Gwynn closer to Opening Day start

Gwynn closer to Opening Day start

PHOENIX -- As Tony Gwynn Jr. searched his locker for a pair of batting gloves on Monday morning, one week remained before the Brewers' season opener. Gwynn can already envision how he'll feel if he jogs out toward the frozen ivy at Wrigley Field that day, and his shivers have nothing to do with Chicago's cold.

That vision could be realized when the Brewers open their 40th season against the Cubs, assuming Mother Nature gives her blessing. With offseason acquisition Mike Cameron serving a 25-game suspension to start the season, Gwynn is one of three candidates -- maybe the leading candidate -- to man center field.

"Nothing is in stone and nothing has been said," Gwynn said of Opening Day. "I certainly will feel like I'm getting somewhere if that is the case."

In other words, the light at the end of the tunnel is closer than ever.

"I'd be lying if I said I haven't seen it," said Gwynn, the Brewers' second-round pick in 2003's First-Year Player Draft. "But at the same time, I'm just trying to remain focused. As soon as the game starts to feel easier, it can get real hard, real quick. That's why I'm here so early every morning, trying to do everything I can do to get better."

The Cubs are scheduled to start a right-hander -- Carlos Zambrano -- on Opening Day, so manager Ned Yost presumably would use as many left-handed hitters as he can. That could rule out righty Gabe Kapler in the opener and favor Gwynn and Gabe Gross.

Yost regards Gross as an offensive player working on his defense and Gwynn a defensive player working on his offensive skills. With defense one of the team's top priorities entering 2008, Gwynn should get plenty of opportunities to play in April.

"I'd like a little offense out of [center field], too," Yost said. "But defense is very important. It's probably the main aspect, yes, that I'm looking for."

Gwynn made last year's Opening Day roster but split the season between the Brewers and Triple-A Nashville. He batted .260 during three separate stints in the Majors, compiling 123 at-bats.

"Center field is becoming a position where guys are hitting a lot of home runs, but there is still that prototypical center fielder," Yost said. "The on-base-percentage guy, someone with some speed that can steal bases and be an igniter, a catalyst. I think that can be Tony's niche."

Gwynn has been a defense-first player from the start and has had to work his way through Milwaukee's Minor League system. That is a decidedly different path than the one followed by his Hall of Fame dad, a third-round Draft pick of the Padres in 1982 who was in the big leagues the following season, then batted better than .300 in 19 of his 20 seasons.

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Gwynn, Jr. -- called "Little T," since his dad's Padres days -- certainly calls for advice from his dad, who attended Sunday's game at Maryvale Baseball Park but then had to return to his coaching duties at San Diego State University. Equally as important to Little T is his uncle, Chris Gwynn, who played parts of 10 big league seasons mostly with the Dodgers, but like Little T was shuttled between the Majors and the Minors.

Chris Gwynn is now a Padres scout and has been based this spring in Tucson, Ariz.

"He has been in the same situation I am in right now," Gwynn Jr. said. "He went through being a young guy, having some success, being sent up and sent down. My dad wasn't. He was brought up at a young age and was fortunate to have had a lot of success.

"So I have multiple sources, which is good. But Chris was really helpful when I was up and down [in 2007], kind of helped settle my brain a little bit."

Gwynn has also leaned on Cameron, whose locker is two down from Gwynn's. Cameron has won three Gold Glove Awards in his career and finished as the runner-up in three other seasons. Gwynn calls Cameron the most underrated center fielder in the game.

Defense comes naturally to Gwynn, so he has focused this spring on the offensive side of his game. After watching Gwynn's first four at-bats in Spring Training games, Yost called him into the office for a piece of advice.

"He told me he didn't need to see me get hits, he just wanted to see me have good at-bats," Gwynn said. "For me, that's earlier. Go up there, see some pitches, foul some pitches off and put the ball in play. That part comes easier than trying to get hits, and then the hits come when you have good at-bats.

"That talk took a lot of pressure off me, offensively. I don't see why it could change when the season starts."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.