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By Rob Rains
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – John Vuch was in his office at Busch Stadium last October when, as on most days, he logged onto his computer and ran a report that lists all of the minor league players who had been released on that day, making them free agents.
There was a name on the list on Oct. 22 that intrigued Vuch, the Cardinals’ director of baseball administration.
Moises Gomez, a 23-year-old outfielder, had been released by the Tampa Bay Rays.
Vuch sought input from a variety of personnel in the team’s other baseball operations departments, checked on Gomez’s background, and just two weeks later, the Cardinals signed Gomez to a contract.
While all agreed they were encouraged by Gomez’s tools, especially his raw power, none of the people involved in the evaluation process last fall could have predicted that while Vuch was sitting in the stands at Hammons Field last week Gomez would hit his 18th and 19th home runs, tied for the most in all of minor-league baseball so far in 2022.
Even Gomez says he would have been surprised if somebody had told him before this year began how much success he would have in the first two months of this season.
“I would have said thank you to God,” Gomez said.
So Gomez, and those who have watched and worked with him every day, are not surprised at the two questions that keep coming up every time he hits another home run: Who is this guy, and how is this happening?
“You could tell from day one that this kid was very focused and committed to what he wanted to do this year,” said Tyger Pederson, the hitting coach at Springfield. “You could tell there was a ton of upside right when he got in the batter’s box.
“It was like, ‘Oh man, this guy is serious and a threat to do damage every time he steps in the box.’ He’s got that kind of aura around him that it’s going to be a tough at-bat for the pitcher. … He’s got electric power and it’s fun to watch, that’s for sure.”
“It’s been pretty remarkable”
Some of the people who have been watching Gomez so far this season, from a distance, are among those who have known him the longest, since his early days in the Rays organization.
“Man it’s been pretty remarkable,” said Carlos Rodriguez, the vice president of baseball operations for the Rays, who was the director of international scouting for the team in 2015, when they signed the 16-year-old Gomez out of Venezuela.
“These are the hopes that we have kind of had for him. He’s always had tremendous power. … It’s been nice to see him sort of fulfill some of the talent that he has. To the degree that he’s doing it right now, it’s kind of amazing.”
During his six seasons playing in the Rays organization, Gomez displayed power, but the biggest issue in his game was making contact. He spent the 2017 season in the rookie Appalachian League in Princeton, West Virginia, where his hitting coach was Wuarnner Rincones. The two have remained close ever since, with Gomez referring to Rincones as, “my dad.”
“He’s been hitting homers all his life,” said Rincones, now the hitting coach for the Rays’ Double A team in Montgomery, Ala., “but I don’t think anybody would think he would be doing as well as he is right now.”
Rincones was with Gomez in Montgomery last season, when he said Gomez “lost his confidence” as he struggled with the move up to the Double A level after having to sit out 2020 when the minor-league season was cancelled because of the pandemic.
Gomez had hit 19 homers, his career high before this season, at low A Bowling Green in 2018, when Baseball America ranked him as the 13th best prospect in the Midwest League. He hit 16 homers at Port Charlotte in 2019 in the Florida State League, a notoriously tough league for hitters, but saw his batting average fall to .220.
At Montgomery last year, Gomez struggled all season, hitting just eight homers in 269 at-bats while posting a .171 average.
“His issues are with hitting breaking balls, and balls down and away,” said Rincones. “Head movement was always an issue. Last year he lost his confidence and couldn’t hit a fastball.”
Eligible to become a minor-league free agent, Gomez thought maybe if he returned to Venezuela to play winter ball he could get another team interested in him. Before he could do that, he had to ask the Rays for his release because his team in Venezuela will not sign players under contract to an MLB organization.
“We wanted to do right by him,” Rodriguez said. “We wanted to do what was best for him as a player and give him an opportunity in winter ball. I’m glad it worked out.
“One thing I feel is universal is that development and progress is not linear with everybody. Some people go backwards before they can go forward. Some stall, some just need an opportunity. Sometimes different people need different things. It’s really nice to see him kind of start piecing it together because he’s a wonderful human being. He has an infectious smile. He’s somebody who you certainly root for despite him not being with us anymore.”
Before he began playing winter ball, Gomez spent a week last fall working in Arizona with Rincones, who was coaching in the Fall League. After his poor regular season, Gomez was finally ready to listen and try to implement the changes in his approach that Rincones was suggesting.
“In the past I was more closed off about changing my mechanics,” Gomez said, with teammate Pedro Pages serving as his interpreter. “This off-season I gave in pretty much and came out with the results.
“At first I was a little scared of the changes but I gave in and trusted the process and it’s worked out well.”
In addition to his 19 homers, which ties him for the most in the minors with Detroit prospect Kerry Carpenter at Double A Erie, Gomez also is carrying a .315 average, just out of the top 10 in the Texas League.
What Rincones has seen is that the changes he suggested, basically trying to have Gomez reduce the movement of his head, are working because it has improved his balance.
“He had a leg kick that didn’t allow him to stay consistent with his balance,” Rincones said. “So we eliminated the leg kick and got him to go down with his head. That allows his bat to stay in the zone longer.”
The two worked together again for two weeks, when Gomez stayed in Rincones’ home in Port Charlotte, before Gomez joined the Cardinals for spring training in March.
That was where Springfield manager Jose Leger first got to see Gomez in person.
“You can’t ignore his body type; he’s very strong,” Leger said. “He’s got strong legs. I reached out to some people I know with the Rays and they said he had great makeup, was a great kid and had terrific power.
“Obviously something was missing, and he found it. The head needs to be quiet, because when you’ve got an object coming at you at 90 miles per hour plus, it’s hard because when your head is moving, your eyes are moving. If your eyes are moving, you’re going to see a lot of balls coming your way, not just one.”
