02/03/2004 3:34 PM ET
Gil ready for another audition
Deal with Rockies could get him back to the bigs
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Benji Gil has been in this situation before.
|Veteran infielder Benji Gil hopes to make the Rockies roster this spring. (Doug Miller/MLB.com)
At the age of 31, the veteran Major League infielder finds himself in that baseball purgatory known as the minor-league contract.
Gil played an important reserve role in the 2002 Anaheim Angels' dramatic World Series win, going 8-for-12 in the Fall Classic against the San Francisco Giants.
But he struggled so mightily at the plate in 2003 -- .192 batting average and 33 strikeouts in 125 at-bats -- that he was released by the Angels, signed by Cleveland to a minor-league deal, and released by Cleveland 10 days later after he floundered in Triple-A Buffalo.
It was similar to the times in 1994, 1998 and 1999 when Gil languished in Triple-A trying to relocate the skills that made him a hyped first-round pick of the Texas Rangers in the 1991 draft at the age of 19.
Last December, he got another chance from Colorado, which signed him to a minor-league deal. Gil is in the mix for an infield position with the Rockies if he performs well at Spring Training.
That's why he's been honing his skills this winter with the Mexican League champion Culiacan Tomato Growers, who are in Santo Domingo this week for the Caribbean Series in Estadio Quisqueya.
"It's a challenge," Gil says. "In a way, every year is a challenge to stay in the big leagues. That's what you have to think if you want to stay sharp."
Gil, originally drafted as a shortstop, has played every position in the infield. He gained prominence on the Angels as a backup second baseman to left-handed-hitting Adam Kennedy.
Even though Kennedy finished seventh in batting in the American League in 2002 with a .312 average, Gil, a right-handed hitter, was the one getting the starts against left-handed pitchers.
Even in the playoffs.
Gil batted .310 against lefties in 2002 and .294 in 2002. That success against southpaws is one of Gil's qualities that has Colorado intrigued.
"We brought in Benji Gil to look at him as a utility player that could come off the bench and play a multitude of positions," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's a good right-handed bat and has had very good success against left-handed pitchers historically.
"Two years ago, he was a very good player on a great team. Last year, he'd be the first to tell you he was a bad player on a bad team. He's another guy we like -- we're looking for men who have a history of success to point to, not just potential to hope for.
"He's played in big games. And he's showing fortitude and want-to to go down and play winter ball, all winter, to improve his skills and get ready to be in the best position to make our ballclub."
The Rockies also like his versatility in the field.
"Our second base job is wide-open, and from what people say about him, second base is probably his best chance for playing time," said Bill Geivett, the Rockies' director of player development.
"He came up as a shortstop, and who knows? When he gets to Spring Training, he might have more range there than we think. He also can play third. Offensively, he's strong and he can drive the ball. He's more of a gap-to-gap guy, but he is able to hit some home runs, and in our ballpark he can hit some opposite-field home runs."
It won't be easy for Gil, however.
Colorado acquired second baseman Aaron Miles from the Chicago White Sox and would like for him to start and be the leadoff man.
Damian Jackson, another Major League veteran, is under minor-league contract. Jackson could end up starting, but they'd most likely prefer him to be a super-utility guy who can back up Preston Wilson in center field.
At shortstop is Royce Clayton, another minor-league contract player. Colorado has a middle-infield prospect, Clint Barmes, who hit .320 in a brief call-up last year. He probably still needs another year in Triple-A.
And then there are veterans Denny Hocking and Mark Sweeney, who also signed on as infielders, and prospect Luis Gonzalez, which leaves little room for Gil unless he's up to the task.
He says he's thankful for the opportunity.
"It gets a little harder at times when you're struggling, but I'm being told that I'm getting a great chance to make the team in Colorado out of Spring Training, so I have to work hard here, work hard in Arizona and see what happens," Gil said. "I look forward to it very much."
He also looks back at his days with the Angels fondly despite his release last July.
"I have no hard feelings whatsoever," Gil says. "The best moment of my career took place there, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the organization and my teammates there. I got off to a really bad start and couldn't get it going.
"Hopefully I'll get it going in Spring Training."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.