If you’d done nothing in 2012 but read the local papers, you might think that Adrian Gonzalez was among the biggest busts of modern times. Coming off a stellar 2011 Boston debut, his production was down, his Red Sox team was a circus – which he was not immune from after being reportedly caught up in the “text message to Boston ownership” controversy – and he didn’t even end the year with the team. In one of the most shocking trades in baseball history, he was shipped to Los Angeles just a year-and-a-half after the Red Sox gave up Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly, & Reymond Fuentes to acquire him and invested seven years & $154 million into retaining him.
While that reaction and Gonzalez’ culpability in the flaming collapse of the 2012 Red Sox are perhaps slightly overblown, it clearly wasn’t the year anyone expected. Gonzalez set full-season career lows in OBP, SLG, wOBA, & wRC+, managing to avoid bottoming out in WAR only because his fielding was so highly graded as compared to his early years in San Diego. Considering that Gonzalez was around the 11th overall pick on average in ESPN leagues headed into the season, the fact that he ended up only 10th just among first basemen in Zach Sanders’ end-of-year rankings has to be considered a huge disappointment.
Looking at the peripherals, there’s a few items which stand out immediately. Gonzalez’ BB% has declined precipitously from a high of 17.5% in 2009 to 13.4% in 2010, 10.3% last year, and all the way down to 6.1% this year. His ISO of .164 was far off his career norms as well, so what you ended up with was a player who wasn’t getting on base like he used to and had a notable drop in power to go along with it. While Gonzalez did set a career high in doubles with 47 (second behind only Albert Pujols in MLB), that’s not necessarily a good thing; in the past, some of those doubles would have been home runs.
So is there still hope here? Of course. It just depends on your expectations. If you’re a Dodger fan, the comparison is easy, because all you have to do is look at the very end of Sanders’ list to see James Loney, cold and alone at #52 having earned -$12 this year. If you’re an NL-only leaguer, suddenly you have a new talent in what’s become a surprisingly shallow pool, especially with Pujols & Prince Fielder gone to the AL, Joey Votto & Ryan Howard plagued by injuries, and Adam LaRoche free to leave Washington this winter.
In standard leagues? Well, I think it’s safe to say that Gonzalez isn’t going to be a top-11 overall pick in 2013, but that’s almost a good thing in that it allows him the opportunity to provide value from a lower price point. For all of the negatives we just listed about Gonzalez’ 2012, what’s important to remember is that even if it was underwhelming for him, that’s not the same thing as being flat-out bad. This isn’t Adam Dunn in 2011 or Jason Bay in 2010, players with track records who suddenly had atrocious seasons. Gonzalez’.346 wOBA was still tied with Dunn, Mark Trumbo, & Curtis Granderson, and that’s not awful company to be in.
So if that’s what Gonzalez is now, that’s a useable second-tier first baseman with a non-zero chance of reclaiming his former greatness; after all, he’s only going to be 31 next year. Honestly, I’m not sure we can ever know how Gonzalez was truly affected by the absolute madness of this season. Not only were there the obvious issues emanating from the Bobby Valentine era in Boston, there was also a three-week stretch in mid-season where Gonzalez was shuttled out to right field to make room for Kevin Youkilis & Will Middlebrooks, then the trade that sent him cross-country to be the focus of a fanbase shocked at the hundreds of millions their formerly-broke team had just taken on.
Gonzalez struggled upon first reaching Los Angeles, of course. Though he homered in his first at-bat with the team, he was at .233/.287/.372 in his first 21 games as a Dodger after an 0-5 against St. Louis on September 16. That would be his final hitless game of the season, however, as he ended the year on a 15-game hitting streak and produced at .330/.372/.491 from September 2 until the end of the season.
For his part, Gonzalez admitted to never feeling comfortable with his swing in a post-season interview with Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, saying that he was “trying too hard” and that he viewed Los Angeles as “the perfect situation” for him. In the middle of a lineup that could potentially be very dangerous if Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, & Hanley Ramirez are all healthy and productive at the same time, Gonzalez still has time to put his “off-year” behind him and turn it around in 2013. Either way, he’s sure to come at a much more reasonable price than he did in 2012.