Pederson remembered watching Gomez in 2019, when he was the hitting coach for the Cardinals’ Palm Beach affiliate.
“I thought he had some tools and talent, so it’s cool to see it flourish this year and see what he’s been doing,” Pederson said.
Jordan Walker, generally considered the best prospect in the Cardinals’ organization, has usually been batting in front of Gomez.
“It’s been nothing short of amazing,” Walker said. “He’s been really good. People see the home runs, but he’s one of the smartest hitters on our team. When he needs to put a ball in play, he will do the job. It’s the little things that people overlook that he’s really good at, not just hitting home runs, and he’s really good at hitting home runs as well.”
Gomez did not play in Springfield’s first two games of the year, then homered the first game he played. After another day out of the lineup, he hit two homers the following day – and hasn’t stopped since.
“He has done everything you could ask of a player,” Pederson said. “He’s gone about his business the right way. He hits the ball extremely hard … We’ve focused a lot on making sure he’s swinging at the right pitches, and he’s been doing a great job of it.”
Gomez believes he has found the proper balance between remaining aggressive at the plate, but also in being selective about which pitches he can attack.
“I’ve worked on being patient, trusting my hands and waiting for my pitch,” he said. “It has worked, but I still have to keep working every day.”
Rodriguez is not surprised to hear about the changes that Gomez has made, and how they have already paid dividends.
“With him it was always about making contact,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a player who is gifted with tremendous bat speed and strength, and he’s a player who will take pitches to get in deeper counts. He’s trying to really figure out who he is as a hitter. He seems to be maturing and developing.”
In addition to enjoying the power displays, what has impressed Pederson, and Gomez’s teammates, has been his demeanor as he plays the game. He has had a few stretches this season when he struck out often, which is a part of his game, but his approach during those rough stretches didn’t change.
“The best hitters in the game are failing 70 to 75 percent of the time,” Pederson said. “It’s who is mentally tough enough and strong enough to remain confident even though we’re facing adversity and failure on a daily basis at a really high clip. Being able to manage those things is definitely important for any hitter. He’s done a great job.
“Even after a tough game he comes back and is ready to work the next day. He knows exactly what he wants to do with his routine and gets back to it. It’s always about how he’s going to beat the pitcher that night.”
Gomez said his attitude all season has been to not get too high or too low, but also not to be satisfied with what he has done. There still are more than three months of games to play this season.
“Baseball is a game of ups and downs,” Gomez said. “I just want to keep working hard every day and come out and perform. Can I do more? Everyday. You have to always try to get better. You can’t just stay comfortable. You have to work hard to get better.”
“Smiling and having fun”
If Gomez can do that, there will be more stories to tell about long home runs, joining the tales that Pederson, Leger and others tell of the blast he hit in San Antonio, or the one in Arkansas, or even some of the home runs he has hit at home.
There also will be a lot more smiles on his face – and Gomez has been smiling a lot this season.
“I remember in Princeton years ago I told him, ‘Everybody around you knows when you are thinking too much and not having fun on the field,’” Rincones said. “He’s a guy that’s always smiling, always having fun. I told him when we don’t see a smile on your face it’s because you are thinking too much or worried about something … never lose that and you will be fine. Now you see him smiling and having fun.”
Said Walker, “He’s always upbeat. If I am having a bad day he will smile at me. You can’t not smile when he smiles at you. He’s got the brightest smile in the world.”
The next challenge for Gomez will come as he faces the same pitchers he already has faced this season. With only eight teams in the Texas League, pitchers and hitters get to know each other well. Can he adjust after the pitchers begin to change their approach to him?
“You can see teams are starting to pitch him differently,” Leger said. “They are trying to figure him out, doing their homework. They don’t want this guy to come to the plate and hurt them every time he comes up to bat, so they try to mix and match and keep him uncomfortable.
“It’s going to be a test for him going into the middle part of the season.”
Those who have known Gomez the longest, and those that have only known him for a few months, have a prediction about what to expect – don’t be surprised if he continues to hit a lot of home runs.
“It gives you hope with a player like this, with the tool package he’s got,” Leger said. “It makes you want to dream and see that transitioning to the big leagues with some consistency.”
Added Rodriguez, “It’s really a wonderful story for him. You wish all of the players that we sign and put time and energy into can debut with us, but ultimately it’s more about guys you know are tremendous humans and have talent having success.
“There have been so many people who have been part of his journey. Ultimately he’s taken ownership of his own career, and it will be rewarding. I still think his best baseball is ahead of him.”
Rincones expects that he will be seeing a lot more videos on his phone – Gomez sends him one after every home run.
“He’s a great kid,” Rincones said. “I love his personality. You can see how sincere he is. I know he has the talent to play in the big leagues for a long time. He’s going to be more consistent from now on. He’s really young and really talented, and that’s a good combination.”
Pederson is just glad that Gomez landed on his team, thanks to the efforts of the Cardinals’ scouting department and front office personnel such as Vuch.
“Sometimes you need a new experience, a new feel, a new team, a new coach, new environment, whatever the case may be,” Pederson said. “Sometimes that new opportunity for a player is their second chance, or for some it might be their last chance. A new environment can kind of spark a new feeling for guys and kind of keep them going.
“There are days when he takes O-fers and there are days when he punches out, just like anybody else. He still has a big smile on his face. I heard him say the other day how he loves life and how he’s happy to be out there playing baseball. That’s kind of how he goes about his business every day, his enjoyment of each day.
“You can tell he really, really loves what he does.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos by PJ Maigi, courtesy of Springfield Cardinals
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