You have to feel for this guy (shown after a game-winning homer in 2008 in this AP photo). He plays in cavernous Petco Park, surrounded by a lineup that makes the Mariners look like the ’27 Yankees in comparison. Yet Adrian Gonzalez manages to be one of the most productive hitters in baseball. He is second in the National League with 22 homers (tied with Raul Ibanez, who was placed on the DL today with a strained groin, and one behind Albert Pujols, the man who annually keeps Gonzalez from starting the All-Star Game); 10th in on-base percentage (.409), fifth in slugging percentage (.592) and sixth in OPS (1.001). And all with a dramatic home-road split: Gonzalez is hitting .239 with seven homers, 15 RBI and a .459 slugging percentage at home, .and .298 with 15 homers, 28 RBI and a .719 slugging percentage on the road.
The challenges Gonzalez faces at Petco were readily apparent on Wednesday in San Diego’s 4-3 loss to the Mariners. In the sixth inning, he hit a towring blast to right off Garrett Olson that probably would have been out of most parks. Ichiro hauled it in on the warning track. And with the Padres rallying in the eighth — runners on first and third, two outs — the Mariners pitched around Gonzalez and walked him. The Padres cleanup hitter behind Gonzalez, Kevin Kouzmanoff, had already homered in the game, but it really wasn’t a hard choice for the Mariners whom they’d rather face.
Gonzalez, who is just 27, has taken a circuitous route to the Padres. The first overall pick in the 2000 draft by the Florida Marlins, he was traded to the Rangers, on July 11, 2003, along with outfielder Will Smith (scouting report: Good arm, weak bat, really funny, great actor,and a rap a little bit), and LHP Ryan Snare in exchange for reliever Ugueth Urbina. (Urbina helped the Marlins win the pennant that year with a 3-0 record, 1.41 ERA and six saves in 33 games, plus four more saves in the postseason, but in 2007 was sentenced to 14 years in prison in Venezuela for attempted murder. That hurt his trade value considerably).
That deal is a cautionary tale of the pluses and minuses of trade-deadline deals. Well, sort of, because the Rangers didn’t realize what they had, and sent Gonzalez on to the Padres — along with pitcher Chris Young, currently on the DL but one of the stalwarts of the Padres’ staff, right behind Jake Peavy (also on the DL; this Padres team is in big, big trouble, IMHO). Young made the All-Star team in 2007. The trade wasn’t the finest hour for the Rangers’ astute young GM, Jon Daniels, who acquired pitchers Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka and catcher Billy Killian for Gonzalez and Young after the 2005 season. Gonzalez blossomed into stardom in 2006, and has just gotten better.
Gonzalez will be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season. Right now, he’s one of the biggest bargains in baseball, signed for $3 million this year and $4.75 million next year, with a $5.5 million club option for 2011 that I’m assuming will be snapped up by the Padres.
It should be an interesting negotation after ’11, if the Padres don’t extend him before then. Gonzalez might be motivated to find a more hitter-friendly home, but the Padres will be hugely motivated to retain one of the few reasons fans have to watch this team. Furthermore, he split his childhood between San Diego (where he graduated from high school) and Tijuana, Mexico, making him a drawing card for every Padres’ constituency.
For now, he’ll keep hitting home runs, and sending a lot of balls to the warning track.