March 29, 2013
DENVER — As he sat in front of a tidy locker, Carlos Gonzalez struck the figure of a man at work, even while playing a boy’s game.
"I am here to win games," the All-Star outfielder said simply.
If that is the next step — for the Rockies to win more games — how does arguably their most gifted player take them there?
“I think my ability is going to take me to the next step, take us to the next step.”
What I learned at spring training should provide a sliver of hope for the Rockies.
Cargo is Full Go. He is locked (in) and loaded (though slimmed down).
He and Troy Tulowitzki — both healthy, with opening day upon us — give the Rockies a fighting chance.
Whether the front office has built a pitching staff that will stand up to the NL West is another question. Not from what I saw, but we’ll see.
If Gonzalez stays healthy and reaches his stated goal of 600 at-bats, color me surprised if he doesn’t finish among the top five in MVP voting. He finished third in 2010.
Coaches (Dante Bichette) and teammates (Dexter Fowler) told me Cargo is wired for another big season. I don’t know if they are correct. I only know they said so with conviction.
"Some players can do things you can’t teach,” said Bichette, the hitting coach. “He’s one of those guys."
But all players still must work at their craft. Gonzalez is a worker.
"Every morning I come in here, I’m ready to learn, to step forward. That’s how the veteran guys play this game," he told me. "They know how to play the game the right way and take advantage of every morning and every day on the field.”
There are advantages to my new position, stepping into an unfamiliar clubhouse. I have zero prejudices about the players or coaches or how they approach the game.
After several conversations with Gonzalez, the takeaway was easy: Here is a player who treats his career as though it were 24-karat gold.
Gonzalez doesn’t waste a day on the diamond.
Unsatisfied with a season in which he played in the All-Star Game and won a Gold Glove, Gonzalez returned to spring training with a slimmed-down figure.
In his quest to gain more power, Gonzalez had lost some of the burst he calls his greatest attribute.
“I tried to be bigger and it didn’t work,” he said. “I understand now the kind of player I am is explosive, not big. When I hit homers, I’m just quick to the ball. I don’t put any extra power (into it) or anything.
“If I hit the ball on the right spot, I know it’s going to go. We learn from a lot of things.”
Other established veterans often coast into spring training. There is a 162-game schedule to iron out the wrinkles in their games.
Gonzalez tore into spring training. His motivation was two-fold: prepare to represent Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic before powering into the Rockies' season.
“When we get to play more and when we get older, you’re more mature. That’s what I’m always looking for in this game — just to keep learning,” he said.
“If I was not working to get better, why would I be here?”
How long will he be here?
It is an unsettling question. If the Rockies are not in a position to contend, this is a baseball town that needs star power to keep its interest.
But if the Rockies start slow, some of the Rockies' past personnel decisions force me to wonder if both Tulo and Cargo remain in Denver.
These are the unfortunate realities playing with a front office that doesn’t make it rain like NL West bankrollers Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“This year is going to be huge for us,” Gonzalez said.
“I like when we’re in this situation — not a lot of expectations,” he told me. “Everybody is battling for a spot and working for a job. It’s good. It’s good for this team to be in that situation.”
It’s good for a team in this situation to have Cargo.
Paul Klee is the Denver sports columnist for The Gazette. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter (@Klee_Gazette).