Overcoming adversity a notch on CarGo's belt
Outfielder understands struggles can be learning experience
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One look and it's clear what Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez did during his offseason. His jersey strains to contain the muscle he added to his shoulders and upper arms. His pants aren't as baggy as in 2009, when he was a late-season rookie sensation, or 2010, when he won the National League batting title.CarGo's midsection also is a little bigger, but he has already dropped from 230 pounds when he reported to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, to 226. Knowing he drops weight during the season, Gonzalez and the Rockies are shooting for an Opening Day scale-tipping of 220. All of this discussion of muscle and weight loss is usual Spring Training filler, of course. Dispatch after dispatch deals with this stuff. Whether it's meaningful is unclear. But if a player flourishes or struggles, it offers a convenient source of credit or blame. Often, however, it's weight no one sees that makes the real difference. And Gonzalez insists that he has totally shed the invisible burden that nearly crushed him at the start of last season -- his freshly signed, seven-year, $80 million contract.
Last spring, Gonzalez talked of hitting 40 home runs and stealing 40 bases. But by early May he was looking up from an 11-for-64 slump that dropped his batting average to .230. With shortstop Troy Tulowitzki also having slipped into a slump, a Rockies team that began the year 11-2 had slipped to 19-16, and a disappointing 73-89 season was in motion."It's hard, because we're competitors," Gonzalez said. "When things are going wrong, you put too much pressure on yourself. You think, 'Maybe it's my fault that we're losing.' "It was the beginning of the year when I struggled, I put too much pressure on myself, tried to do too much. It's in the past. This is a new year." Gonzalez's problems were visible in his approach, Rockies hitting coach Carney Lansford said. Gonzalez's normal, effective swing involves a hesitation when he lifts his front leg. There was no hesitation early last year, an indication that Gonzalez was trying to muscle pitches out of the park. The problem with that was his movements were so quick he wasn't seeing pitches properly, and pitchers happily bounced pitches or kept the ball away from him. However, Gonzalez corrected himself. From May 12-July 3, he hit .340 with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs while lifting his average 66 points to .292. Gonzalez had help. Manager Jim Tracy said his friend, retired Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, warned him that Gonzalez could go through the same struggles onetime Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday did when he signed a big-money contract. Rockies veteran Jason Giambi told Gonzalez it would be more difficult than he expected, having battled self-applied pressure when he signed a huge contract with the Yankees a few years back. "I just constantly kept telling him, 'Hey, I'm here for you if you want to talk,'" Giambi said. "But you have to go through it. A lot of people have great advice, but until you walk through the fire it's hard to go through it. Once he got through it, he was on his way to having a fabulous year, then he got hurt." Gonzalez said listening to Giambi and watching veteran first baseman Todd Helton helped him realize there were better approaches to hitting. But Gonzalez suffered bone damage to his right wrist when crashing into the center-field wall at Coors Field trying to make a catch in a game that was spinning out of control. He reinjured the wrist on Sept. 15 at home against the Giants, this time courtesy of the right-field wall. Gonzalez, who still finished a respectable .296 with 26 home runs and 92 RBIs, said he would try to be cognizant of the score, but offered no promises about avoiding walls. Stability in his position could help. Gonzalez began last year in left, but moved to center when Dexter Fowler was injured and demoted, and moved to right because teams were taking advantage of the arm of Seth Smith (now with the Athletics). The Rockies signed Michael Cuddyer to play right and expect Fowler to repeat the strong second half that he fashioned after returning from the Minors. Now they want Gonzalez to take the next step. "He needs to show leadership -- stepping out and understanding that he's a leader on our club and has responsibility for our culture and our environment," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "Take ownership of that. He should be a guy like Tulo. He's got the ability." In a sense, the Rockies are placing a healthy share of weight for the team's fortunes on CarGo's shoulders. He is confident he can carry it without taking on more of a burden than necessary. "Every year you learn something," Gonzalez said. "You learn from your teammates. You learn from the game. "Putting on a lot of pressure is not my game. My game is to go out there and relax. I play this game because I enjoy it. It's the way I'm going to teach my teammates, to create that mentality every day."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.