Pressure is on, but Gomez doesn't feel it

Pressure is on, but Gomez doesn't feel it

PHOENIX -- Some Brewers fans are still sore about the trade that sent popular shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Twins for a center fielder long on potential but short on production. This is nothing new for Carlos Gomez.

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Two years ago, Gomez was part of the Twins-Mets blockbuster that sent Minnesota ace Johan Santana to New York. From the Twins' perspective, Gomez, then just 22, might have been the centerpiece of the deal, a five-tool talent expected to replace the departed Torii Hunter.

Two middling seasons later, Gomez was on the move again.

"The last three years have been kind of difficult because I've been trying to prove that I can play in the big leagues," said Gomez, including his 2007 debut with the Mets. "Now, this is going to be my first year here and they're giving me the opportunity. I'm supposed to be the starting center fielder."

While rookie Alcides Escobar takes over at shortstop for Hardy, Gomez is once again replacing a free-agent departure in center field. Mike Cameron took a two-year deal from the Red Sox, and in the end the Brewers saved more than $10 million between shortstop and center field to put toward pitching. Gomez, who was arbitration-eligible as a Super-2 player, and Escobar will combine to earn about $1.5 million this season; Cameron and Hardy will combine for about $13 million.

Now comes the pressure for the Brewers' youngsters to produce.

"I never feel any pressure," Gomez said. "It's not like, 'Oh, I was traded for Johan and I have to do something to make up for it.' I just enjoy playing baseball, and when you do that, you don't worry about things off the field."

On the field, Gomez's raw talent prompts jaws to drop one moment and heads to shake the next. During last year's American League Championship Series, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Gomez, "He irritates people. Sometimes me."

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But the Brewers are poised to give him a shot. If Gomez falters, the team has veteran Jim Edmonds in camp as a non-roster invitee vying for a job and is relatively rich in center-field prospects. Among the youngsters are Lorenzo Cain and Logan Schafer, both of whom were to be in camp before Schafer injured his groin last week.

"I think you have to give [Gomez] a chance with the direction we're going," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "He should get most of the playing time. ...

"He's got tools that we all wish we had. I'm a big believer in speed, and that the offensive side of speed players develops a bit later. An example of that is [Mariners outfielder] Franklin Gutierrez. Everybody is raving about Franklin Gutierrez, and he's a guy we tried to get in the [Richie] Sexson deal [in December 2003]. He's a guy who didn't come into his own until he was 26 years old."

The Brewers' statistical gurus have one metric that ranks Gomez as baseball's second-best defensive center fielder behind Gutierrez. But like the speedy Mariner, Gomez's bat has been slow to develop. After being rushed to the Majors in 2007, Gomez started 143 games in center field for the Twins in 2008 and hit .258 with 59 RBIs, 79 runs scored and 33 steals, enough to enter 2009 as the Twins' incumbent. But he lost the starting job after hitting .195 through the 2009 season's first month and spent the year in a timeshare with Denard Span.

"The key is play every day," Gomez said. "I did that in 2008, and I think I did my job, but then last season I didn't get to play as much and I didn't do my job. Now I have experience, and I'm coming back to the National League. They play my kind of game."

Brewers manager Ken Macha is thinking of hitting Gomez either in the seven-hole or in the nine-hole as a sort of second leadoff hitter. The key to making the latter arrangement work is getting on base, and Macha has some ideas on that front.

On a rainy Sunday morning at Maryvale Baseball Park, Macha pulled out a sheet of statistics that showed hitters' swing rates last season in a variety of counts. Gomez took fewer swings on 2-0 -- 34 percent -- than on any other count. He swung most often -- 73 percent of the time -- on 2-1. Macha found that exceedingly interesting.

"That's nothing negative on him," Macha said. "He's ingrained to play the team game -- take a pitch, get on base and steal."

But 2-0 is a terrific hitter's count, and Macha would like to see Gomez be intelligently aggressive on those pitches in the coming season.

"I'm going to tell him what I tell everybody: I've never told a hitter to go up there to take a pitch," Macha said. "Have an idea of what's coming, and then punish the ball when it's in the strike zone."

Defensively, the Brewers know Gomez will be top-notch. He has crossed career paths with some of the game's best as teammates of Cameron and Carlos Beltran with the Mets and a long-distance admirer of Hunter after Hunter went to the Angels. Gomez asked for Hunter's telephone number and called the veteran seeking advice after the trade.

The advice from all of them, Gomez said, was similar: "Slow down."

"I want to learn something different every day," he said.

He has not been playing center field particularly long. Gomez grew up a shortstop in the Dominican Republic and was signed by the Mets in 2002 as a shortstop and corner outfielder. He didn't start playing center field until 2007 at Triple-A New Orleans. He didn't play the position in the big leagues until 2008 with the Twins.

If he had his pick of the outfield spots, it would be center "because you have the responsibility to move the other guys and you are the man." But he's still a shortstop at heart.

"When the season starts, you'll see me in Milwaukee every day talking ground balls at shortstop," he said. "That is my passion. Some day, I am going to play one game in the big leagues at shortstop."

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