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CarGo weaves success from early failure

CarGo weaves success from early failure

DENVER -- Folks describe Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, the National League's batting leader and a prime candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award, as a five-tool player. Yet, they leave out the most important tool -- the ability to learn from failure.

Gonzalez, 24, carries a .341 batting average, 32 home runs and 106 RBIs -- numbers that put him alongside the Cardinals' Albert Pujols and the Reds' Joey Votto as a threat for baseball's first Triple Crown (titles in batting, homers and RBIs) since the Red Sox's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. It's hard to believe failure is any part of his story.

Yet, it's much of the full story.

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Had the Rockies not stuck with Gonzalez through a .202 batting average in his first 27 games -- including 23 starts -- through the All-Star break last season, there would be no story. There might have been no playoffs for the Rockies, since Gonzalez hit .320 with 12 home runs and 24 RBIs after the break. The sizzling National League Division Series against the Phillies, in which Gonzalez went 10-for-17 in four games, would not have happened.

It's easy to look now and say being patient with such a talent should be a no-brainer. Yet, Gonzalez was traded twice, and Rockies manager Jim Tracy received questions and criticism for sticking with him through his early struggles.

"You have to fail," Gonzalez said. "That was the difference here. I could be playing on another team right now if Colorado didn't have confidence. I failed in the beginning, and Colorado could have traded me.

"Sometimes, for young players it's not that easy to create confidence. You have to be able to do something so you can realize, 'I'm good. I can play at this level.' I can do whatever I want."

"Just state the facts," Tracy said. "Go back to how many times last year was I getting hounded about, 'How much longer are you going to play the guy?' to doing what he did last year and pole vaulting himself to the point where he is a legitimate contender for a Triple Crown. I'd say that's pretty rapid advancement."

Gonzalez has been on the big league scene in one way or another for three years, but this is just his first full season in the Majors.

He was a top prospect with the D-backs until the club traded him to the Athletics after the 2007 season as part of the deal to acquire All-Star pitcher Dan Haren. Gonzalez was disappointed the D-backs didn't call him up before the end of the 2007 season, but he understood the offseason move.

"They wanted a really good pitcher," Gonzalez said. "When you're a prospect, that's the cost that you have to pay."

The next trade felt different to Gonzalez. The A's wound up with a gem: outfielder Matt Holliday. But the D-backs held onto Haren for 2 1/2 seasons. Holliday was heading into a free agency year and wasn't even expected to be with the Athletics long term. They wound up dealing him to the Cardinals.

"I know that Oakland didn't have any patience with me," Gonzalez said. "I was not even there for a year. I played for five months, then right after the season I got traded here. I don't know how they're feeling, but I feel good."

The A's called Gonzalez up from Triple-A on May 30. He hit .306 over a 32-game stretch between June 30 and Aug. 8, but things soured during a 6-for-60 slump over 18 games that resulted in his being sent back to the Minors. After earning Pacific Coast League playoff co-most valuable player honors while leading Sacramento to the title, Gonzalez returned to the A's and finished .242 with four home runs and 26 RBIs. A penchant for striking out -- 81 times in 302 at-bats -- and a .188 average and 58 strikeouts in 85 at-bats against left-handed pitching made him more of a question mark than a prospect.

The struggles against lefties were a particular problem. It was an issue that cropped up during his time with the D-backs, who insist it wasn't the reason he never reached the Majors with the club.

"You don't just come to professional baseball and have it all figured out," said D-backs first-base coach Matt Williams, who managed Gonzalez at Double-A Mobile for part of the 2007 season. "It took him some time. For our organization, it was one of those situations where we needed pitching and he was one of the guys that they demanded in the Haren deal, and we had to do it."

Interim general manager Jerry Dipoto said, "That is not out of the ordinary for young left-handed hitters. What you have to remember with Carlos is that he was young for every level of play when he got there."

In fairness to the Athletics, they didn't send Gonzalez back to Sacramento until late August. They also had a sense they were giving up a potential star when they decided to take a shot at Holliday.

But Rockies closer Huston Street said the Athletics could have done a better job with Gonzalez.

Street, part of the trade (as was Rockies Minor League pitcher Greg Smith, who also was part of the Haren deal with the D-backs), said Gonzalez would have paid off for the A's had they been willing to suffer a little longer through his growth period.

Street noted that the A's also had current Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia and Aaron Cunningham. Oakland also had players such as Travis Buck and Jack Cust, who are still there. But he believes they shuffled Gonzalez out without having a full look at what he could become.

"You've got to put somebody in the fire," Street said. "You've got to let him sink or swim. He was always being played with a life preserver and he never really had to fight and battle.

"Selfishly, I'm thankful for that. Had it not been for him, I would not be here. I'm glad the A's tucked him away and stopped believing in him. It provided me with an opportunity to change my life in a better way. He's the MVP of this team, but I've got to give him a big hug every day."

Gonzalez wasn't finished when he joined the Rockies. It was clear he was the key to the deal from the Rockies' standpoint, but general manager Dan O'Dowd and then-manager Clint Hurdle were measured in their comments about him, feeling he had work to do and didn't need the pressure. In Spring Training, Rockies hitting coach Don Baylor noticed Gonzalez's top hand was turned inward, which created an inconsistent swing. It would take time for him to adjust and make it habit. After working on the new grip, Baylor would ask Gonzalez to grab a bat with the old grip. Pretty soon, that one became foreign to him.

Teammates heard of the potential, but playing alongside him, they saw something in him even greater -- the willingness to learn.

"I remember from last year, even this year, he's not afraid to come up to me and ask questions," said shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who, while hitting behind Gonzalez, has risen to second in the NL with a .325 average. "That shows a sign of a guy that's really growing and wants to get better each day."

Gonzalez began the year at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Even after a successful Triple-A stint, he arrived in the Majors with a strike zone that, Tracy likes to say, was "from the tip of his helmet to the ground."

Once he learned what a strike was, pitchers found out the hard way they couldn't beat him with too many of them.

"He hits lefties like it doesn't matter," Tracy said. "There are special players like that throughout the league. When you identify who those guys are, it's not so much, 'I'm putting this lefty on this lefty here.' You're just trying to make it as difficult as possible for a very special hitter that you know doesn't care if the glove's on the right hand or on the left hand."

Gonzalez finished last season at .284, and was a respectable .276 against left-handers. Now he is lighting up lefty pitching at a .322 clip with 13 homers. The other forward step is in on-base percentage, at .378. The number was .313 entering the year.

Since being snubbed for the All-Star Game in a move decried as resulting from a lack of attention for a small-to-mid-market player, Gonzalez has hit .385 with 15 home runs and a .428 on-base percentage. Much of that has come in pain.

Early in an Aug. 30 game against the Giants, Gonzalez fouled off a pitch from the Jonathan Sanchez and suffered pain in his right wrist and thumb. It has throbbed ever since, to the point that he has been playing with it heavily taped.

That night, he shattered his bat, but improbably sent a pitch from closer Brian Wilson to deep right-center for the winning triple in a 2-1 victory. The performance was part of a career-best 16-game hit streak, all done with soreness in the bottom hand on his swing. It also was part of a seven-game streak in which he broke at least one bat, but had hits on many of those swings.

It wasn't until Saturday, when he was not in the lineup, that Gonzalez's soreness reached the public.

"Of course you're not going to tell everybody what's hurting or what's not hurting," Gonzalez said. "I'm sure a lot of players late in the season are having problems just like me, but we're in the right situation. You want to be in the lineup and finish strong."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @harding_at_mlb on Twitter. Owen Perkins and Robert Falkoff contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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