Juan Gonzalez: From Sleeper to Top Prospect

Few even knew who this Juan Gonzalez was when the Mariners acquired him along with Ramon Santiago from Detroit in the Carlos Guillen deal over the winter. But he's quickly become one of the top hitters in the farm system. Growing up in Venezuela, Gonzalez tells InsidethePark's Jonathan Bianchet that he strives to become the next Omar Vizquel. Find out more on this up-and-coming 22-year old in this InsidethePark exclusive.

It isn't a new discovery that baseball has been flourishing in foreign countries, especially in Central and South America. In fact, many of the Major League's best players are products of these countries, and Venezuela is no exception.

Some of Venezuela's best in today's game include Freddy Garcia, Edgardo Alfonzo, Carlos Zambrano and World Series heroes Francisco Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera.

Omar Vizquel, one of baseball's finest shortstops over the past decade, is also a product of the South American country. Vizquel, a former Seattle Mariner who is best remember for his barehanded stop-and-throw to preserve Chris Bosio's no-hitter in 1993, now has an admirer in the Mariner's minor league system in shortstop Juan Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, from Valencia Venezuela, came over in the offseason along with Ramon Santiago in the Carlos Guillen trade with Detroit. He is a smooth fielding shortstop that has been the most consistent 66er hitter on the team this year. Just like Vizquel, Gonzalez switch-hits, slapping the ball to all fields.

But while Gonzalez has been the most pleasant surprise thus far on the 66ers, his goal remains becoming the next Vizquel, who he admired growing up.

"I want to be like him defensively and offensively," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez grew up playing baseball in Venezuela and signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1999 when he was only 16 years old.

"I played everyday in the streets with my friends," said Gonzalez, thinking about the popularity of the sport in his native country. "Nobody plays basketball, and nobody really likes soccer."

After playing two years in the Venezuelan leagues, Gonzalez then moved to the United States in 2001 and played in rookie ball at the age of 19. Along with the move came a culture change, and a language barrier with his new teammates.

"It was hard during my first year in the U.S.," said Gonzalez reflecting back on the challenges. "I didn't know anything here and had to learn the language by myself."

For the next two years, Gonzo played in Single-A at West Michigan for the Tigers organization, struggling to adapt to his new surroundings. Still, he managed a fair batting average near .250 for those two years and thanks to his speed, he was able steal over 20 bases in each of the two years.

The trade to Seattle this offseason didn't make things easier for the 22-year-old, but it may have been good for his career.

"It was difficult because I didn't know anyone from the new team," said the shortstop. "I didn't know the coach and the coach didn't know me, but they have been very good at making the transition easier."

Easy is the word to describe the way Gonzalez plays the game. He is a smooth in everything he does, both out in the field and at the plate. Gonzo has no holes in his game.

A more traditional shortstop at 6-foot, 165 pounds, Gonzalez doesn't hit for much power, but through the month of May he is hitting a team-leading .330, good for third best in the California League, with 64 hits, fifth best in the league. And already with 12 stolen bases under his belt, he is on pace to reach 20 for the fourth-straight season.

When runners are in scoring position, he is batting a team-best .386. And as the lead-off man he has been getting on base, setting the table for the heart of the order. His statistics show how well he's done - he has scored 35 runs, second on the team, and is on pace for nearly 100 on the year.

Gonzalez attributes his offensive surge to not getting into the same rut every at bat.

"To me it's a lot of thinking, and adjusting to what the pitchers are doing to me each night," he said.

Interestingly, when comparing the numbers of the Santiago and Gonzalez, who were involved in the trade for Guillen last January, Gonzalez may have been the reason first year Seattle Mariner General Manager Bill Bavasi made the trade. As Gonzo has been tearing the cover off the ball in San Bernardino, Santiago has been struggling mightily in Triple-A Tacoma at the plate. Santiago is batting .171 in 34 games for the Rainiers, showing terrific range and reliability at shortstop but very little offensive production.

The acquisition of Gonzalez may be little known at the time, but it could end up being one of the biggest moves in an organization most known for its wealth of pitching.

If Gonzalez continues his success, he might one day remind many faithful Mariner fans of Vizquel, a defensive-minded shortstop that slapped the ball from both sides of the plate while wearing a Mariner uniform.

Through two months, he's on the right track.

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