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MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

CarGo centered on staying healthy, not outfield roles

Slugger tweaks bat grip to avoid finger strain; talk of potential position shift cools

CarGo centered on staying healthy, not outfield roles

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez ran through the checklist of offseason questions.

Yes, the strained ligament in his right middle finger healed fine without surgery, and he has adjusted the way he holds the bat to avoid a recurrence of an ailment that ruined his final three months last season.

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Yes, he has received medical clearance for full-speed workouts in the aftermath of last month's emergency appendectomy during which doctors also removed a hernia.

No, he won't be moving to center field. The Rockies held their first full-squad workout on Saturday, and manager Walt Weiss used it to announce Gonzalez will remain in left field, where he has won a Gold Gove Award three of the last four seasons.

Two months ago, there seemed to be no doubt. With the Rockies trading Dexter Fowler to the Astros, Gonzalez was going to move back to center field, a position he originally played until moving to left field because of Fowler's presence.

"Things have changed since [the Fowler trade]," Gonzalez said. "We've added [Drew] Stubbs, so that gives us different options to consider."

The Rockies also acquired Brandon Barnes in a trade with Houston, giving them two potential right-handed-hitting center fielders, and return outfielders, Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson, who will compete for the left-handed portion of a center field platoon.

That's fine with Gonzalez, who admits that playing left field in Coors Field is not unlike being a center fielder anywhere else.

"In Coors Field, you have to play the outfield," Gonzalez said. "Left field, especially those big corners, you have to cover a lot of ground. When you go on the road, you feel like, 'OK, I'm going to have a couple days off now.'"

For the Rockies, the key is having Gonzalez in the lineup.

With Gonzalez hitting third and Troy Tulowitzki hitting fourth, the Rockies have a dynamic left-right combo in the middle of the lineup.

In four full seasons with the Rockies, Gonzalez has been primarily a No. 3 hitter, and has ranked among the National League elite in that role. Over that stretch, he is tied for third among NL No. 3 hitters with a .310 average, ranks second in stolen bases with 66 and stolen-base success ratio at 84.6 percent, is third with 292 RBIs and third with 89 home runs.

Keeping these two sluggers in the lineup, however, has been a challenge. Tulowitzki has started only 428 games the past four years, and after being limited to 122 starts in 2011 and 131 in 2012, Gonzalez started only 99 games in 2013.

Gonzalez strained the ligament in his right middle finger against Arizona the first week of July, and when he tried to return to the lineup the rest of the season, he would aggravate the injury. He did hit .302, and ranked seventh in the NL with 26 home runs, the last of which he hit on July 20. He only had 32 more at-bats during the season and was limited to late-inning defensive appearances in September because of the injury.

There was a thought that Gonzalez would need surgery to repair the ligament, but he opted for a rehab program that appears to have worked. Just as critical, he said he will no longer hit with the knob of the bat resting against the finger. He is moving his hands up on the bat so that the bottom of his right hand sits on the knob.

"It was a change I needed to make," Gonzalez said.

The move to center field, however, is a change that Gonzalez won't have to make.

"That's fine with me," he said. "I just want to stay healthy and play."

On that, there's no debate in Rockies camp.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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