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Gonzalez ready for permanent role in center field

At Precious CarGo toy drive, All-Star discusses moving over in the outfield

DENVER -- The temperature was low and the line outside the Rockies' Diamond Dry Goods Store at Coors Field was long, but the chance to experience the warmth of outfielder Carlos Gonzalez's smile and brighten the holidays for many was well worth it Saturday morning.

Gonzalez and about 10 family members accepted toy donations during the Precious CarGo Toy Drive, in which fans donated a toy for the chance to meet Gonzalez, a two-time All-Star. The toys would be distributed through several charities serving children in need -- Samaritan House, Tennyson Center for Children, Vino y Chocolate Toy Drive, GIVE Denver-Adopt a Family and Children's Hospital Colorado. Gonzalez has even offered to deliver many of the toys personally.

"Our family and the Rockies organization, we thought about this idea," Gonzalez said. "I'm so glad we can make it happen. It's been so great to spend time with the community, with the fans. I'm surprised how many people showed up today.

"I'm really excited because it's a good cause. We're going to help a lot of people, a lot of kids, with Christmas presents. I'm really proud to be a part of all this, and the Rockies organization, too."

It was good Gonzalez had face time with his fans. When the season starts, he'll be a little farther from them, thanks to a position change -- from left field to center field. The Rockies traded Dexter Fowler to the Astros earlier this month and needed Gonzalez, a three-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner, to man that important position.

"Some people are disappointed because there are no seats behind center field," Gonzalez said with a laugh. "They say they're going to miss me in left, but I told them I'm going to be right next to them."

Depending on matchups or injury situations, Gonzalez bounced among all three outfield positions until 2011. That was the year Gonzalez had a good argument for a Gold Glove, but it was the first year awards were given by position rather than to the best three outfielders. Not playing regularly at any of the three spots cost him votes.

Also, Gonzalez dealt with several nagging injuries that he sustained after diving for balls or, in one case, running into the outfield wall. He and former manager Jim Tracy agreed on placing him in left and not moving him, so he would not have to constantly adjust to the various positions and parks -- a process that Gonzalez felt increased injury risk.

It'll be the same now. He'll play center, but won't bounce to left for a particular matchup. There is a concern that the spacious center field could create wear on his legs, as it has for many Rockies center fielders in the past, going back to the days of Ellis Burks in the 1990s. But Gonzalez doesn't fear the move.

"I'm excited," he said. "It's something I've done before. I think it's the best for the team, so I'm getting ready for it. I'm really excited about the challenge. I'm just trying to make this team better.

"Left field here is kind of like playing center field at a different field. It's a challenge because when you get used to playing a corner, it's a big adjustment to go to center. I'm sure I'll be fine. I'm sure it'll be OK for me."

Gonzalez and the Rockies are looking for a bounce-back year. The club finished 74-88 and had its second straight last-place finish in the National League West. The fact Gonzalez was either slowed or out of the lineup entirely after suffering a sprained right middle finger in early July was a factor. Gonzalez opted not to have surgery and the rest helped -- he recently began swinging the bat, and didn't experience pain.

As for the Rockies, free agency has brought slugging first baseman Justin Morneau, closer LaTroy Hawkins and, once he passes a physical, hard-throwing lefty reliever Boone Logan. The Rockies also traded for A's lefty Brett Anderson -- who began his career in the D-backs like Gonzalez, and was sent to the A's along with Gonzalez in the trade for pitcher Dan Haren. The Fowler deal brought in starting pitcher Jordan Lyles and outfielder Brandon Barnes.

"I'm excited about Brett because we were a part of that trade going from Arizona to Oakland, and we're back playing together," Gonzalez said. "He's a really good competitor, a lefty that we really need in our rotation. With him and [Jorge] De La Rosa, it's a good mix for the opposing teams. Guys like Boone Logan and Morneau, we're getting better. We're getting close to where we want to be."

On a cold December morning, however, seeing Gonzalez was good enough for an enthusiastic group of fans. One club official said fans began lining up hours before the doors opened.

The Rockies helped the event's success with an aggressive bilingual marketing campaign -- an important move for a club that has had numerous stars from Gonzalez's native Venezuela and has a strong Caribbean contingent on the roster. It was estimated that about half the fans who made the donations and met Gonzalez spoke Spanish or were bilingual.

Gonzalez said the idea came from his wife, Indonesia, who participated in similar events in Venezuela, where she was a soap opera star. On Saturday, he enjoyed meeting fans as much as they were happy to see him.

"It's awesome," said Gonzalez, who did a similar event at the Dugout Store in Colorado Springs. "We never get to spend time with them. They watch us play from the stands, but they never get to see us closely. It's a good experience for them. I enjoy it at the same time. I know they're having fun and I'm trying to give a smile to them."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.
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