Carlos Gomez has to be one of the more fortunate young players in baseball. Despite a steady flow of suckitude over the past three years, the 25-year-old is in line to be Milwaukee's primary center fielder in 2011. It's not the first time he's stumbled into a job he's not equipped for. Most guys don't land an everyday job on a good team with decent-but-not-great numbers in Triple-A and horrid MLB performance, but that's pretty much how Gomez ended up as Minnesota's regular center fielder in 2008. Well, that, and the fact that the Twins wanted to show that they got something in return for Johan Santana (they didn't).
He proved to be an elite defensive center fielder, but also a miserable batter with little chance of improving. His numbers actually got worse in 2009 with the Twins, but apparently the Brewers saw that performance and thought, "Hey, maybe his bat won't suck as much with us." They traded J.J. Hardy straight up for Gomez, essentially handing the speedy outfielder their center field job. And, well, they weren't exactly right about his bat, per se.
He continued to be a threat in the field and on the bases, but with a sub-.300 OBP and little-to-no power, his production was more befitting of a Quad-A all-glove type than a former top prospect trying to establish himself. So when Lorenzo Cain emerged as a massive upgrade on Gomez last season, most people thought that the Brewers finally had a long-term solution in center field. And well, they kind of did... until the Brewers traded Cain to improve their starting rotation. And now Gomez is right back at the front of the line, expected to be a key contributor on a team with playoff aspirations.
And frankly, I'm not optimistic that Gomez will last all year, let alone through June or July. He does provide great defensive value (+14.3 UZR/150, career), and that's a big factor when you have Ryan Braun and Corey Hart covering the corners, but it's hard to see him hitting enough to warrant 500-600 plate appearances. ZiPS projects Gomez to show some slight offensive improvement next season, pushing his line up to .249/.305/.360, which is tolerable for someone with his defensive skills but doesn't make him more than a fringe starter. For me, the key factor going forward is going to be sustaining his substantial decrease in infield flies from last season. After moving from the AL to the NL, Gomez saw his infield fly rate drop from the 15-16% rate all the way down to 8.6%; if he can maintain that decrease, the increase in his BABIP could be enough to make him a solid starter.
Gomez is definitely going to get a shot, though, and with nearly 1500 PA under his belt already we should know by the end of 2011 whether or not Gomez has a future as a regular contributor. Not to be cliche, but 2011 definitely qualifies as a "make-or-break year" for the former Twin.
And the big wild card in all of this is the presence of Chris Dickerson. Without Dickerson, it's hard to see any current Brewer challenging Gomez for playing time. But the 28-year-old former Red is one guy that could potentially be an improvement upon Gomez, given that his strength lies in Gomez's primary weakness: on-base skills. Dickerson only has 523 MLB plate appearances under his belt, but he's posted a .256/.356/.403 line while putting up a positive UZR at all three outfield positions. He won't be able to bring defensive value to the table like Gomez, but it's not unreasonable to think that his offensive contributions would outweigh the defensive downgrade. Dickerson isn't likely to get a shot unless Gomez gets hurt or falters, though, and if that doesn't happen then presumably the Brewers are satisfied with Gomez's play.
But don't be surprised if Dickerson is Milwaukee's primary center fielder by the middle of the summer.