Gonzalez ready for new beginning
Knee surgery behind him, Reds shortstop focused on 2009
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Just shy of one year ago, Reds shortstop Alex Gonzalez's season essentially ended before it could even begin.On Tuesday, he was finally ready to begin again. Gonzalez reported to Spring Training and participated in the first full-squad workout without reservation or hesitation.
"I feel good. I've been doing a lot of stuff," a somewhat trimmer Gonzalez said before the workout. "I didn't stop working all year for nothing."Camp had just gotten under way last spring when Gonzalez had discomfort in his left knee and an MRI later showed a compression fracture. Although the seriousness of the injury was originally downplayed, it was a big one. Gonzalez, 32, wound up playing as many games last season as the average baseball fan -- zero. By July, he needed micro-fracture surgery to repair his knee. "It's pretty hard, but you have to be strong in your mind," Gonzalez said. "I will forget about last year and focus on this year. I will come in healthy and stronger, especially in my mind. You have to be ready for this year." After a lengthy rehab process that took place in three cities and two countries -- Cincinnati, Miami and Venezuela -- Gonzalez was cleared by the medical staff to participate 100 percent with the team at Spring Training. The Reds welcomed the news but realize that the optimism must be at the cautious level until Gonzalez's knee is repeatedly tested during camp drills and then, games, where anything can happen. "He's 100 percent in my mind that day," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Will he be 100 percent five days in a row or eight days in a row? We'll have to test him and monitor him. He'll be champing at the bit. That's my job, our job to really check him out, cover him and observe any changes in his walking, running, gait or anything." There are insurance policies in camp in Jeff Keppinger and infielder/outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr., who was re-signed in the offseason. While the Reds wouldn't lose a step offensively if they had to play shortstop, both lack Gonzalez's range. During the winter, the Reds made a concerted effort to improve defensively up the middle. They signed speedy free-agent center fielder Willy Taveras and traded for catcher Ramon Hernandez. Reigning Gold Glove winner Brandon Phillips is already at second base. But it's Gonzalez that will be a huge factor in keeping balls from trickling through the infield. Considered Gold Glove caliber, few shortstops in baseball have his range and ability. Owner of a .969 career fielding percentage, Gonzalez committed 16 errors over 110 games in 2007 -- up from seven errors in 2006 for the Red Sox. His .862 Revised Zone Rating, the proportion of balls hit into a fielder's zone successfully converted into outs, was third-best among Major League shortstops in 2007. "He gets more balls than anyone in the infield," Baker said. "I was talking to [former Red and Marlin] Jeff Conine at the Winter Meetings and asking about Alex, [second baseman] Luis Castillo and [center fielder] Juan Pierre. He was talking about some of the plays they were making and just shook his head. When your own teammates are amazed about what you do, [that's special] because they see it every day." As he took infield practice, Gonzalez smoothly scooped grounders without showing any signs of trouble. He said he spent part of his winter in Venezuela working out with his winter ball team. "I tried to play, but [the Reds] wouldn't let me play," Gonzalez said. "I was training with the team, taking ground balls, running drills, running the bases." And after one day with the Reds, it's so far, so good. But there's a long way to go, about seven weeks until Opening Day. "He's probably the guy I pray for the most to be healthy," Baker said.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.