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Gomez ready to turn corner on tantalizing talent

Gomez ready to turn corner on tantalizing talent

Gomez ready to turn corner on tantalizing talent
MILWAUKEE -- A disclaimer, right off the bat: You may have read this story before.

They wrote it in New York, where Carlos Gomez was a hotshot outfield prospect. They wrote it in Minnesota, where he arrived in the Johan Santana blockbuster and was expected to star. And we've written it in Milwaukee, where Gomez has showed flashes of his tremendous promise over the past two seasons.

Now, we just can't help but write it again: Is this the year Gomez gets it?

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If Gomez does, he could be another Carlos Beltran or Carlos Gonzalez. All five tools are there: Plus bat speed. Plus power. Plus center fielder. Plus-plus throwing arm. Plus-plus-plus speed.

"There aren't too many guys who have all five tools and can rap in multiple languages," Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun said.

Forget Gomez's off-the-field hobby for now. He has enough on his hands with baseball.

"Tools-wise, he's literally as good as anybody in Major League Baseball," Braun said. "His combination of power, speed, arm strength, it rivals anyone in the game. And he's still young. Because he's been in the big leagues for so long, people lose sight of the fact he's so young.

"He just looks at peace with everything he's doing right now. He's under control. He's so within himself."

That phrase -- stay within yourself -- is one of baseball's great cliches, but it explains Gomez's inconsistent approach at the plate, and why he is the Brewers' platoon center fielder instead of a National League All-Star.

Gomez is 26 and already in his sixth Major League season. The Mets rushed him to the Major Leagues as a 21-year-old in 2007 before trading him (along with Philip Humber, the author of last weekend's perfect game) to the Twins for Santana.

Minnesota made Gomez a 22-year-old starter for manager Ron Gardenhire, who, citing Gomez's occasional mental lapses, once said of the speedster, "He irritates people, sometimes me." The Twins traded Gomez to the Brewers in November 2009 for shortstop J.J. Hardy in a deal that freed payroll for Milwaukee to seek pitching.

Gomez began 2010 as Milwaukee's regular center fielder but lost at-bats to shoulder and head injuries and then to upstart rookie Lorenzo Cain. Gomez batted .247 and finished with a sub-.300 on-base percentage for the fourth time in as many Major League seasons. In 2011, he missed time after fracturing his collarbone. By then, Gomez had already slipped into a center-field platoon with Nyjer Morgan, Gomez mostly starting against left-handed pitchers and Morgan against righties.

Credit general manager Doug Melvin for finding Morgan, a perfect foil to Gomez. Credit manager Ron Roenicke for convincing both players to embrace a platoon.

Which brings us to 2012, with Gomez off to a most promising start.

He is 13-for-35 (.371) so far, with six extra-base hits and five stolen bases in six attempts. In that small sample, Gomez is swinging at 29.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, down five points from his first two seasons with the Brewers, according to the website FanGraphs.com. He is making contact on 85.5 percent of his swings, up about 10 points from the past two years.

In other words, he is producing more consistently quality at-bats. Now comes the hard part, the part that has eluded Gomez in his career so far.

Can he keep it up over a full season?

"I have a better idea what I'm doing, and you see it right now," Gomez said. "I'm showing I'm not going with bad pitches. You have to throw me a strike. When I swing at strikes, I'm a dangerous hitter."

Gomez said he and new Brewers hitting coach Johnny Narron have developed an effective way to narrow his strike zone. Gomez simply envisions a much smaller home plate.

"That has been working right now," Gomez said. "I have more command of the strike zone. You know, I always have fun, but it's even more fun when you get rewarded for your work."

When he swings at strikes, he is a joy to watch. Gomez, who scored the run in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 5 of last year's NL Division Series that sent Milwaukee to its first NL Championship Series, leads the Brewers by far in energy.

Sometimes, this is to his detriment. In the ninth inning Wednesday, with the Brewers down two runs against the Astros, Gomez took a chance by stretching a two-out triple. With Braun due up next, representing the tying run, Gomez would have been a particularly ill-advised out at third base to end the game.

But he was safe.

"I think it's dangerous sometimes when you have that much ability," Braun said. "He's as fast as anyone in baseball, so you think, 'Hit the ball on the ground.' But then he also has unbelievable power, so I think he sometimes gets caught in between, trying to figure out, 'Am I a speed guy? Am I a power guy? Am I both?'"

Gomez was both the night before, when he smacked a pinch-hit home run and sprinted around the bases in 16.46 seconds, unaware until he reached third base that the baseball had cleared the fence. According to the website that records such things -- TaterTrotTracker.com -- it was the fastest non-inside-the-park home run trot of the season, by more than a second.

Brewers closer John Axford was warming up when he heard the crack of the bat. Axford was curious who'd hit the homer.

"I took a quick glance and he was already at home, pretty much," Axford said.

Will Gomez finally turn a corner this summer? Braun points out that plenty of quality prospects are just getting started at 26 years old.

Roenicke said last week that he considers Gomez more than a platoon player, suggesting he could see starts against some right-handed pitchers, even though the Brewers' other two center fielders -- Morgan and Norichika Aoki -- are left-handed hitters.

So far, all but one of Gomez's starts have come against lefties. The Brewers will see one Sunday in St. Louis, when Cardinals left-hander Jaime Garcia is slated to start.

"Obviously, the talent is off the chain," Braun said. "At some point, for everybody, this game is really about aptitude. You have to figure out, 'OK, this works for me, and this doesn't.' I really think he's starting to figure it out."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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