Gil's ability to adapt a result of unusual path
Culiacan manager draws from experience as touted prospect, castoff, champ and more
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- First-year Culiacan manager Benji Gil can still remember the first time he used a defensive shift in a Mexican League game.
It was a Wednesday night in late September in Nogales, Mexico. The Tomateros, Naranjeros de Hermosillo, Yaquis de Obregon and Mayos de Navojoa had gathered for a four-team preseason exhibition series at Estadio Hoefer as part of a promotional tour around the country.
Obregon had a runner on second base with two outs in the first inning and a right-handed pull hitter at the plate, so Gil shifted his defense left, moving his second baseman to a spot deep behind the bag. The other fielders moved over a few feet. The shift was greeted with bewilderment. There were audible groans from the stands.
The batter proceeded to hit a slow dribbler to the exact spot where the second baseman would normally play for an RBI single.
"I honestly don't think our coaching staff had bought into it yet, and I was like, 'Dang it!'" Gil, 42, said. "Out of the corner of my eye, I catch my coaches making faces like, 'I don't know if all this is going to work, Benji.' Nobody was doing shifts. I got a lot of strange looks."
Shifting is in Gil's nature. The former first-round pick has gone from top prospect to flop, journeyman to Mexican League hero and eventually a World Series champion. Now, he's hoping all of his experience will lead Mexico to the country's third Caribbean Series title in a row and fourth in five years.
"I think if there is a benefit to my life experiences as far as managing a team is concerned, it's that I can understand just about every scenario that these guys can be living through," said Gil, who played in Mexico for 20 years. "I can get in their shoes because I have been in their shoes."
Culiacan is 2-2 after a 4-2 loss to Venezuela's Caribes de Anzoategui on Friday afternoon at Hiram Birthorn Stadium. They'll take on the Dominican Republic's Gigantes del Cibao in the first semifinal on Saturday, followed by Pinar de Rio from Cuba and Venezuela in the second semifinal. The championship is set for Sunday.
Gil has made believers out of his doubters.
"Sure enough, the same guy came up again with a guy at second, and he hit a bullet right into the shift for an out," Gil said. "The third time, he comes up with nobody on, and he tried to stay inside of an inside pitch instead of trying to pull it and he popped it right up in the infield. You see that more than anything else. Guys try to stay inside of pitches against our shift and pop it up. It's about trying to get them out of their comfort zone and their strength."
Gil has employed a defensive shift several times during the Caribbean Series, including Thursday night while trying to preserve a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning against the Dominican Republic. Gil brought in an extra infielder from the outfield with runners on the corners and one out, with Phillies third-base prospect Maikel Franco at the plate. Franco struck out swinging on six pitches.
Did the defensive shift affect Franco's approach at the plate? Gil likes to think so. The Dominican Republic eventually won the game later in the inning on a walk-off single.
"We don't have the resources the big league teams have, but we have scouting and charting, just not to the degree they have," Gil said. "It's a little bit more difficult not having all of the information, but we have been pretty successful with it. I'm not exactly pleased that all teams are shifting now, but it's good for the game. The game in Mexico is evolving. For the development of Mexican baseball, it would be the right thing to do start using more data analysis."
Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Gil was selected with the 19th pick in the first round of the 1991 First-Year Player Draft by the Rangers out of Castle Rock High School in Chula Vista, Calif. Two years later, he was in the big leagues. By 1995, Gil was the team's starting shortstop at age 22.
"I was a top prospect, somebody that was to be part of the future in the organization with guys like Juan Gonzalez, Pudge, Dean Palmer and Rusty Greer," Gil said. "We were supposed to be a formidable offense for a while. Teams made adjustments on me and I didn't make adjustments in the second half [of 1995], but you could see I had the potential to have good numbers for a shortstop in Texas."
Gil won a Caribbean Series title during the winter of 1995. He injured his back during Spring Training in '96, and it changed everything. Gil's replacement, Kevin Elster, drove in 99 runs in his absence, setting an unrealistic bar for shortstops in Texas. Gil returned, but he never measured up.
"I remember that year, we were almost ready to release Elster, and Benji got hurt," said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who was the GM of the Rangers at the time. "He came up really young and I think he got rushed to the big leagues. He had a lot of talent and a great throwing arm, but he was rushed and it hurt him a little bit. I'm really happy to hear what he is doing now in Mexico."
Gil was eventually traded from the Rangers to the White Sox in 1997, and he was selected by the Marlins in the Rule 5 Draft in '98. He made it back to the big leagues as a utility player with the Angels in 2000 and was part of the club's World Series championship team in '02. Gil went 8-for-12 for the Angels during the postseason that year, including 4-for-5 in the World Series against Giants.
Gil would go on to play his final season in Mexico in 2011. He played one game for the independent league Fort Worth Cats in '12 and has been part of the Texas Rangers' Spanish broadcast team for the past two seasons.
"I've played upward of 50-plus games at each position and every infield position 100 times each. I've hit at every spot in the order, so I understand the job," said Gil, who lives in North Texas with his wife, Carly, and teenage sons Mateo and Gehrig. "I've learned to adapt, and not because it was by choice. It was by necessity. I was a guy that was considered a top prospect and a guy that they called a flop and had to work my way back. Now, here I am. It's been a lot of fun managing. I feel like I was born to do this."