Adrian Gonzalez wanted out. That's what he told a few friends in June 2009 as the Padres floundered on and off the field. Gonzalez would continue to give the Padres his best -- and did so for a team that would win 90 games in 2010 -- but he wanted to compete for championships and doubted San Diego would be the place to do it. The prospect of a long-term rebuilding plan turned him off. Petco Park wore on him, too. He doubted that would change, either.
His full frustration never seeped into the mainstream media, but persons close to Gonzalez said the losing and the prospect of low payrolls took their toll. Those persons told me in June 2009 that Gonzalez had decided he would leave San Diego as a free agent after the 2011 season. Unless the club didn't trade him first.
Gonzalez's current employer -- the smart and wealthy Red Sox, for whom he will play tonight against the Padres at Fenway Park -- had done two smart things concerning Gonzalez. They had identified the Padres' first baseman as a player well-suited to their organizational DNA, league, market and ballpark; and they had made their lust for Gonzalez known to Gonzalez and his agent, John Boggs. Understand: No team in baseball is better than the Red Sox at recruiting players on others teams. In some circles, this is known as tampering. But a smart team doesn't need to tamper to recruit players. There are plenty of ways to get the word out indirectly. One's own players. Other agents. Scouts. The media. (A recent example: Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia telling the media last year that Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier, a friend and former Arizona State teammate, someday will reunite with him in Boston. The Sox excel at such seed-planting.)
In June 2009, Gonzalez knew the Red Sox wanted him. He was intrigued with the idea of playing for them. He also chafed at some of the trends in Padresland. In May 2009 when the Padres asked Jake Peavy to accept a trade to the White Sox, Gonzalez told me (on the record) that it signaled to him that the team would ramp up a youth movement. He wasn't necessarily complaining about it as much as stating the obvious, but after those comments saw print, Gonzalez was summoned for a chat with Jeff Moorad, who was two months into his tenure as Vice Chairman and CEO. The two later would have lunch in Orange County, Boggs absent. At that meeting, it became clear -- doubly clear -- that the Padres would be unable to afford Gonzalez long-term. Maybe the Padres could pay him $12 million a year, Moorad said, knowing that Gonzalez would command much more money elsewhere if he could stay healthy.
When the Padres finally did trade Gonzalez last December, Boggs and Gonzalez seemed to have a good idea that the Red Sox would enrich him to forgo his pending free agency. The sides agreed to a seven-year deal for $154 million. In the end, everybody got what they wanted, the Padres included.
Three month ago, the Padres prepared for their first season without Gonzalez since 2005.
"I think it's going to cascade on them," an evaluator with another club said in March.
Cascade? Baseball trainers use that term to describe one injury leading to other injuries, but I'd never heard it used to describe the fallout of a great hitter leaving a lineup. A few days later during the Pink Pony Scouts Chat on the eve of this season, a few scouts used different words to express the same idea. Here's one American League scout speaking at the end of spring training: "I think the Padres are in trouble. I like (Orlando) Hudson and (Jason) Bartlett up the middle. The Padres, I think offensively they're going to really struggle. Without that stud (Adrian Gonzalez) in the middle, it can really wear on everybody else."
To what extent have the Padres missed Gonzalez? That's impossible to know, especially in the "cascade" sense. But my sense is the cascade was Niagara-like. Gonzalez was the one Padres hitter who induced fear in opponents. He also read pitchers stunningly well, a talent that he shared with teammates. "He's incredibly good at hunting for pitches," Jody Gerut once told me. Gonzalez also understood the realities of Petco Park in ways that many of the imported veterans did not understand it this year. Without Gonzalez as ballast, a tough situation became worse, which isn't to say that previous Padres offenses that had Gonzalez avoided Petco swoons.
In the big scheme of things, the Padres' struggles post-Gonzalez aren't a big deal. This is a transition year for the club. Even with Gonzalez, the Padres likely weren't going to win the NL West. My only criticism of the trade, which I wrote in December, was San Diego not getting Jed Lowrie along with the Red Sox prospects it did get.
The Red Sox were right about Gonzalez, and it appears he's a positive cascade to a Sox team that was loaded before he got there. Ten days ago, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe passed along this Gonzo gem from Red Sox slugger David Ortiz:
Ortiz certainly has his swagger back...Ortiz has credited Adrian Gonzalez with getting him back in the right frame of mind -- hitting the other way, being more selective at the plate.
"When you see a guy like Adrian and the way he approaches it and how smart he is, you have to pay attention. I paid more attention to Adrian than I did all those years with Manny (Ramirez),'' Ortiz said.