Shaping the Rangers #4: Juan Gonzalez

Lone Star Dugout continues looking back at the 25 biggest moves in Texas Rangers history. This time, its a look back at the career of Juan Gonzalez and his 1999 trade to the Detroit Tigers.

November 2, 1999: The Rangers trade Juan Gonzalez, Danny Patterson, and Gregg Zaun to the Detroit Tigers for Frank Catalanotto, Francisco Cordero, Bill Haselman, Gabe Kapler, Justin Thompson, and minor leaguer Alan Webb.

Over his first tenure with the Texas Rangers, Juan Gonzalez became one of the most prolific RBI men in the history of baseball. The outfielder was a full-time player by the age of 21 and a two-time MVP before reaching the age of 30. His explanation for it all?

As he once said, "I concentrate more when I see men on base."

But following a first-round exit from the playoffs for the third time in four years, the conclusion of the 1999 season brought about a swift and significant change in the infrastructure of the Rangers with Gonzalez leading the way.

It all got started in 1986, when the 16 year old outfielder inked his first professional contract with the Rangers. Only three years later, he was already turning heads. In 1989, Gonzalez posted his best season as a minor leaguer hitting .293 with 21 home runs for Double-A Tulsa and led the Texas League with 254 total bases.

He also out-homered fellow outfielder Sammy Sosa by 14.

That season brought about his first taste of the major leagues, appearing in 24 games with the Rangers. But although the club gladly gave Gonzalez two late season call-ups in 1989 and 1990, his power that was on display in the minor leagues was noticeably absent as the slugger connected for only five homers and 19 runs batted in over 150 at-bats.

His hard work in the minors was rewarded with regular job with the big league club in 1991, naming him the centerfielder on a Rangers team that displayed plenty of hitting prowess and led the league in runs scored but lacked any sort of killer instinct at the plate. Although he made the most of his increase in playing time, cranking out 27 homeruns and driving in 104 runs, Gonzalez also led the team by fanning 118 times at the plate.

As annoying as it was, that trend was one that would stick with Gonzalez throughout the duration of his time in Texas with the worst of it coming in just his second full season as a Ranger. In 1992, Gonzalez broke the 40-homerun plateau for the first time in the career, leading the AL in homers and overcoming a horrendous 143-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

No doubt, he was a free-swinger. But he was also about to embark on a destructive path pitchers in the American League wouldn't soon forget.

In 1993, Gonzalez once again led the league in homeruns with 46 and reached his first All-Star Game in the process. But his numbers swooned over the next two years, possibly attributed to some serious family issues off the field.

After signing a seven year, $45.45 million contract in 1994, Gonzalez's batting average plummeted from .310 the year before all the way down to .275. And though he hit 27 home runs in 1995, Gonzalez had two lengthy stays on the disabled list and played in pain from the day he felt a twinge in his lower back before a spring training game. At one point in the season, it became the pain became so bad for Gonzalez that former outfield coach Ed Napoleon refused to hit fly balls to him during batting practice out of fear of furthering injuring the back of the Rangers' star player.

On the bright side, in just 90 games he still managed to belt a bunch of home runs and collected 82 runs batted in. But then came the 1996 season and the start of remarkable four year stretch of ball by Gonzalez. That year, a leaner and more flexible Gonzalez reminded the baseball world of his impressive clout.

While a torn quadriceps muscle landed him on the disabled list for a couple weeks in May, Gonzalez still racked up an amazing 144 RBI in just 134 games en route to winning his first American League MVP award. He also single-handedly attempted to lead the Rangers past the Yankees in their first post-season appearance by hitting five homers and batting well over .400 in the series. Of course, he was still prone to chasing a pitch low and away, but God help the pitcher who grew complacent and tried to get one past Gonzalez up and in.

The following year brought another injury snafu with it, this time in the form of torn ligaments in his left thumb. But Gonzalez would return after a 24 game absence to pile up 42 homers and 133 runs batted in over 133 ballgames. His efforts, though, still weren't enough to save a Rangers' team with no pitching as the club sunk to third in the West following their first playoff appearance in club history.

The 1998 season brought about an offensive eruption 63 years in the making. In a year that was largely overshadowed by the homerun chase of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, Gonzalez posted huge RBI totals through the first two months of the season and eclipsed the 100-RBI mark on July 5th, becoming the first player to accomplish the feat since Hank Greenberg did so in 1935.

It was a mythical season for Rangers fans, and sadly one that ended in another first round playoff exit against at the hands of the New York Yankees. But the road Gonzalez would soon be filled with an unfortunate amount of odd twists and turns from that point on.

Gonzalez was on his way to a fourth straight season in 1999 with an average over .300 and 100 runs driven in. But preoccupied with marital difficulties and his daughter's recurrent ear infections, which were bad enough to require surgery after the season, Gonzalez turned into an exceptionally moody individual. Later that season, he made headlines when he refused to participate in the All-Star Game unless he was voted in as a starter. He wasn't, and AL skipper Joe Torre dropped him from the team. Two weeks later, he dropped out of the exhibition Hall of Fame Game, complaining that his uniform pants were too big.

It was a confusing mood swing in the demeanor of Gonzalez, and may have played a role in his subsequent trade following the Rangers' most recent playoff dismissal at the hands of the Yankees.

Over the off-season, Gonzalez would be heading to Detroit with company: Danny Patterson, who was a reasonably effective reliever out of the Texas bullpen for four years, and backup catcher Gregg Zaun, who never played a game with the Tigers and was shipped on to Kansas City for future considerations.

The Rangers, on the other hand, may not have achieved the results they'd hoped for after pulling the trigger on such a massive deal, but they clearly got the best of the deal.

They received Francisco Cordero, who struggled out of the gate upon joining the Rangers, but developed into one of baseball's elite closers in 2004 saving a franchise record 49 games.

Joining him would beFrank Catalanotto, achieving what remains his career year in 2001 before a debate arose on where his home would be in the field following the acquisition of Michael Young a year later. The Rangers and Cat parted ways in 2003 non-tendering him rather than risking an arbitration-induced raise.

Joining them was Gabe Kapler, who showed plenty of upside but suffered through some painful slumps and not-so-stellar defensive play in the outfield. The Rangers awarded him a new contract in 2002, but Kapler failed to produce the numbers the club had hoped for, and he was shipped away to the Colorado Rockies following the end of the season.

Also thrown into the deal were Bill Haselman, minor leaguer Alan Webb, and oft-injured Justin Thompson who proved to be the only total loss in the trade.

As for Gonzalez, he began his career in Detroit on the wrong foot (literally), and spent the first month of the season hobbled by foot pain and handcuffed by the spacious dimensions of the club's brand new home in Comerica Park. By mid-season he had announced that the Tigers would have to bring the fences in if they wanted to re-sign him as a free agent.

Cleveland was Gonzalez's next stop in 2002 where the slugger blossomed, but a year later found him right back where he started his baseball career – in Arlington. Needless to say the results just weren't the same. Injuries severely hampered his two years back in Texas and the Rangers, muddied in last place in their division, cut their losses.

Even after a superb playoff series against the Yankees in 1996, Gonzalez could never fully wash the belief that he was a spiritless ballplayer who would rack up big numbers but never dirty his uniform in search of championships. His well-publicized series of marriages and divorces underscored fan disapproval, which became general during his second Texas stint, which was spent mainly on the trainer's table.

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