Subject of trade rumors, Adrian thriving
All-Star first baseman leading Padres' charge in NL West
SAN DIEGO -- It wasn't like Padres closer Heath Bell went up and wrapped his big arms around teammate Adrian Gonzalez after the last game of 2009, even if Bell thought there was a fair chance he had played his last game with the All-Star first baseman.
"At that moment, I thought it was a 50-50 shot whether he was coming back or not," Bell said. "We had a new owner. We were getting a new general manager. There was a matter of what direction we were heading, trying to rebuild versus trying to compete."
Padres manager Bud Black wouldn't even allow his mind to wander this direction, mostly since the prospect of having Gonzalez -- a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner -- play elsewhere was too painful to entertain.
"It was a thought I didn't want to think about," Black said this week. "But I'm realistic to know what happens in this game and I knew it was a possibility. But like I said, I did not want to think about that."
Gonzalez, who unplugged following the season for a month-long vacation to Europe with his wife, Betsy, did himself a favor by missing the Hot Stove talk that had the low-payroll Padres, supposedly, ready to deal him to any number of cities as part of a rebuilding job.
"I knew I was going to be here," Gonzalez said this week.
Not everyone was so sure, even though Gonzalez was under contract, for not only this season, but for 2011 as well.
Many figured Gonzalez would end up in Boston since Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, hired in October from the Red Sox, could, according to popular opinion, easily swing a deal with friend and former boss Theo Epstein.
"The Boston rumors were natural," Hoyer said. "Theo and I even joked about it."
Boston fans no doubt wondered how Gonzalez would look peppering the Green Monster with line drives or turning on fastballs, hooking them inside Pesky's Pole with his sweet and easy left-handed swing.
Instead, the Padres decided to hang onto their top commodity in Gonzalez and his very affordable contract, a decision that has paid dividends for a team that is currently in the midst of an improbable playoff push.
"There were a lot of teams interested in him this winter and some were aggressive. But the truth of the matter is, we never got close," said Hoyer, who hasn't received an offer for Gonzalez since March. "There was never a deal we were strongly contemplating.
"The feeling all along was we wanted to bring him into this season and recapture that momentum from last season [37-25 finish]."
Gonzalez is having another big season, well on his way to his fourth season with at least 30 home runs. Entering Friday's game against the Phillies, Gonzalez is hitting .299 with 27 home runs and 86 RBIs. He's having better success against left-handed pitchers (.325) than he ever has in his career.
And Gonzalez is doing all of this for his hometown team, unencumbered by the kind of questions he faced in Spring Training about his future. The only questions he's fielding now are the ones he can actually answer, the questions about the stunning rise of the Padres, who lost 99 games just two seasons ago.
"For me, it's good to just have all the questions focus on things I can control," Gonzalez said. "I have said all along that I can't control things until I'm a free agent. And it's hard for me to answer things that are out of my control. I have no say in it."
And with that, Gonzalez races off for early batting practice. Quiet and humble, he's never been big on talking about himself and even more reluctant to talk about what can happen when he becomes a free agent after the 2011 season.
Gonzalez's agent, John Boggs, who knows a little something about representing an icon -- he was Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn's agent -- has sat back and watched how this has played out for his 28-year-old client.
"I guarantee there would have been more stories and speculations if the club started out poorly, even from the fans, wondering that if you can't afford him, then you should see what you can get for him, to help build the club. Now ... everyone is talking about the Padres have a chance to go to the playoffs," Boggs said.
"I go back to my original meeting with Jed and you can look at it as here's a new general manager, coming into a new position and he's got a tremendous ballplayer ... so why not use him? Hopefully, this is their grand design. That they don't want to trade him and they want to win with him."
Hoyer, to his credit, has been remarkably consistent with his public conversations about Gonzalez. Hoyer points to Gonzalez's very affordable contract, one put together in the spring of 2007 by former general manager Kevin Towers, before Gonzalez made his first All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove.
Gonzalez's base contract is $4.75 million this season. He's set to make $5.5 million next season with no club buyout. That figure will now be $5.8 million after All-Star and Gold Glove incentives, although it doesn't change the fact Gonzalez is the best bargain in the Major Leagues.
How big a bargain? Fangraphs rated Gonzalez's worth in 2009 at $29.5 million, which is his WAR (wins above replacement) converted to a dollar scale based on what Gonzalez would make in free agency.
What will Gonzalez make when he becomes a free agent? Philadelphia's Ryan Howard might have established a good baseline with the five-year deal he agreed to in April for $125 million.
But that, Boggs said, is a conversation for another day. For now, his talks with Gonzalez center more on this team, as the Padres push toward what would be their first postseason trip since 2006.
"You can tell in his demeanor and in his excitement that he's enjoying playing baseball. Look, Adrian is a baseball player. He talks baseball. He enjoys the give and take of the game. He enjoys analyzing the game," Boggs said.
"Right now, all Adrian is looking forward to is winning this thing. It has worked out in a tremendous way for him. And it's not like there's a great desire on his part to leave San Diego. He's having the time of his life."
That has, Black said, been reflected in his play, his demeanor.
"He handled it with aplomb last summer when word was out there, and I think he handled it with aplomb this winter and again this spring," Black said. "Human nature tells me there has to be a sense of -- I don't want to say serenity -- that 'I don't have to talk about this.'
"I'm sure that's been a weight off his shoulders."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.