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Toolshed: Gonzales a reminder of Cape effect

Last Friday, the Cape Cod Baseball League announced it was canceling the 2020 season as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. No picnic blankets sprawled on the hills of Eldredge Park in Orleans. No folding chairs set up in front of the scouts behind home plate in Chatham’s Veterans Park.

Last Friday, the Cape Cod Baseball League announced it was canceling the 2020 season as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. No picnic blankets sprawled on the hills of Eldredge Park in Orleans. No folding chairs set up in front of the scouts behind home plate in Chatham’s Veterans Park. No more kids chasing home runs hit into the trees beyond the Whitehouse Field in Harwich. 
But a summer without baseball’s most prestigious collegiate wood-bat league will have reverberations well beyond the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges and the gates of Wareham. Ask any Cape native or visitor, and the list of Cape League alumni flows like the water of the canal, from Hall of Famers like Jeff Bagwell, Carlton Fisk and Frank Thomas to modern stars such as Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant and Chris Sale. Fourteen of the first 19 college players taken in the first round of last year’s Draft were former Cape players, including three of the top four overall — Adley Rutschman, Andrew Vaughn and JJ Bleday.
If the Minor Leagues provide a key step in turning top prospects into Major Leaguers, the Cape League can serve a similar purpose in transforming promising amateurs into top prospects. As understandable as the cancellation was from a public health standpoint, it still takes away that important opportunity for some of the game’s top college players to improve their stocks for the 2021 Draft and beyond. To fully comprehend how crucial the Cape can be for some players, consider the case of New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales, the 2019 Cape League MVP and a likely top-five pick in this year’s Draft. 

