- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Dave Finley pulled out the 10-year-old scouting report, the one he had filed on a Mexican-American kid who grew up only a few exits down the freeway from San Diego, just a few miles short of Tijuana and the U.S. border.
A report any scout would be proud to save.
Adrian Gonzalez was a first baseman, and in the history of baseball's amateur draft, only one first baseman had been taken No. 1 overall. That was Ron Blomberg, who was remembered more for being baseball's first designated hitter than for the modest career numbers he put up in eight seasons with the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox.
The Florida Marlins had the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft, by virtue of losing 98 games the year before, their first season under a new owner, John W. Henry.
"When you have the first pick," Finley said, "you don't screw it up."
Finley was the Marlins' area scout in Southern California and Arizona. He saw many of the players at the top of other teams' lists. But the player he pitched to his boss, Marlins scouting director Al Avila, was a slick-fielding high school senior from Chula Vista who idolized Tony Gwynn, down to wearing his No. 19 and swinging the bat the same way, a fluid, rhythmic left-handed stroke that tattooed pitches to left and left-center.
Every time Avila or one of the team's scouting supervisors or cross-checkers went to see Gonzalez play, Finley worked him out after the game, pitching batting practice to him. He looked at the kid's father, David, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound physical specimen who had starred for the Mexican national team and had big, strong hands, and saw a young man who would fill out like his father.
"My bottom line," Finley said, "was that he's a .300, 30-homer, 100-RBI guy. I gave him a 70 for power [on a 20-80 scale, 80 being the best]. I know I compared him to Rafael Palmeiro, which may have been a stretch since Palmeiro hit 500 home runs and had 3,000 hits, but I knew he had more power than, say, Mark Grace."
The Marlins, who knew the history, swallowed hard and drafted Gonzalez, then were outraged when they were accused of taking Gonzalez for signability reasons, that he had come on the cheap.
"I told him, 'Hey, you're our No. 1 choice,"' Finley said. "But that signability talk was a slap in the face to Adrian, and I don't think he's ever forgotten it."
Gonzalez was the last player Finley would personally sign and has more than lived up to the scout's projections: a .304 average in 2006, an average of 106 RBIs in each of the past three seasons and a home run total that has increased every year, from 24 in '06 to 40 last season.
A decade later, Gonzalez is back in San Diego, this time as a big league star and a hometown favorite. Finley is with the Red Sox, promoted in January to special assistant to general manager Theo Epstein, who didn't want to see Finley follow his former assistant and new Padres GM Jed Hoyer to San Diego.
And Finley is working for the same owner, Henry, who once was willing to spend millions on Gonzalez and would be eager to do so again.
The Red Sox pushed hard before the trading deadline in July to acquire Gonzalez, right to the final day, but every time they thought they were close to a deal, former Padres GM Kevin Towers asked for more. The Sox, finally deciding Towers wasn't ready to part with Gonzalez, turned to Cleveland and traded for switch-hitting Victor Martinez instead.
The Sox made inquiries again this winter, this time to Hoyer, who last summer was on the same side of the negotiating table, trying to persuade the Padres to part with Gonzalez. With Gonzalez signed for relatively little money through 2011 and the one player worthy of marquee status after the Padres traded pitching mainstay Jake Peavy to the White Sox, San Diego insists it's in no hurry to peddle him.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see him here two more seasons," Padres CEO Jeff Moorad told the San Diego Union-Tribune last week. "We're first and foremost committed to winning here. Last year I thought we took the first significant step in that process. And, at this point, Adrian definitely is a part of that process."
Finley, born and raised in San Diego and a lifelong Padres fan, understands more than most the elements of Gonzalez's appeal there: bilingual, outgoing, real star appeal on a team lacking any.
"He's a perfect fit in San Diego, except for the fact they're not winning," Finley said.
There's the rub, and the reason the Red Sox, who see Gonzalez as the ideal, middle-of-the-order hitter to succeed David Ortiz, will make a concerted effort to acquire Gonzalez again between now and the July trading deadline. The Padres aren't presently constructed to win. Gonzalez could bring multiple pieces in a deal. Hoyer and his top aide, Jason McLeod, the former Sox scouting director, know the Red Sox system better than any other management team.
The asking price will be high. The Padres almost certainly would have asked for Ryan Westmoreland before Boston's top prospect needed brain surgery, and they undoubtedly will have Casey Kelly on their wish list. There will be other teams putting together their own packages of prospects to entice Hoyer. There might never be a better time for Hoyer to maximize his return.
But if the Padres don't trade him, he could become a free agent after the 2011 season. Would Gonzalez willingly leave?
It has been a decade since Finley signed Gonzalez, but the two have stayed in touch. "He's just a great, great kid," Finley says. "Good upper-middle class family, married his high school sweetheart. One Father's Day, he played a doubleheader in Chicago, and he called to wish me a happy Father's Day from the team bus. He's called my wife on Mother's Day.
"I don't want to speak for him, but there are two things Adrian Gonzalez wants. No.1, Adrian wants to win. No. 2, he wants to be great, he wants to be a Hall of Famer. And he knows that to be a Hall of Famer, he needs to win. He'll take winning over numbers every single time; he hates losing."
Fenway Park's Green Monster was built for a hitter with Gonzalez's opposite-field swing. And he's plenty strong enough to reach the right-field bullpens with regularity. The Sox missed out on Mark Teixeira, who spurned their offer for a bigger one from the New York Yankees. It's rare to have a chance at a similar prize. The pressure will be on not to miss again. The Sox don't need another scouting report to know what's at stake.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
2dESPN Stats & Information