With the Twins and Brewers playing baseball against each other this week, it means that Carlos Gomez is reunited with his former team. Since Gomez was traded, the first baseman and the other guy are no longer with the team. The player the Twins traded Gomez for is long gone. The Twins have gone through three starting center fielders and countless fill-ins at the position. All of this hurts enough on its own, but when you also consider that Gomez has rounded into one of the best players in the Majors, it hurts even more.
I see many Twins fans who harp on the Twins for giving up on Gomez too quickly. I see their point, but I'm not sure of the validity. When Gomez was traded, he had just finished his second year with the Twins and he sported a career batting line of .246/.292/.346 with over 1100 plate appearances under his belt. Sure, he was just a couple months shy of 24 and likely to improve, but by how much? Gomez had struck out 241 times and walked just 55 times. He often looked out of control at times and I know that I wondered if he'd ever be able to harness his obvious talents.
During the 2009 season, Gomez had lost his starting job to the much more consistent Denard Span. The Twins also had Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer on the corners, so there was no place to put Span if Gomez was in center. While Young hadn't been great in 2009, he had at least been an above-average hitter earlier in his career. Cuddyer had just posted a 125 OPS+ in 2009. Jason Kubel was still around, coming off of a 137 OPS+ season. There was no place for Gomez, a guy who couldn't manage an OPS+ greater than 77 in his two seasons in Minnesota.
The Twins had a huge hole at shortstop. They had been filling the position with decent players over the years, but never got more than a year or so out of those decent players. With an outfield surplus, why not trade someone to fill a position of need? When the Twins decided to move Gomez for J.J. Hardy, they did just that. Hardy was coming off a tough year, but had been great in the recent past. The trade made sense. Hardy wasn't great in 2010, but he wasn't bad either. Then, he was traded. We'll come back to that later.
Fast forward to 2013 and of course, Carlos Gomez is a superstar. He posted an 8.9 rWAR season in 2013 and he's picked up right where he left off in 2014. Super cool, Go-Go. I mean, I am happy for him. He was an exciting player, even when he was a frustrating player. He seemed to have real joy for baseball and life, which I always enjoy. Plus, he's fiery, which often results in confusing, but interesting events. I wish he was a superstar in Minnesota, but that's not how it worked out.
2013 was Gomez's sixth full season (his 2007 season at age 21 did not pass the rookie threshold). He hit .284/.338/.506, good for a 129 OPS+. He finished ninth in NL MVP voting and probably should have finished higher. Gomez actually started his breakout in the second half of the 2012 season. He hit .278/.321/.488, good for an OPS+ of 121. His power had started to come around and his OBP was getting to an acceptable rate. That said, on July 22, 2012, he was hitting .233/.284/.406. This would have been late July of his fifth season with the Twins, had they not traded him. Should the Twins have held on that long?
Milwaukee wasn't even that enamored with Gomez. They only gave him 576 plate appearances between 2010 and 2011. He "rewarded" that lack of faith by hitting .238/.288/.377 over those two seasons. When Gomez started to break out in 2012, there was simply no way the Brewers or Twins or anyone could have predicted it. Something clicked and now Gomez is a star. Can you really blame the Twins for giving up on him? Should they have held on to him for four and a half seasons, feeding him plate appearances that he didn't earn while better players were on the bench?
The research would say that the Twins were right (with the benefit of some hindsight) to give up on Gomez. Gomez posted his first above-average OPS+ in 2012, his fifth full season and even then, it was just a 101 OPS+. I looked at every player since 1994 that enjoyed a breakout in their fifth full season (first OPS+ greater than 100) and the list is pretty small. I found 14 total players and only six had their breakout season with their original team. Here's that six:
- Mike Lansing - 1997 - Montreal Expos
- Mike Lieberthal - 1999 - Philadelphia Phillies
- Luis Castillo - 2000 - Florida Marlins
- Randy Winn - 2002 - Tampa Bay Devil Rays
- Brian Roberts - 2005 - Baltimore Orioles
- Everth Cabrera - 2013 - San Diego Padres
That's it. Six guys. One happened after Gomez's breakout, so really just five cases for Twins fans to look at. While the Twins didn't trade Gomez after five seasons, it seems pretty unlikely that they would have kept him much longer than they did. 8 more players did the very same, but like Gomez, their original team had given up on them (this list includes Jason Bartlett, oddly enough). When you look at that list, there are some nice players, but no superstars. Gomez's success is surprising and almost unprecedented.
This is the big issue - the fact that Gomez wasn't given time to develop. We can rehash the details quickly - Gomez was the jewel of the Johan Santana trade, the Twins wanted something tangible to point toward, Gomez was kept in the Majors even though he needed more time in the Minors. In fact, had Gomez been sent to AAA in 2008, he would have been about 5 years younger than the average International League player. Even if he had spent all of 2008 with Rochester, he would have been ready for MLB duty as a 23-year-old in 2009.
Plenty of players hit their peaks at age 26, just like Gomez did, but very few of those players showed almost no MLB success and maintained a consistent MLB roster spot. Obviously, Gomez's awesome defense and blazing speed was valuable enough for teams to somewhat stunt his growth as a hitter. Gomez's biggest obstacle could have actually been his immense talent, as both the Twins and Brewers thought enough of Gomez's talents to keep him around even if he wasn't a fully-formed player.
One last thing. What if Hardy was still around? Is the Gomez trade more upsetting because of a concurrent move? I believe so. I think that if Hardy was still on the Twins and filling a need at short, we wouldn't be as upset about the Gomez trade. Hardy was the better player from 2010-2012, 8.7 rWAR to 5.1 rWAR. I think it's safe to say that Gomez will be the better player from 2013 on, but if the Twins had simply kept Hardy after the 2010 season, it would be a lot easier to handle the discrepancy with some good Hardy seasons already in hand. Should the Hardy trade be linked with the Gomez trade? Probably not, but it's very hard to separate them.
Despite the lack of success for the Twins over the last three years, despite the success Gomez has had since his departure, despite the current lack of a quality center fielder, I still feel it is time for us as Twins fans to let go. Gomez is a star, but he's gone. We can continue to harp on the fact that he was traded before he fully actualized, but what good does that do? If you look at the evidence, there was no reason to think that Gomez would become the player he has become. All you can do is tip your cap to the man and either cheer for or secretly despise his success. No matter what, he isn't coming back.