“I think right after the [2019] College World Series after the scouts rolled in was when they all noticed him,” said Mike Roberts, Gonzales’ two-time Cape League manager with the Cotuit Kettleers. “He had a great week. End of June, first of July, they all rolled in and said, ‘Oh my god, this is the real deal.'”
The right-handed slugger’s first taste of the Cape came late in 2018. Gonzales was little recruited coming out of Cinega High School in Vail, Arizona, and walked on as a freshman at New Mexico State. He made noise quickly, winning Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year honors by batting .347/.425/.596 with nine homers in 57 games.
But considering the Aggies’ status as an opportunity for hitters to thrive in an extremely batter-friendly environment, Gonzales again didn’t receive much attention on the national scale. Instead of heading to a more prestigious circuit, he played his first summer ball in the Ohio Valley League, where he used his typical fast hand speed to finish second on the circuit with a .388 average and tied for fourth with 47 hits. When that season ended, then-New Mexico State head coach Brian Green was still hoping to get his budding star a little more work, specifically with his baserunning, and reached out to Roberts at Cotuit. In the hunt for a Cape League playoff spot, the Kettleers skipper agreed to take on the second baseman and noticed something right away that seemed familiar about him. A little too familiar.
“Coach Green felt like he was kinda similar to Brian, my son,” Roberts said. “When he got there, I thought, oh my god, this is Brian Roberts II without the baserunning skills. Kinda what I felt almost right away.”
Yes, that’s the same Brian Roberts who spent 14 years in the Major Leagues with the Orioles and Yankees and made two All-Star teams as a second baseman. Like Gonzales, Brian Roberts walked on at North Carolina, where his father was head coach at the time, and eventually starred for Chatham on the Cape in 1998. After eventually transferring to South Carolina following his dad’s departure from Chapel Hill, the younger Roberts was the 50th overall pick in the 1999 Draft. A quick-twitch switch-hitter, he eventually became a career .277 hitter in the Majors who twice led the American League in doubles. And almost 20 years after he first played in the Cape, his father thought he was managing a carbon copy, albeit for only 10 days at the end of a long summer.
“What I saw was, yeah, this youngster has one real asset that sticks out, and that’s his hand speed,” said Mike Roberts, who also serves as a player-development consultant for the Cubs. “I’m old-fashioned. I believe in what they call buggy whip. I won’t get into what’s being taught today. But I taught Brian the same thing. Use your hands. Use your hands. Use your hands. When you use your hands the way Nick does and Brian did, you never have to worry about velocity. Velocity’s not a problem. Velocity’s a huge problem for those guys who use their body today with their upper cut. Nick’s hands stood out with their quickness. We certainly wanted him back.”
Roberts got his wish in the summer of 2019 after Gonzales solidified himself as one of Division I’s most productive hitters, this time on a New Mexico State scholarship. The Aggies second baseman led the country with a .432 average on his way to All-American status. He posted a .532 OBP and a .773 slugging percentage, mashed 16 homers and walked more times (45) than he struck out (30). Still, scouts were getting the sense that Gonzales’ numbers were more products of his environment than his outright talent, and Roberts knew how he could tell.
“He lit up the world in the spring season, but a lot of people didn’t trust that he could actually play,” Roberts said. “The way you gauge that is if scouts think you can play, USA Baseball will come calling. That’s how I know people around the country basically didn’t believe in Nick Gonzales because he didn’t get a call from USA Baseball. If you lead the nation in hitting and don’t get the call, then people don’t think you can play.”
Instead of competing for USA Baseball’s College National Team — which boasted other top 2020 Draft prospects Spencer Torkelson, Austin Martin and Asa Lacy — Gonzales headed back to Cotuit for 2019. If he was going to prove he could hit somewhere other than the elevation of Las Cruces, New Mexico, he was going to do it in the mid Cape with a wood bat in his hands. Immediately, Roberts could tell a difference between Gonzales the rising sophomore and Gonzales the rising junior.
“Our concentration in Cotuit with five balls in BP is how often do you hit the ball on the sweet spot of the bat and what’s the sound like?” Roberts said. “That’s what we’re listening for. If you went to a big league ballpark and you’d listen for Barry Bonds or Albert Pujols or whoever, you hear a different sound from those guys off the wood bat. Nick’s sound, on a consistent basis, was elite. We would use the pitching machine at Cotuit a lot from a short distance. We don’t throw gas. We’re just trying to get consistency of the swing. Nick would hit four out of five or five out of five on the head. He would almost never say, ‘Can I have one more?’ Those are the types of hitters you know can hit. You can see the difference between the hitters that are polished and those that aren’t.”
It wasn’t long before the numbers backed up what Roberts was seeing in pregame drills. Gonzales’ .351 average over 42 games was second-best among qualifiers, while his .451 OBP, .630 slugging percentage and 1.081 OPS topped the elite circuit. Despite questions about his true power, he finished with seven home runs, tied for sixth-most on the Cape. He struck out in only 11.9 percent and walked in 10.8 percent of his Cape League plate appearances. Gonzales was an easy pick for the MVP award, and he added to his legend by leading Cotuit to a Cape League title, the club’s third under Roberts. His RBI single in the 15th inning of a marathon Game 1 gave Cotuit an early advantage in the best-of-3 championship series. The Kettleers won the crown in two games.
“By the time he came back to the Cape, he was taking pitches that before in the short stint he was chasing,” Roberts said. “Then guys would come back with the fastball, try to throw it by him and it didn’t happen. He got more clutch hits than anyone.”
Come that final celebration in August, Gonzales wasn’t just known for his inflated stats in the Southwest. Many scouts put him down as a legitimate early pick in the 2020 Draft, causing Roberts to field more and more questions from those in Major League polos as the summer wore on.
“There are a lot of guys who could be drafted off their Cape League performance, and they press,” Roberts said. “Oftentimes, they do not play as well as they might have on the Cape. Nick, he was just comfortable in the Cape League. He got hurt sliding into home plate and injured his leg, so he didn’t play every game for us. But I never saw him out of his comfort zone. Always had his rhythm every at-bat. I didn’t tell him anything all summer long offensively. He just performed with what he came there with, which was that cute, short swing. He never got out of it, which is very unusual. Almost every offensive guy gets out of rhythm, but he did not.
“Also to me, what separates first-rounders apart is — they could be like the guy from Arizona State [Torkelson] with tremendous power, whatever — but you have to show polish. You can’t be 5-foot-10, 180 [pounds] and be inconsistent with your play. You won’t be a first-rounder. You have to show consistency every day, and that’s what he did.”
Under even more scrutiny, Gonzales predictably continued to mash when he returned to campus for his spring season. At the time the NCAA canceled the baseball season due to coronavirus concerns, he led the nation with 12 homers in 82 plate appearances. No one else in Division I had hit more than nine. His 1.155 slugging percentage ranked second, and his .448 average and .610 OBP were nothing to sleep on either.
Undoubtedly, Gonzales enjoyed home cooking with the Aggies playing 12 of their 16 games in their friendly confines, but with his Cape League evaluations already in the books, his high Draft status has been even more solidified for 2020. MLB.com ranked Gonzales as the No. 5 prospect heading into this year’s Draft, which could be as few as five rounds following a Major League Baseball agreement with the MLB Players Association. The latest MLB.com mock draft has the slugger going at No. 5 to Toronto, where he could some day join an infield next to current wunderkinds Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. Not bad for a former walk-on.
“My prayer is that whichever of the 30 teams gets him, they leave him alone,” Roberts said. “He’ll be in the big leagues in two years if they leave him alone. He’s got great hand action. That’s what separates him from the other guys. C.J. Cron is the only other guy I’ve ever had in 20 years at Cotuit — and almost 50 years coaching college baseball players — he was the only other guy I had that could hit the ball to the opposite field with that type of power. With Nick, two or three of his home runs last summer were to right field, which is just not done. Not with wood. Not on the Cape.”
The only questions remaining about Gonzales’ profile are on the defensive end. The Arizona native played second base his first two collegiate seasons and at Cotuit, but moved to shortstop this spring in hopes of boosting his profile. Based on what he saw the previous summers, Roberts believes Gonzales is best served to stick at second, where the defensive pressure is eased slightly. But his future home could be considered picking a nit considering how good Gonzales has proven himself to be offensively. 

A lot of the proof for that evaluation came from his summers in Massachusetts. The story of Nick Gonzales is a bona fide Cape League success story. With coronavirus knocking out the circuit for the coming months, it’s worth wondering how long it’ll be until baseball finds a similar tale somewhere between Wareham and Orleans.
“It’ll be two to four years that it’s going to affect some guys, without a doubt,” Roberts said. “All it takes for some guys is one week. … [Scouts] roll in there after the College World Series, they see something they really like, you explode and it changes your life. My son’s life changed after one game. Nick’s was changed very quickly on the Cape.
“[Canceling] is the right decision to make. You can’t go in a dugout now. You can’t go in a bus. You can’t go in a locker room. But I do think for some lower-profile players who need the competition like the Cape — which is the best amateur league in the world — it’s going to have an effect. The trouble is I don’t know if we’ll ever know who those kids are. I don’t know if we’ll know who the next Nick Gonzales would have been.”

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.

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