Claire: Scouts, stats agree on Gutierrez

Claire: Scouts, stats agree on Gutierrez

Nine years ago, Franklin Gutierrez was a skinny 18-year-old player from Venezuela who was just trying to adjust to playing professional baseball in the United States.

Six years ago at this time of the year, just as the Major League season was getting under way, Gutierrez was traded by the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Cleveland Indians.

One year ago, Gutierrez joined new teammates -- having been traded once again -- and anxiously awaited his opportunity to be a regular player at the position he dreamed of playing: center field.

Today, Franklin Gutierrez of the Seattle Mariners is center stage, a 27-year-old young man with a multimillion dollar contract in hand and regarded by many as the finest center fielder in Major League Baseball.

It is the evolution of a player.

One of the things that has put the spotlight on Gutierrez is that the emphasis on defense has taken over as the hot topic in Major League Baseball.

And defense is being measured by statistical formulas such as ultimate zone rating (that's UZR, for those of you more familiar with terms such as ERA and RBI) and defensive runs saved.

When these formulas are applied to today's players, it is Gutierrez, as a center fielder, who stands out among his peers.

But long before Gutierrez gained acclaim by those who enjoy applying statistical formulas to the game, he was discovered and developed by the true foundation of the game -- good scouting and player development.

And those people who knew and assisted Gutierrez along the way couldn't be happier with his success and the way he has handled the attention and financial rewards that have come his way.

"I remember the day when he showed up at our academy in Venezuela," recalls veteran Dodgers scout Camilo Pascual. "The mother of one of our other players in the academy brought Franklin to the academy because he wanted so much to have a chance to play baseball.

"He had some trouble with the bat as a very young player, but he had great instincts as an outfielder. He has a gift for catching the ball. You realized that when the bat came around Franklin was going to be a tremendous player.

"He also is a very intelligent player, and even as a youngster, he would ask questions because he wanted to improve," said Pascual.

The day Gutierrez left the Dodgers organization is one that Luchy Guerra, a long-time former executive of the team who oversaw Latin American operations, will never forget.

It was April 3, 2004, and Guerra was at the Dodgers' Spring Training camp in Vero Beach, Fla.

"It was a Sunday, and I remember coming from church and just entering the Dodgertown complex when one of our coaches told me Franklin had just been traded to Cleveland," recalls Guerra.

"I just started to cry when I heard the news. Franklin is such a special kind of young man. I dealt with several thousand Minor Leaguers in my time with the Dodgers, and I hate to differentiate, but Franklin was one of those people who holds a special place in my heart," says Guerra.

Ironically, the player Gutierrez was traded for, outfielder Milton Bradley, is now his teammate with the Mariners.

A lot has come full circle for Gutierrez, and it started a year ago at the start of the 2009 season when Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu told a nervous young player to just relax.

"Play your game. You're going to take 500, 600 at-bats this year. It doesn't matter if you go 0-for-4 today, 0-for-4 tomorrow, 0-for-4 the next day. You're going to be there every day.

"You are our center fielder," said Wakamatsu.

Wakamatsu's words left little doubt in Gutierrez's mind.

That was just the news that the young man from Venezuela was dreaming about. He took the 565 at-bats that were promised and produced a .283 batting average with 24 doubles, 16 stolen bases, 18 home runs and 70 RBIs.

And, oh yes, he took care of just about every fly ball that came his way in center field and produced a highlight film of spectacular catches.

In four previous seasons with Cleveland, Gutierrez had never had more than 399 at-bats in a season, and his true talent was not fulfilled in right field, since the Indians had a star center fielder in place, Grady Sizemore.

In January of this year, with Gutierrez eligible for arbitration, the Mariners wrapped up a player they see as a star of the future by signing him to a four-year contract for $20.5 million.

"We feel he was the best defensive center fielder in the American League last year, and he was a huge part of the success of our pitching staff leading the AL in ERA," said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. "Offensively, his combination of speed and power is a perfect fit for our club -- and he is an outstanding person."

Asked how the trade that brought Gutierrez to Seattle in December of 2008 came about, Zduriencik said "I saw Franklin in the Minor Leagues when he was with the Dodgers, and I shared the same view as the scout, Camilo Pascual, in that I thought the young man had a chance to be a star.

"When I took the Mariner job, I felt we needed a fly-catcher in center field. Tony Blengino was doing research on potential center fielders, and when he came to me with Franklin's name, we thought he would be the ideal guy for us.

"With Grady Sizemore playing center field for Cleveland and Franklin in right, we thought he might be available. And then, bingo, the whole package of traditional scouting and sabermetrics came together, and we were able to make the trade," recalled a delighted Zduriencik.

It shows the scouts and the statistical-minded can live together and appreciate a talent the likes of Franklin Gutierrez.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodger from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice-President and general manager. He is the author of Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.