Rockies predict greatness from Gonzalez

Rockies predict greatness from Gonzalez

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The double-take is automatic. A No. 5 is playing left field for the Rockies. You see his cool stroll, which looks familiar, and want to fool yourself into believing nothing has changed.

But this is now, and now is Carlos Gonzalez. He swings from the opposite side of that No. 5 and not with the jaw-dropping power or -- as of yet -- frequent success, although Minor League numbers suggest both are possible from Gonzalez. Gonzalez wears his glove on the opposite side and defends with an entertainer's grace and a technician's efficiency. That's a stark contrast to his predecessor, who began as an awkward defender but made himself above-average with grit.

So the Rockies have moved on from the Matt Holliday days. No doubt they'll share some memories starting Friday, when Holliday and the Athletics meet the Rockies for three games at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

Gonzalez was the prospect to dream about in the four-player deal that sent Holliday to the A's. But he is no Holliday -- not yet. Gonzalez, who sizzled at Triple-A Colorado Springs before joining the Rockies on June 5, enters the series against his former club batting .180 with one home run and three RBIs.

Before an 0-for-9, six-strikeout bummer against the Angels on Monday and Tuesday, Gonzalez was beginning to build his numbers, not to mention deliver some timely hits. He knocked his first Rockies homer and singled as part of a late rally in a 4-3 victory over the Rays. He had two hits, drove in a run and figured in another late rally in Saturday night's 9-7 victory over the Pirates.

The Rockies predict big success from him. For Gonzalez's part, it helps that he can ride on his training wheels in the lower part of a strong lineup. Colorado isn't asking him to replace Holliday.

"I think when you have guys in front of you like Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe and Clint Barmes -- all those guys doing a great job -- you feel like you don't need to do anything special," Gonzalez said before the road trip. "You just try to do the little things to help the ballclub. It feels good to be in this position."

Rockies manager Jim Tracy continues to have warm feelings about Gonzalez, whom he has started regularly since the call-up.

Gonzalez, 23, led professional baseball with 59 RBIs and led Colorado Springs with 10 home runs, seven triples, 29 extra-base hits and a .630 slugging percentage when the Rockies committed to him.

Tracy is giving him every chance to show that form at the Major League level.

One way Tracy has done this is by making him the primary left fielder while still giving playing time to Ryan Spilborghs and Seth Smith, both of whom are being productive even though their playing time has been cut. Tracy's other method of keeping Gonzalez confident is avoiding certain matchups. He has sat against the Mariners' Jarrod Washburn and Jason Vargas, the Rays' David Price, the Pirates' Paul Maholm and the Angels' Joe Saunders -- all difficult left-handers.

To A's fans, Gonzalez's offensive numbers look familiar. He debuted in late May, but frequent strikeouts had him back in Triple-A in August. He finished the year with a .242 batting average with four home runs and 26 RBIs in 85 games over the two stints, but his 81 strikeouts in 302 at-bats were an issue.

Tracy believes, however, Gonzalez is on the verge of breaking through.

"He is going to get going. There is no doubt in my mind," Tracy said. "He is an extremely talented player."

Left field is Gonzalez's least-familiar outfield position, but he has taken to it quickly. With speedy, rangy Dexter Fowler in center, Hawpe can cover a reasonable amount of ground in right.

Gonzalez made the tough play immediately -- a crash-against-the-wall grab on what seemed to be a sure extra-base hit by the Cardinals' Albert Pujols on June 5. He's made other difficult plays look routine.

"You can put him any place out there, and he is going to do a tremendous job, but his skill set actually overplays in left field because of the strength of his arm and everything else," said Tracy.

The Rockies' project of rebuilding his swing fundamentals and confidence took a hit this spring when Gonzalez suffered a hamstring injury that ruled out his chances of making the Opening Day roster. But hitting coach Don Baylor was taking baby steps with him, anyhow, so having to start the year at Triple-A fit with the plan. Gonzalez showed the plate discipline the Rockies wanted to see. Now it's time to transfer it to the highest level.

This big league learning session has been enjoyable for Gonzalez, mainly because he has participated in just two losses and the team has lost three games since his callup. He played in eight victories before going 1-for-4 in a 12-4 loss to the Rays on June 16.

"It's so much fun when you go out there and win, no matter what you do," Gonzalez said. "You always feel you did something really good for your team. That's all everybody wants -- to win. Everybody's having fun, laughing."

Gonzalez will receive regular opportunities to grow into a bigger contributor to a Rockies team that hopes to keep winning.

"That's really important for a player when the manager is going to keep giving you the opportunity," Gonzalez said. "You know that if you don't get hits one day, you're going to have another opportunity to do it. That's a really good feeling when you go out there without that pressure on your mind."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Associate reporter Quinn Roberts contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.