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Gonzalez mulls future with Marlins

Gonzalez mulls future with Marlins

MIAMI -- In his final at-bat of 2008, Luis Gonzalez stepped up as a pinch-hitter and tapped a routine groundout to second base in the seventh inning of the Marlins' last game of the year.

Even though the five-time All-Star went down quietly, the numbers he's compiled in 18 MLB seasons speak loudly. And indications are the 41-year-old outfielder has every intention to return for a 19th season.

The question is: Where?

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After the World Series, Gonzalez will file for free agency. He certainly would be open to returning to the Marlins, but both sides may end up moving in different directions.

Asked if he plans on playing next year, Gonzalez said: "I'd like to. But I'll sit back and see what kind of options I have, and see what's right for myself and my family."

Signed by the Marlins for $2 million as a free agent on Feb. 7, Gonzalez accepted a role as a situational player. He ended up starting on Opening Day in right field in place of injured Jeremy Hermida.

Gonzalez also saw substantial time in left field in the first half after Josh Willingham was out of action for 50 games with a back problem.

For most of the second half, the left-handed-hitting outfielder was used as a spot starter in either left or right field, and he was regularly used as a pinch-hitter.

Gonzalez appeared in 136 games and had 341 at-bats, finishing with a .261 batting average, 26 doubles, eight home runs and 47 RBIs. In 44 at-bats as a pinch-hitter, he hit .159 with a home run and five RBIs.

Overall, Gonzalez showed he still can be productive on the field. Off the field, his leadership and presence was invaluable to a young Florida roster.

"There are still things I'd like to accomplish -- 2,600 hits, 600 doubles and things like that," he said. "These are accomplishments and some things a lot of guys don't get to do."

Gonzalez has 596 career doubles and 354 home runs. He is 15th all-time in doubles, and reaching 600 would be special to him. Only seven players in MLB history have at least 575 doubles and 350 home runs.

"I know my numbers say I played a lot of games, but a majority of that was as a pinch-hitter [52 in all]," Gonzalez said. "You just try to work at it, and get better at it.

"For 17 years, playing every day, and this being my first year [in a pinch-hit/spot-start role], you learn to appreciate those guys. I knew they were special breeds, your Lenny Harrises, your Manny Motas, guys like that. To be one of the premier pinch-hitters in the league, you are very appreciated on your club."

A role Gonzalez may end up embracing is being a designated hitter, which would mean heading to the American League.

"If I do come back, it will be my 19th season in the Major Leagues," he said. "It just depends on the situation. I could end up in the American League, and I'd be perfect for the DH. Obviously, I'm not going to hit as many home runs as I used to, but I think my extra-base-hit numbers will be there. I hit 26 doubles not playing every day. If you get 400-500 at-bats, I could very easily have been in the mid-30s or low 40s."

With more than a dozen key players eligible for arbitration, the Marlins front office is busy deciding what to do with the nucleus of the roster.

The team recently signed Wes Helms to a two-year, $1.9 million contract. Helms, for now, is providing a veteran presence. But Helms is an infielder, who plays first and third base.

The Marlins are mulling over what to do in the outfield. Hermida, Willingham, Cody Ross and Alfredo Amezaga -- who also plays infield -- are up for arbitration.

The role that Gonzalez held in 2008 may not be available in '09.

Still, the impact Gonzalez made on his teammates is undeniable.

Catcher Matt Treanor commonly called Gonzalez, "Uncle Gonzo."

A number of players looked to him for guidance, and his professionalism helped keep the team relaxed and in line.

The fact that the Marlins finished with a winning record and flirted with making the playoffs made the season both exciting and frustrating.

"It was fun. But it was disappointing at the same time because nobody expected us to be where we were at," Gonzalez said. "We made a run all the way to September. I think, all and all, if you look back at our season, August was the tell-tale time. We couldn't string two wins together.

"For me, I needed a little more patience. It was fun for the simple fact that I was in a different role. Usually, when I was helping younger players out, I was playing at the same time. This year was a lot different for me. I was finding myself on the bench, in a different situation. It was a period of adjustments, too. I didn't really know how to be a pinch-hitter. I still feel I have a ways to go in that, too."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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