FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It comes as no surprise that Adrian Gonzalez has established himself as one of the top defensive first basemen in the game. From the time he was taken as the top overall pick in the 2001 draft by the Marlins, Gonzalez earned raves for his work at the position.
That being the case, it comes as something of a curiosity to see one game at a different position on his résumé. In the final weekend of the 2005 season, when he was a member of the Rangers, Gonzalez was given a start in the outfield.
It seems like nothing more than an experimental anomaly. It turns out, however, that the reason for his jaunt in right field is quite a bit more fascinating than it might appear.
Gonzalez’ right field trial has everything to do with the player to whom he has been, and will be, compared for years: Mark Teixeira.
“I was too young to be a full-time DH, and Teixeira was at first base [for the Rangers],” recalled Gonzalez. “You’re young. You want to play any way you can, as much regular playing time as you can get. So I told them I would try [playing the outfield]. I wanted to get out on the field.”
The two stars are certain to spark debates in 2011 as to who the superior first baseman is. Gonzalez (expected to sign an extension to stay in Boston through 2018) and Teixeira (under contract for the Yankees through 2016) will likely serve as the latest subjects of a debate about positional superiority between the Red Sox and Yankees, joining the line of Williams-DiMaggio, Fisk-Munson, Jeter-Nomar, Pedroia-Cano.
But in 2004 and 2005, when Gonzalez and Teixeira were teammates with the Rangers, there was no real debate about who the superior talent was.
In the same year (2001) that Gonzalez was selected out of high school as the No. 1 overall pick of the Marlins, the Rangers grabbed Teixeira with the fifth pick in the draft out of Georgia Tech. Teixeira was regarded by some as the top amateur talent that year, and certainly – as a college product – the most polished one. He received a record-setting deal (a $4.5 million bonus, a four-year, $9.5 million major league contract) from Texas that suggested as much.
Teixeira was drafted as a third baseman, but soon moved across the diamond to first. He hit 26 homers as a big league rookie in 2003, then emerged as one of the top power hitters in the game by his sophomore season, hitting .281 with a .929 OPS, 38 homers and 112 RBI in 2004 and .301 with a .954 OPS, 43 homers and 144 RBI in 2005, a season in which he also won a Gold Glove at first.
Teixeira was already performing at the level of a superstar. Gonzalez, whom the Rangers acquired from the Marlins in a 2003 trade for closer Ugueth Urbina, harbored no illusions of displacing the star first baseman at that time.
He did not begrudge Teixeira his success, nor did he resent the fact that he was blocked. Instead, he tried to pick up as much as he could from his fellow power-hitting first baseman.
“I definitely learned a lot from him,” said Gonzalez. “He was a good teammate and good person to look up to.”
Even so, Gonzalez was ready to establish his own big league credentials. In his first full year in the Rangers organization in 2004, he hit .304 with an .821 OPS, 12 homers and 88 RBI in 123 games in Triple-A. That performance was good enough to merit an end-of-year callup at a time when the Rangers were in a down-to-the-wire three-way race for the AL West with the Angels and A’s.
In 2005, Gonzalez shuttled between the majors and Triple-A. He was an offensive force in the minors, hitting .338 with a .960 OPS and 18 homers in just 84 games, his power having finally returned in full force. He no longer needed minor league seasoning.
He was at a point where his continued development required time in the major leagues. And when there, the approach of the 23-year-old showed a sophistication that made clear that he could be a very good player.
“I just looked at him as a young kid that could take the ball and use all fields and eventually his power was going to develop,” said Sox bench coach DeMarlo Hale, who was the first base coach for the Rangers when Gonzalez was there. “That was just my thought in my head, looking at it. The approach he showed in his head at a young age, that just sticks out.”
As such, Gonzalez played in 43 major league games for the Rangers in 2005. But with Teixeira entrenched at first base, the vast majority (32) came as a designated hitter. Gonzalez, then 23, made just eight starts at his natural position of first base, and also ended up spending plenty of time on the bench.
He was not, however, complacent when not on the field.
“On the bench, he would watch the game and say, ‘Here comes the slider.’ He was a student of the game. He wouldn’t just sit on the bench and pout. He looked at guys he was going to face,” said Hale. “I wish we could have got him in the lineup some way.”
Hale was not alone. Manager Buck Showalter recognized that he had two wildly talented young first basemen, something that was both an opportunity and a challenge.
