This is the ninth of a series of stories that will take you Around the Horn with the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers and has already covered the rotation, the bullpen and catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop and left field. Up next: Center field.
PHOENIX -- Every now and again, Ryan Braun says, he settles under a fly ball in left field and hears screaming from his left. It's center fielder Carlos Gomez.
"He'll yell, 'I got it! I got it!' just to mess with me," Braun said, "which is really interesting at times."
Is this true?
"This happened one time," Gomez said. "I think it was in Spring Training."
He smiles. Braun might have just given Gomez a good idea. The speedster would prefer to cover the entire outfield, after all.
"He's amazing," Braun said. "He's like having two guys out there in center field."
The Brewers would settle for just one center fielder this season if Gomez plays like he did in 2012, when he celebrated his age-26 season with career highs in batting average (.260), on-base percentage (.305), home runs (19) and stolen bases (37) while playing his typically flashy brand of defense.
In short, it was his finest season, and Gomez concedes that the pressure is on to repeat. At the end of this year, Gomez will be a first-time free agent, so he skipped winter ball in the Dominican Republic to focus instead on rest and then workouts. He only attended one of Aguilas' games, and found himself peppered with so many questions about when he'd be joining the team that he decided not to go back.
Gomez also skipped a chance to represent his country in next month's World Baseball Classic.
"Personally, I have to stay here," Gomez said. "We have a lot of expectations, and a lot of work to do. I have to be ready to start the season and have a great season. I have to have the year that everybody expects."
Expectations have long been a part of the Carlos Gomez story, since he debuted with the Mets as a 21-year-old in 2007 and was a key piece of the trade package sent by New York to Minnesota the following February for Johan Santana. With the Twins, Gomez drove manager Ron Gardenhire mad with his elusive potential, striking out 142 times in '08 with only seven home runs. The Twins traded Gomez to the Brewers after two seasons for shortstop J.J. Hardy in a move that helped Milwaukee shed payroll.
Over his first two seasons in a Brewers uniform, Gomez batted .238 with a .288 on-base percentage. For 2011, the team tried to calm Gomez in the batter's box, believing it would make him more selective at the plate. In Spring Training, it was a big success.
"He was hitting balls the other way, he was under control. You thought 'Wow, if he takes this into the season, this is going to be really fun,'" manager Ron Roenicke said. "So you get into the season, and he's trying this, and he's at .220 and not doing much for us. Not driving the ball. At the end of the season, he says, 'I'm just going to start swinging hard.' And he finished the last month really swinging the bat well. I don't think he chases more balls when he approaches that way."
It made Roenicke think over the offseason. What if they simply told Gomez to swing away? It seemed to work in 2012, and Roenicke hopes it works again in '13.
"I don't know that telling Gomey to back off again, I don't know that that's the answer," Roenicke said. "I like what he did offensively. If he can swing hard and still not chase a lot of pitches, I think it works for him. He's not a guy that we can back off on anything that he does. He's nuts out there. And he's fun to watch with pop-up slides, always wanting to go to the next base. Those are good things. Certainly has to be under control, not going crazy. But I think it worked for him."
The challenge facing Gomez is to play with the same enthusiastic abandon in the face of free agency.
Gomez knows that his 26-year-old backup, Logan Schafer, is a quality defensive player who would come a lot more cheaply to the Brewers in 2014. Gomez knows this could be his last season with the Brewers.
"Who knows?" he said. "I'm prepared to play, and if this happens, it happens."
Does Roenicke worry about those free-agency thoughts creeping in for Gomez?
"I do," Roenicke said. "The nice thing is he enjoys playing and has fun playing. So it's pretty easy to get him laughing, having fun in the dugout. The serious-type guy, I would probably be concerned with a little bit more."
Gomez would have loved to flash his speed in the World Baseball Classic, and he accepted an initial invitation from Dominican GM Moises Alou to be on the country's preliminary roster while Gomez mulled a decision. By the time the Brewers gathered in Milwaukee for their annual fanfest, though, Gomez informed Brewers officials he would skip the event to focus on the regular season.
"This year is really important," Gomez said. "I don't want to take any chances."