KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In May 2016, Carlos Gonzalez had a long chat with Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
At age 40, “Big Papi” was in the final year of his career, and it turned out to be a grand finale. Ortiz hit .315 with 38 home runs and led the American League in RBIs (127).
“When I talked to Ortiz, I was like, ‘Man, one of the things I really want is to be just like you,’ ” Gonzalez recalled. “I want to be 40 years old and still hitting .300 and still having fun. That’s what I want because I love playing this game.”
But right now, in the midst of the most prolonged slump of his career, Gonzalez’s career is in limbo.
The Rockies had serious discussions during spring training with Gonzalez about a multiyear contract extension, but they couldn’t strike a deal. Now, the three-time all-star probably is playing the final few weeks of a nine-year career with Colorado.
The 31-year old right fielder has never hit his stride this season. The timing could not be worse, for the Rockies or for CarGo’s impending free agency.
Gonzalez often has been a streaky hitter, starting slowly then catching steam. But this season the slump lingered even as the Rockies stayed in a strong position for a wild-card playoff berth. Gonzalez entered Friday hitting only .240 with 40 RBIs and just eight home runs.
If there is any doubt in his mind about his talent and his future, he doesn’t show it.
“Of course I’ve had a slow year,” he said. “My numbers aren’t showing up like the CarGo that everybody is used to. But you keep believing in yourself, you keep working and trying to help the team win and get to the playoffs. That would be important to me.
“So I know I can do that. I go in, every single day, thinking today will be the day I’m going to get back on track.”
Free agency on horizon
Gonzalez adamantly denies the idea that the pressure of playing for a new contract as a free agent has negatively affected him.
“A lot of people think that’s why I’m not performing, but that’s not it at all,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s just been a weird year for a lot of players. Look at (Detroit’s) Miguel Cabrera. He’s one of the greatest players, but he’s hitting (.254) without a lot of power (12 homers).
“And the thing is, we really don’t play for (the contract), we play the game because we love the game. I know that if I take care of business and stay healthy, I’m going to have a job and plenty of opportunities to play.”
There have been hints that Gonzalez is starting to heat up. In his last 30 games heading into Friday, he hit .304.
“He just has to get his swing back, because he’s never really found the right swing this year,” said third baseman Nolan Arenado, one of Gonzalez’s closest friends on the team. “Failure can beat you down mentally and he’s trying so hard to help us win. Once he gets that swing back, people are going to remember the old CarGo. Guys like CarGo don’t just become bad hitters, they find it again.”
Whether Gonzalez finds it in time to bolster Colorado’s underachieving offense in September is a big question hanging over the team, but general manager Jeff Bridich thinks Gonzalez still has quality baseball in his future.
“I would hope so,” Bridich said. “He’s still a very good athlete, he still has bat speed, he still works very hard at the craft and he still plays a good right field. Injuries aren’t an issue like they were a few years ago. So I would hope so. I would think so.”
According to a recent report by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, Gonzalez was offered “a lucrative four-year deal” from the Rockies last spring. Both sides deny Gonzalez rejected a four-year deal.
“That’s not true,” Gonzalez said. “They offered me an extension, but it was not a four-year deal. I was looking for something bigger, for more years.”
Bridich declined to discuss specifics of the negotiations, but did say there were “serious conversations” during the spring. “There were some concrete ideas going back and forth,” he said. “But there wasn’t truly any full tread on the tires to get things moving forward.”
Wanting to finish strong
While both Gonzalez and Bridich said there is a chance Gonzalez could return to Colorado after he becomes a free agent, that seems unlikely. For now, the Rockies are hoping his swan song in Rockies purple is meaningful and productive.
“Physically, CarGo is fine, as far as his age, chronologically,” manager Bud Black said. “He’s still running well and he’s able to make plays in the outfield. His knees are sound. And I still see good bat speed.”
But Black also acknowledged that Gonzalez’s swing remains a bit out of whack.
“It’s become a longer path right now, on an already long swing,” Black said. “What I mean is, he’s taking longer to get to the ball than in the past. CarGo is aware of that and he’s trying to work through some mechanical things and it hasn’t quite come together.”
Gonzalez remains one of the most popular players in the Rockies’ clubhouse. It’s difficult for teammates to see him struggle.
“It really disappoints me and makes me upset because I know how much he cares about baseball and about this team,” Arenando said. “I’m looking out for him, because he always looked out for me, especially when I first came into the league. The way he’s treated me is the way I want to treat other people. I’ve learned a lot from CarGo. I love him and he has a good heart. He’s always means well, he makes us laugh and he always brings that smile.”
The likely end of his Rockies career is bittersweet for Gonzalez.
“We were always a rebuilding team (for years),” he said. “Now, we are finally getting close to where we want to be. So I’m really happy that I’m still here. It would be really sweet if I start playing like I know I can and we make the playoffs.”
A comparison of Carlos Gonzalez’s career batting production vs. his 2017 production:
Category 2008-16 *2017
Avg. .291 .240
OBP .347 .308
SLG .521 .360
OPS .861 .669
- Entering Friday