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Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Tony Gwynn Jr. tries to be everyday guy

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The signing was announced in the middle of baseball's winter meetings, where dozens of signings are announced, reported and quickly forgotten, lost amid stacks of press releases on a small table in a large media workroom. In a week when the game's biggest free-agent dominoes were falling -- Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford were quickly snatched up, and Cliff Lee would soon be as well -- the Los Angeles Dodgers pickup of Tony Gwynn Jr. didn't draw much attention, especially on a day when the team re-signed Vicente Padilla and was closing in on a deal to bring back one of its former catchers, Dioner Navarro.

Tony Gwynn Jr.
"He will play as much as he hits," Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said of Tony Gwynn Jr.

Busy as he was then, though, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti was thinking a lot about where Gwynn might fit into the fabric of a largely rebuilding team. During his five-year career in the majors, Gwynn has been an everyday player only in spurts. Colletti said he didn't know if that would change with the Dodgers, but he wanted it to and didn't hesitate in making sure Gwynn knew that.

"They said they want me to play," Gwynn said. "That has been the attitude I have always carried. When I met with them, I told them that is how it should be. I think it's just a matter of whether I can prove I can play offensively, because the defense has always pretty much been there for me."

It seems a little strange to hear those words from a guy named Tony Gwynn. There is, after all, a family pedigree to live up to. Gwynn's father won a record eight National League batting titles for the San Diego Padres and generally is regarded as one of the game's best pure hitters. Tony Jr. is a speed and defense guy, an athletic player who can go get it in the outfield in a way his father couldn't, but he carries a lifetime batting average of .244.

The old man, he ain't.

"We don't expect him to be his dad," Colletti said. "But he has hit before. He had an off year last year, but he hit .270 the year before that. That could be good enough for us.

"I told him he will play as much as he hits."

The plan now is for Gwynn to share the starts in left field with Jay Gibbons and Marcus Thames, but Colletti and manager Don Mattingly would prefer a consistent presence in the field and in the batting order. That would also give Mattingly the potent, left-right pinch-hitting combination of Gibbons and Thames on the bench almost every night. And there is precedent for believing Gwynn can perform at that level.

Two years ago, Gwynn was stuck in Triple-A Nashville because the Milwaukee Brewers, who drafted him in the second round in 2003, didn't have a spot for him in the majors. But the Padres did, and had something the Brewers needed, so on May 21, 2009, Gwynn was traded to his hometown team, where his dad was part of the broadcast team and where Gwynn could play in front of his parents every night.

And for the rest of that season, play every night he did. Gwynn had a career-high 393 at-bats and scored 59 runs with the Padres that year. He also posted a .350 on-base percentage to go with that .270 average, and it looked as if the Padres had their center fielder for the foreseeable future.

But everything changed for Gwynn in 2010.

After a decent start, he had a miserable May in which he batted .145. He spent most of the rest of the summer trying to rebound, but a broken bone in his right hand landed him on an operating table. By the time he was ready to play in mid-September, the Padres were in hot pursuit of a division title, and they couldn't take any chances on a surgically repaired outfielder who they weren't sure could help the cause. Also by that time, Gwynn's famous father had been diagnosed with cancer of the parotid, something that wouldn't be made public for months but that Gwynn's teammates were aware of.

"It just so happened that two days after I broke my hand, I found out my dad had cancer," Gwynn said. "It's one of those things you think can't happen to you until it happens. ... I was hurting, but it's not something I'm never going to use as an excuse for my performance. It's just a part of life, and this is my job."

Gwynn went hitless in 11 at-bats the rest of the way. The division title never came, and the Padres non-tendered him after the season. His father appears to be doing well in his battle and has returned on a limited basis to his job as the baseball coach at San Diego State University.

The Dodgers signed Gwynn for $650,000, a bargain compared to what the Padres probably would have paid him if they had gone to arbitration. Gwynn's hand is healthy now, and he worked this winter to regain his batting stroke, sorting out his mechanical issues and his approach with hitting coach Jeff Pentland.

Gwynn's skill set means his success is measured more by his on-base percentage than his slugging percentage or perhaps evens his batting average. Even in a bad year, he doesn't strike out a lot, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio last year was a superb 1.2:1.

Put in the parlance of the sandlot, hitters such as Gwynn have to take the "walk-is-as-good-as-a-hit" approach. But Pentland cautioned that going to the plate looking for a walk isn't nearly as good as digging into the box thinking about getting a hit. "He can't be defensive at the plate," Pentland said. "That is one of the things we really talked about. His approach at the plate, he has to be on the attack because he is an on-base guy. He has to be offense-minded and be on the attack. If they make a mistake, he has to take advantage of it. But if they don't make a mistake, he can't be caught flat-footed."

Gwynn also will have to adjust to his new surroundings. Dodger Stadium is a pitcher's ballpark, but not for the same reasons that Petco Park is. In San Diego, if Gwynn could get a ball into one of those spacious gaps in left or right center or over the center fielder's head, he could run all night. The outfield in Los Angeles is smaller and more symmetrical, but Gwynn still has enough speed to leg out a triple if he can get a ball to the spot it rolls to the wall.

On the nights Gwynn starts, whether it's three or six times a week, he'll probably hit eighth. With the pitcher coming up behind him, it becomes imperative that he get on base a lot and create bunt situations.

"Obviously, Tony is a work in progress," Pentland said. "He is going to hit some doubles and triples. Really, I don't care if he ever hits the ball over the fence."

Where Gwynn fits with his new team will be determined in spring training, although Colletti said if Gwynn doesn't hit his way into an everyday role before Opening Day, he still could do it afterward. Colletti has said he likes the thought of Gwynn's speed in center field, but Mattingly prefers not to move Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier from their normal spots, so Gwynn probably will play left if he plays regularly.

In the next few weeks, that muddled picture should begin to clear up. What it will look like depends largely on Gwynn. The Dodgers aren't looking for him to win any batting titles, much less eight of them. But they do need him to conquer whatever it was -- his mechanics, his approach, whatever -- that was holding him back last year.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.