By Arden Zwelling
You’re Toronto Blue Jays prospect Anthony Gose.
It’s March, 2011, spring training in Dunedin. You’re here because you’re damn fast and you play a rangy centrefield with good instincts and a cannon for an arm that threw a mid-90s fastball in high school.
You’ve never hit for much power, but you can slap the stitching off the ball for line-drive singles and you can beat out any grounder that draws as much as a moment of hesitation from an infielder.
They tell you to stop bunting, stop playing small ball, stop doing all the things that got you here. They tell you they’re going to dramatically overhaul your swing to have you to square up and drive the ball. They want you to start hitting for power; something you’ve never been able to do with much success in the past. Oh, and you’ll have to do it at the highest level you’ve ever competed against and as the youngest player in the league.
So what do you do? You relearn everything.
"Ever since I was traded here, I’ve made pretty much every adjustment you can think of," Gose said last month in Phoenix where he was playing in the Arizona Fall League. "You just sort of hang in there and believe in what you’re doing."
The 21-year-old prospect has undergone a considerable transformation over the past 10 months that has unlocked a well of untapped power. When they acquired him from the Houston Astros in 2010 for Brett Wallace, the Blue Jays had a hunch Gose was not making the most of his swing, so in his first spring training with the organization, he went to work with double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats hitting coach Justin Mashore to unleash his raw power.
Together, the two stripped down his swing and gave him a new set of mechanics. As a result, Gose changed the position of his hands, his legs, his feet — everything. The Blue Jays also told him to stop bunting — Gose says he has bunted less than 10 times since spring training — and try to muscle the ball into the gaps.
Gose still used his speed on the basepaths however, stealing 70 bases for the Fisher Cats in 2011. But when it came to reaching base, Gose was under strict instructions to rely more on his arms and not his legs.
"What we’ve found is that there’s some power there. He’s not just a line-drive, slap singles hitter," explained Tony LaCava, Blue Jays assistant general manager and vice-president baseball operations. "He’s got more bat than that."
The endless tweaks and adjustments continued throughout New Hampshire’s double-A season until Gose found a stance that bridged the gap between his own comfort level and unleashing the power the Blue Jays always believed he had.
Suddenly, Gose was driving the ball to all fields, finding the gaps and clearing the fences in a way that most talent evaluators never thought he could.
In 2011 he hit nearly twice as many home runs as he did in his first two minor league seasons combined and he led the Fisher Cats in triples. His slugging percentage went up 22 points from 2010 and his OPS ballooned by 30 points. All this while facing tougher pitching in his first year at double-A.
The trend has carried over to his off-season play as well.
Of his 30 hits in 120 at-bats during the Arizona Fall League, 12 of them went for extra bases including three home runs.
Of course, plenty of players see production increases in Arizona’s hot climate where the ball tends to carry. But every report out of Phoenix this fall said Gose was hitting the ball hard and far, achieving genuine results.
"I feel really good with my power right now. I’m sizing the ball up a lot better," Gose said. "I’ve never hit this many home runs."
The next step will be to put Gose back together, merging the old with the new.
In 2012, Gose will be allowed to bunt again and he’ll be given more freedom at the plate to use the small game to augment his newfound power. When infielders play back, he can lay down a bunt. When they creep in to defend those bunts, he can drive the ball over their heads. The Blue Jays can hardly wait to reap the rewards of 10 months’ hard work.
"We’re going to use the small game a little more. Get on base and use that disruptive speed," LaCava explained. "But at the same time, he’s also going to be able to drive the ball and do some damage. We’re really excited for that."
Of course, there are still holes in Gose’s game that need to be filled. He sometimes lacks patience at the plate and gets frustrated easily with poor results.
These are typical pitfalls of young players and something the Blue Jays hope will correct itself with age.
But the biggest knock against Gose in 2011 has been his performance when behind in the count. Many scouts saw a young kid with plenty of tools who got himself out far too often.
A 62:154 walk-to-strikeout ratio with New Hampshire in 2011 reinforced that belief. At times it looked like Gose didn’t have a two-strike approach. And that’s because he didn’t.
The Blue Jays were so committed to getting Gose as much experience as possible with his new swing that they asked him to try and drive the ball in all situations, even when down in the count 0-2, when most would be simply trying to make contact with a defensive swing.
Gose was trying to muscle the ball to the gaps.
"We said let’s just let this guy fully integrate this new swing, these new mechanics, and we’ll see what the results are," LaCava said. "We haven’t concerned ourselves with a two-strike approach yet. That will come later."
Later will be 2012 when Gose gets to put a short, contact swing back into his repertoire. He can adjust his approach depending on the situation and put the ball in play more often where his legs can do damage. The Blue Jays believe that will cut down on his strikeouts.
"His numbers probably would be significantly better if he was bunting as often as he could be for a base hit," LaCava said. "But we didn’t want to short the process of developing his new swing."
Now the Blue Jays simply wait until they can see their young creation in action next spring; a leadoff hitter with a hybrid small-ball and long-ball approach who can play a sound centre field and steal 70 bases.
It sounds pretty attractive.
Of course, player development in baseball is anything but a perfect science and there is always a chance the bottom will fall out on Gose’s tantalizing potential. The Blue Jays already have a solid centrefield option at the major league level in Colby Rasmus, a highly-coveted 25-year-old with a classic swing who the team acquired in July from the St. Louis Cardinals.
But at the same time, the Blue Jays have been getting Gose as many at-bats as possible and accelerating his progress through the minors.
Gose hasn’t spent more than 100 hours away from the ballpark since the start of spring training. Four days after completing a full season with the Eastern League champion Fisher Cats he was in Phoenix to suit up in the Arizona Fall League. He played 29 games there before leaving for Venezuela where he is currently playing winter ball with a team in Aragua.
As of Dec. 13 he had racked up more than 730 at-bats in 2011 and another month of winter ball should push that number up over 800.
"I haven’t had much time to relax," Gose said. "But I’m young. I’m feeling really good."
The Blue Jays aren’t worried about over-working their young prospect, preferring to get him as much time in the batter’s box as possible to work on his new swing. It’s likely he’ll be challenged again at triple-A Las Vegas in 2012, although the Blue Jays won’t make any minor league assignments official until spring training.
If he does make the expected jump, Gose would easily be one of the youngest players at the triple-A level. He doesn’t turn 22 until August.
"We keep challenging him and he keeps meeting those challenges in a big way," LaCava says. "He’s made tremendous progress. We couldn’t be more pleased."
The final jump—from triple-A to the majors—is the biggest one and the Blue Jays don’t put time frames on their prospects. The team waits for their players to tell them when they’re ready.
This past season Brett Lawrie was in a similar situation as a 21-year-old prospect at triple-A who struck out too much and walked too little. The Blue Jays asked Lawrie to show more patience at the plate and once they were satisfied with the results, Lawrie found himself with the big league club.
"Brett and his performance dictated that he was ready for the next move. That’s always what you hope happens," LaCava says. "Similarly, Anthony’s performance will let us know when he’s ready to go. At some point it will be very apparent."
Arden Zwelling is an assistant editor with Sportsnet Magazine.
You can follow him on Twitter @ArdenZwelling