CF: Spick and Span? Not With Go-Go.
When Torii Hunter (arguably the most popular Twin since their rise to prominence in 2001) left for the Anaheim Angels via free agency after the 2007 season, a gap hole was left in center field at the Metrodome. After an intense Spring Training competition for the job between Carlos Gomez (acquired from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade), Denard Span (the heir apparent to Hunter’s job until he struggled in the minor leagues), and Jason Pridie (a cast-off from the Rays who had a great spring). Although Span seemed the more polished of the three come April, “Go-Go” Gomez was named the starter due to his almost unbelievable speed and the excitement he brought to the club and their fans on a daily basis.
For the first few months of the season, Go-Go was indeed the most exciting player on the team, whether it was streaking to catch balls out in the field or flying around the basepaths after driving the ball into the gap. As the season stretched on, however, pitchers began to learn how to pitch to the rookie Gomez, and the strikeouts and terrible at-bats began piling up. At one point, Ron Gardenhire considered benching the fiery youngster (after dropping him from 1st to 8th or 9th in the order), but Carlos likely saw his job saved when Michael Cuddyer went down with an injury, and Span (the guy who would have taken over in CF) came up to replace him instead.
Gomez did finish the season on a high note, and his stats are respectable for essentially a first-year player: 577 AB, 79 R, .258 BA, 33 SB. However, he also struck out a near Twins-record 142 times and also was prone to defensive lapses in CF from time to time. His blazing speed and cannon arm more often than not made up for his mistakes, but too many times would a ball roll right under his legs or he would juggle the ball at a crucial moment.
Of course, Gomez would still be penciled in as the starting CF in 2009 if not for the emergence of Span (who will be moved back to his natural position when Cuddyer returns next year). During the 2008 season, Span manned the leadoff spot in the order like no Twin has done since Shannon Stewart, working deep into counts, drawing walks, and spraying the ball all over the field. In 347 at-bats, Span hit .294 with 70 R, 50 BB, 102 H, and 18 SB. Whereas Gomez struggled in the pressure of the leadoff spot, Span thrived. Defensively, Span made some of the most athletic catches ever seen in the Metrodome, and also has a rifle arm.
So, with Cuddyer (and his shiny, long-term contract) coming back to man RF in 2009 (as he should), it should be an interesting battle for the centerfield spot. Whereas Span seems to be ready right now, Gomez is a remarkable young talent whose potential is the teflon roof. Knowing Gardy, each player will get their share of ABs in 2009, although a riskier move would be to deal one of them for a relief pitcher that the club so desperately needs (to be discussed later).
-Perhaps it is time I stop doubting the Rays, as their 13-4 crushing of the Red Sox tonight leaves them one game away from the World Series. I still think the series will need to go back to Tampa to be concluded, but now the Red Sox are up against the wall and will find it extremely difficult to beat the young Tampa club three times in a row.