Absent in 2011, Cristian Guzman Hopes for a Comeback in Cleveland

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A decade ago, Cristian Guzman was burning up the Metrodome turf, slapping triples to all fields and playing shortstop with range and flair. Today, he’s fighting for a big league job with Cleveland. It’s been an eventful 10 years for the veteran infielder, filled with some peaks, a lot of plateaus and a few valleys.

Guzman came to the Twins organization in February 1998 from the Yankees as part of the Chuck Knoblauch trade. Oozing with natural ability, he was fast tracked to the big leagues, making the Twins rookie laden opening day roster in 1999 as a 21-year-old. One of the fastest men in the big leagues, the very raw Guzman led the majors with 20 triples in 2000.

In 2001, Guzman was the offensive catalyst of the Twins sudden resurgence and was named to his first All Star game. While he would miss much of the second half with a shoulder injury (not coincidently, the Twins fell out of first place), Guzman still paced the AL in three baggers with 14.

Perfectly suited for the Metrodome’s Astroturf, Guzman was routinely among the league leaders in infield hits, slapping the ball on the asphalt-like surface and racing down the first baseline in a frantic blur. While Torii Hunter struggled to harness his physical ability early in his career, Guzman – a seeming prodigy – was the most exciting Twin in the early 2000s.

Despite his inability to manage the strike zone (Guzman has averaged only 31 walks per 162 games in his career), his batting average improved from .226 in 1999 to .302 in 2001. From 2002-2004, Guzman was a solid defensive shortstop and hit in the .270s, but his final years in Minnesota were marked by stagnation and frustration. He led the AL in triples again in 2003 with 14, but totaled just 10 in 2002 and 2004 combined. His on-base-percentages in that span were .292, .311 and .309 and despite his elite speed, Guzman never became a consistent base stealing threat.

Like many ultra talented players, Guzman seemed content to get by on his natural abilities and lacked the drive to realize his full potential. Having come from poverty in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic however, he did make a nice living for himself. After earning $3,725,000 with the Twins in 2004, Guzman inked a 4-year, $16.8 million free agent contract with Washington.

Following a disastrous .219/.260/.314 season in 2005, the veteran missed the entire 2006 season and most of 2007 following shoulder surgery. While many had written him off, Guzman hit .316/.345/.440 in 2008 – all career highs – and was again an All Star. 2008 also happened to be his contract year and he was rewarded with a 2-year, $16 million extension with the Nationals. Guzman played solidly in 2009 and was off to a similar start in 2010 when he was dealt to Texas on July 31. Back in the American League, he struggled, going 7 for 46 (.152) for the Rangers and was left off the team’s post season roster.

It was reported that Guzman received two spring training invites in 2011, but he turned them down and did not play at all last season. Family issues and a shoulder injury have been cited as the reasons for his absence. In any event, the 34-year-old is hoping to make another comeback in 2012. He faces an uphill battle to make Cleveland’s 25-man roster as a utility player, but he does have the backing of Indians’ manager Manny Acta, who skippered the Nationals during Guzman’s tenure in Washington.

As Guzzie fights to keep his career going, it’s easy to wonder might have been. He was the most physically gifted of the Twins 1999 rookie class (I give him a slight edge over Hunter) and got out to the fastest start, becoming an All Star at 22. While Guzman was never able to fulfill the expectations of his early success, he did play an integral role in the franchise’s return to relevance in 2001 and the three division titles that ensued.

Twins fans who saw the laser-like Guzman of that era rounding first and second, diving head first into third and turning yet another double into a triple will never forget it.

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