Throughout the year, even Roenicke wouldn't know what to think of Gomez. Now, he'll be given an opportunity to prove that 2012 was the leap forward from potential to reality – though the leash will be short.
"I think we're looking at him as getting the bulk of the time in center," Roenicke said. "I think he'll play himself into either being there every day, or being in a situation where you have a Nyjer or a (Logan) Schafer splitting some time with him. Maybe when Gomey goes into that little slump for a couple weeks, the other guy gets more playing time."
For his part, Gomez isn't worried about a promise to start in center, or a guarantee of playing time.
"The only thing I worry about is if I'm healthy," he said. "Next year I'm going to be 27 years old. They know what kind of ability and they know what kind of player I am and I wish I could have the opportunity again like I've had every year and put it together and play my game and make that team win a lot of games."
Gomez is spending his offseason like he usually does, working out in the Dominican Republic. He has his sights on a bigger year not just for himself, but the Brewers.
"Next year because we have to finish the goal. We know we can do it," he said. "This team is special. Now I'll be better for the team. If I hit 20 plus homers next year you'll have four, five guys with 20 home runs and steal 30 bases. No other team has the kind of guys like that. We have to put it together to make it next year and it (could be) real special."
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