Still learning, Gutierrez sharpens focus

Still learning, Gutierrez sharpens focus

TAMPA, Fla. -- Personally and professionally, Franklin Gutierrez has seen his life shaken up for the better in recent months.

For starters, he got married in his native Venezuela over the winter to the former Vivian Salazar, the daughter of former Major Leaguer Luis Salazar.

"I'm a new guy," Gutierrez said.

Then he laughs.

"I'm just kidding," he said. "I'm the same guy. It was great to get married this year. I'm really happy for that. But it's a new life now. It makes you work a little harder, because you know you have someone to take care of."

Gutierrez has certainly been working hard this spring, and Indians manager Eric Wedge has taken notice.

"He's had a tremendous camp," Wedge said. "His work is as decisive, deliberate and consistent as anyone we've had in camp. You look at his batting practice and his work in the outfield, and the discipline he's shown mentally is tremendous."

These are glowing words you might expect to hear about a guy competing for a job and trying to prove himself to the organization's higher-ups.

But Gutierrez, in another glaring change in lifestyle, doesn't have to win a job this spring. The Indians no longer have the ability to option him to Triple-A Buffalo, nor do they want to. With Trot Nixon gone, right field belongs to him.

Gutierrez, who began last year at Triple-A before joining the big league club for good on May 31, certainly earned that ownership. As the '07 season progressed, he swiped the everyday opportunities from Nixon by batting .279 with 11 homers and 33 RBIs from June 14 on. He also played outstanding defense.

"It's a great feeling right now," Gutierrez said. "It's different than other years. I know I can start playing almost every day. So it makes you feel relaxed. That's what I'm doing right now, is trying to relax and play my game, and that's it. I don't think about anything else."

The 25-year-old Gutierrez, though, is far from a finished product. His numbers against fellow right-handers, his strikeout-to-walk ratio and his struggles with breaking balls are all areas of concern.

Last season, he hit .232 (41-for-177) against right-handers, with a .330 (31-for-94) mark against lefties. He also struck out 77 times, drawing only 21 walks.

And in the postseason, the Yankees' and Red Sox's scouting reports on Gutierrez were quite clear -- breaking balls can break him down. He struck out 11 times in 29 postseason at-bats.

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But Gutierrez is no stranger to having to make adjustments.

He joined the Indians organization in the April '04 trade that sent Milton Bradley to the Dodgers and began that season at Double-A Akron. He had to learn to make his speed work for him, he had to focus on cutting down the K's and he had to master the corner outfield spots because of Grady Sizemore's presence in center field.

Some lessons are still being learned.

"I'm just trying to focus on making contact," Gutierrez said. "If I make contact, a lot of good things can happen. I'm trying not to put pressure on myself or swing hard. I'm just trying to get on base and swing well."

Gutierrez's struggles against right-handers might make life complicated for Wedge this season. Wedge is not expecting Gutierrez to start seven days a week, and perhaps not even six. But the Tribe's only extra outfielder, Jason Michaels, has a knack for hitting lefties, not righties. So Wedge will have to get creative.

"That's where you look at matchups," Wedge said. "You look at the type of pitcher and the type of hitter, and you look at what a guy's been doing. And there are intangibles that come into play."

Intangible qualities appear to be a strength for Gutierrez these days. Wedge pointed out the focus he's seen from the youngster this spring for a reason. Not all young players -- particularly not those with a roster spot assured -- show such determination.

"There's a positive repetition that you've got to have," Wedge said.

Gutierrez always stayed positive, even while spending parts of four seasons at Triple-A.

"Nobody has made better use of their time in Triple-A than Gutierrez," Wedge said. "He attacked the changes he had to make."

And while his life has had its share of changes recently, Gutierrez's focus persists.

"When I came to this camp, I knew that I could be the right fielder," he said. "I'm just trying to focus on the things I have to improve and just play my game. That's the most important thing for me right now. I'm trying to improve offensively and defensively."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.