On Sunday, February 3, Ken Davidoff of Newsday posted this tidbit on page two of a general baseball news article under the title “BASEBALL INSIDER: Free-falling times for free-agent list”.
“One unlikely free agent finding work is Juan Gonzalez, 38, who has one major-league at-bat in the last three years.
The two-time Most Valuable Player is set to sign a minor-league deal with St. Louis.”
This goes one step further than a report from Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from January 17 that stated the Cardinals were considering such a move.
Taking Davidoff’s report at face value for a minute, the Cardinals would seem to have little to lose with such a move. With two outfield starters from last season gone, Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion, one due to trade and one due to injury, there are jobs to be had.
While there are plenty of entries in the mix to take their places, the majority of the candidates are left-handed and none of them, perhaps save enigma Rick Ankiel and incumbent Chris Duncan possess the power potential of a Gonzalez, circa 2001, when Juan whacked 35 home runs and drove in 140 at the age of 31.
Since then, however, the man known as “Juan Gone” here in the States and “Igor” in his homeland of Puerto Rico, has been injured and ineffective.
His right-handed hitting outfield competitors on the Cardinals roster are few and far between. They include well-traveled Ryan Ludwick, who caught on last season in a reserve role, recently-added Joe Mather and Rule 5 pick-up (and therefore unproven at the MLB level) Brian Barton, who may profile more as a centerfielder. Veteran reserve switch hitter Scott Spiezio also can play some corner outfield.
All the other outfielders on the 40-man bat from the left side, including Ankiel, Duncan, Cody Haerther and Skip Schumaker, not to mention top prospect Colby Rasmus, also invited to major league camp.
Yet, Gonzalez would arrive in Jupiter, Florida later this month dragging considerable baggage.
His owner while with the Texas Rangers in 2002 and 2003, Tom Hicks, publicly stated that he suspected Gonzalez of using steroids while with his club and admitted user Jose Canseco fingered Juan Gone as a user in his book and in television interviews. Gonzalez completed the trifecta with an appearance in the recent Mitchell Report.
If one can get past the considerable negative PR associated with him, the only additional downside you might find in bringing in Juan is in him taking spring at-bats away from the numerous promising youngsters competing for jobs. Whether fair or not, the Greg Vaughn case immediately comes to mind.
At the age of 38, coming off a 2003 season spent mostly in Triple-A, the former Milwaukee slugger decided to give it one last shot. The 2004 Cardinals obliged, giving Vaughn 19 games and 36 at-bats that spring. He delivered a putrid .139/.311/.167 (BA/OBP/SLG) line. Faced with the prospect of reporting to the minors again, Vaughn instead chose retirement.
Could the Cardinals end up replacing one Juan (Encarnacion) in right field with another Juan (Gonzalez) or will he follow the Greg Vaughn model and simply pick up a few weeks of salary before heading back home?
All this remains to be seen in March – if the rumored deal for Juan Gone becomes Juan done.
Update Monday, 2/4: Gonzalez and the Cardinals have agreed to terms on a one-year minor league deal that will pay $750,000 if Gonzalez makes the 25-man roster out of spring training.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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