“They had Teixeira there and there wasn’t any room,” recalled Hale. “I remember Buck was like, ‘How do we get these guys’ bats in the lineup? Both are first basemen who are going to be above average. Who can play the outfield?’”
Gonzalez recognized the dilemma and took initiative. He approached the Rangers and told them that he was willing to work in the outfield in an effort to make himself more versatile.
“We had Teixeira at first base and I wanted to do anything I could to play,” said Gonzalez. “I figured if I could get some at-bats as a first baseman, some as an outfielder, DH against right-handers, I could play more.”
And so, in the final weeks of the 2005 season, Gonzalez worked with Hale (then the Rangers outfield instructor) in right field.
Gonzalez, who frequently jokes about his deficit of speed, lacked range. But his outstanding hands allowed him to catch fly balls if he could get to them. Fundamentally, Hale saw him doing the right things – making decent reads and charging balls properly.
The plan in Sept. 2005 was for Gonzalez to spend the end of the year learning outfield fundamentals from Hale and then to play winter ball in Mexico, splitting time between first base and right field. But in the final week of the season, the Rangers – who were out of contention – decided that it was time to give the experiment a shot.
And so, on Sept. 30, 2005, on a day when Teixeira was hitting third and playing first against John Lackey and the Angels, Gonzalez was inserted into the sixth spot in the lineup as a right fielder for the first and only time in his major league career.
“I got into the clubhouse that day and they said, ‘Do you have an outfield glove?’ I didn’t. They said, ‘We’re going to put you out there, so find one,’” said Gonzalez. “I had to borrow someone else’s.”
The returns were mixed. Gonzalez caught a few fly balls, but could not cleanly field a single and was charged with an error. After the game, he joked with reporters that he started charging the plate from right field when he saw a player squaring to bunt. In the ninth inning, Teixeira was lifted from the game, and Gonzalez replaced him at first base.
That offseason, Gonzalez played for Mazatlan in the Mexican Winter League, continuing his efforts to learn a new position. He wanted to do everything in his power to give the Rangers the option of pairing him and Teixeira in their lineup.
“It was great having him as a teammate at the time,” said Gonzalez. “I always felt that if they wanted to, [the Rangers] could make it work [with having both players].”
But the need to do so proved short-lived. The Rangers were intent on upgrading their pitching staff, and with Gonzalez seemingly blocked at first base, Texas used him as the key chip in a six-player deal with the Padres to acquire starter Adam Eaton.
“I got traded to San Diego, and that was the end of that,” Gonzalez said of his time in the outfield.
The issue of his being blocked by Teixeira was resolved, opening the door for Gonzalez to emerge as an everyday player for his hometown Padres in 2006, when incumbent Ryan Klesko went down in spring training. There, he was once again able to feel at home, back at the position that comes most naturally.
“It wasn’t me. I’m a first baseman,” said Gonzalez. “Other than catcher, first baseman is the player who touches the ball the most in the whole defense. You’re just involved in so many plays. In the outfield you’re just waiting for the ball to be hit to you. It gets a little boring out there.”
There was little reason for boredom for Gonzalez once he began his big league ascent in San Diego. He played 156 games in his first full season in the majors, then took part in at least 160 games in each of the last four seasons.
In the process, he has emerged as one of the top players in the game at that position, a player whose credentials can stand up to those of nearly anyone in the game, whether Albert Pujols or Teixeira.
Indeed, the tale of the tape with the former Rangers teammates promises to be fascinating. Gonzalez, since becoming an everyday player in 2006, has hit .288 with a .374 OBP and .888 OPS while averaging 32 homers and 100 RBI per year in a power-killing ballpark and division. In the same five-year span, Teixeira has hit .288 with a .385 OBP and .919 OPS, averaging 34 homers a year while moving from the Rangers to the Braves to the Angels and finally the Yankees.
Gonzalez is well aware that he has been and will be compared to his former teammate. He will not join that undertaking.
“He’s a switch-hitter and a right-handed fielder, so identifying yourself with him, not that much,” said Gonzalez. “You don’t pay attention to it. That’s [the media’s] job. We’re just trying to do the best that we can.”
Even so, the fact that there are some startling parallels between the two makes it tantalizing to wonder just what might have happened had they remained teammates. But under the circumstances that Texas faced, it was far less difficult to concoct a scenario in which the two would be rivals rather than collaborators.
“We just couldn’t get [Gonzalez’] bat in the lineup,” lamented Hale. “I just wish we were playing with softball rules and could have put him in shallow centerfield.”