Gwynn eyeing major role with Phillies

Posted: March 18, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - On Aug. 5, 2012, Tony Gwynn appeared in a big-league game for the 605th time. More than 3 years had passed since the Padres had promoted him to the majors and made him their everyday centerfielder.

He still had another year remaining on the 2-year, $2 million contract extension that he had signed with the Dodgers in December 2011. So when the Dodgers designated him for assignment the following day, he had little sense that it would turn into the potential end of his major league career. Maybe the club would work out a deal with any of a number of teams that could find some use for a solid defensive centerfielder with top-of-the-order speed. Or, perhaps, one of those teams would claim him on waivers. Even if he was forced to accept a minor league assignment, it surely wouldn't be long before he was back in the bigs.

"You'd like to think that if you go down there and take care of business," Gywnn said, "then things will work out."

A year-and-a-half later, he is still waiting to appear in major league game No. 606.

"Things took a different turn," the speedy outfielder said.

The path that led Gwynn to the Phillies clubhouse, where he has positioned himself as a strong contender for the Opening Day roster, was blazed by a variety of circumstances. Accepting his assignment to the minors meant that he would still make the $1.15 million guaranteed to him the following season, but it also meant forgoing the opportunity to become a free agent, where he might have been able to land a big-league gig, albeit at a lower salary.

Three weeks after Gwynn joined the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Dodgers made their big trade with the Red Sox, which added Carl Crawford to an outfield that already included Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Meanwhile, a newly signed Cuban outfielder named Yasiel Puig was beginning what would prove to be a fast rise through the system.

Gwynn finished out 2012 in the minors and reported to Dodgers spring training in 2013 as a non-roster invitee hoping to make the best out of a numbers game that appeared to be stacked against him. By the middle of March, it was clear he would not make the club and he was sent to minor league camp. After hitting just .224 with a .255 on-base percentage in his first 15 games of the season at Albuquerque, Gwynn flew home to San Diego for a day to work with his Hall of Fame father.

"We worked for like 2 hours, and from that point on, I kind of just took off," Gwynn said.

By the last week in June, Gwynn was hitting .323 with a .402 on-base percentage in 259 plate appearances. He suffered a toe injury that sidelined him for 2 weeks, but continued to hit after his return. During the run up to the trade deadline, Gwynn heard his name connected to the Phillies. By the end of August, he was still in Albuquerque.

Gwynn, who finished the Triple A season with a .300 batting average and .393 OBP, hoped the resurgent Dodgers would call him up in September after rosters expanded so that he could be part of the pennant chase. But the team opted against dedicating a 40-man roster spot to him. From that point on, Gwynn couldn't bear to watch as his former teammates advanced to within two games of the World Series, losing in Game 6 of the NLCS to the Cardinals.

"I have a lot of good buddies over there, so it was tough not to watch at times, but it wasn't ideal for me to be watching them play," Gwynn said. "You spend 2 years and a half with those guys on the big-league team and then a year and 2 months in the minor leagues, it's a bitter taste in your mouth. I pride myself on not being that kind of guy, but I'm human."

Gwynn signed a minor league contract with the Phillies in the offseason, viewing their needs for centerfield depth and a lefthanded bat off the bench as opportunities for a return to the majors. Performances like yesterday, when he went 2-for-4 and stole a base in a 5-0 exhibition loss to the Pirates, are helping his cause. In 13 games, he is 6-for-22 with five walks and two steals.

Gwynn still might be on the wrong side of the numbers, but manager Ryne Sandberg gave him a strong review yesterday.

"What he brings to the table is showing in games," Sandberg said. "His ability to steal a base in a moment, his ability to hit the ball and play defense, cover ground - that's all playing. It shows just about every day."

The Phillies have outfielder John Mayberry Jr., infielder Kevin Frandsen and veteran lefthanded bat Bobby Abreu competing for three vacancies on the bench, although Sandberg said the Phillies could carry a sixth bench player for the first couple weeks of the season until they need a fifth starter. Mayberry and Frandsen are signed to guaranteed contracts. Abreu has looked capable at the plate thus far, with three extra-base hits and seven walks in 35 plate appearances, but Sandberg said the team wants to get more looks at him in the outfield. If Abreu does not make the team, it would open up an obvious spot for Gwynn, although the final decision could also come down to Gwynn vs. Mayberry as the primary backup in centerfield.

"I like what he's doing," Sandberg said of Gwynn. "If you're talking about a late-inning defensive guy, if you're talking about a big bunt late in the game, if you're talking about pinch-running, steal a base - all those things add up. He definitely can play centerfield. All those things add up. He's fighting for a job."


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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