In 2001 the Minnesota Twins ran a series of commercials called “Get to Know ’Em,” featuring their young players; one of these commercials highlighted Cristian Guzman. The focus of the commercial was on his speed and used an image of a sports car and a speedometer to highlight that speed. Leading the AL in triples three times during his career, his ability to turn hits into the outfield into extra-base hits made him one of the most exciting players to watch during the early years of his career. His speed was his ticket to the big leagues before he rounded out his game to be an All-Star hitter and capable fielder. He dealt with a variety of injuries that affected his play in several seasons and eventually shortened his career.
Born Cristian Antonio Guzman on March 21, 1978, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to Tilson and Nancy Guzman, Cristian was one of 10 children – five girls and five boys. Unlike many youngsters in the Dominican Republic, he was not drawn to baseball at an early age. He spent most of his time working with his father on the family farm in Bani, growing tomatoes, yucca, and papaya. His favorite sport was basketball, and he occasionally skipped school to play pickup games. His friends liked baseball and soccer, so he decided to give baseball a chance, even though he thought it was boring.1 He started playing baseball seriously at the age of 15 when a family friend, Emerson Garcia, was signed by the San Diego Padres. That signing opened Cristian’s eyes to the opportunities baseball presented for a better life for his family and him.2 He also had two uncles playing in the Phillies organization who encouraged him to pursue baseball.
New York Yankees scout Victor Mata signed Cristian as an amateur free agent on August 24, 1994. He remained in the Dominican Republic playing for the Yankees in the Dominican Summer League in 1995. In 1996 he was sent to the Yankees’ Gulf Coast League team in Florida. There he showed some promise, hitting .294 in 42 games. In 1997 he split time between Greensboro and Tampa, establishing himself as a prospect.
The Yankees had an established shortstop, Derek Jeter, but needed a second baseman. The Minnesota Twins had a disgruntled second baseman and needed young talent throughout their organization. On February 6, 1998, the Yankees traded Guzman to the Twins along with Brian Buchanan, Eric Milton, and Danny Mota for second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.
Guzman’s first year in the Twins organization was spent at New Britain in the Eastern League. He played well offensively but had 32 errors in the field and struck out over 100 times. In 1999 he went to spring training in a competition with Denny Hocking and Rule 5 pick Joey Espada for the Twins starting shortstop job. The Twins were a young team with little hope of competing, so the prospect of starting a raw shortstop with potential was an option. They believed Guzman could make the plays on defense but were concerned with his ability to hit. The Twins made the decision to take a chance and go north with him as their starting shortstop. They had some additional concerns with Guzman off the field – mainly his limited English skills. After four seasons in the minors he was able to understand English well but struggled speaking the language. The Twins arranged for him to take English-language classes and he lived with pitcher LaTroy Hawkins,who understood some Spanish but would only speak English to Guzman.3
Guzman’s rookie season showed his promise and his limitations. On defense he showed the ability to make some of the tough plays but he struggled with some of the routine ones. In 1999 a strained right hamstring put Guzman on disabled list at the end of May. In September he served a three-game suspension for charging the mound in an August 31 game against the Toronto Blue Jays. He was upset when a pitch from Paul Spoljaric was near his head. Guzman tackled Spoljaric and gave him a black eye. His hitting developed over the year; at the beginning he struggled to make contact and when he did, it was often weak groundballs. With his speed, the Twins stressed the need to hit the ball on the ground. By the end of the season Guzman was making better contact and started driving the ball more.
The 2000 season showed a vast improvement for Guzman in all facets of the game. He set the Twins record for triples in a season with 20 – the highest single-season total in the AL since Willie Wilson hit 21 in 1985. He improved in every offensive category while playing in 156 games. Off the field he continued to take English lessons five days a week while the team was at home and was more comfortable with giving interviews in English. His parents moved to Minnesota to live with him during the season, making the transition easier.4 The Twins were impressed with Guzman’s progress and signed him to a four-year, $9 million contract in August, allowing them to avoid three years of arbitration and give Guzman some financial security. The Twins were looking to Guzman as an important part of a young team that had a bright future.
On June 4, 2001, in a game against the Cleveland Indians, Guzman provided an example of how his speed could impact a game. In the seventh inning he laid down a bunt that was fielded by the pitcher, Ricardo Rincon. Rincon threw wild to first and the ball rolled toward the right-field corner. By the time the ball was recovered and thrown in, Guzman was sliding across home plate, scoring on a bunt single and a three-base error.
In July Guzman played in his first All-Star Game, striking out in his only at-bat. But shortly after the All-Star break he went on the disabled list with a rotator-cuff injury. He missed 33 games and the Twins slumped, losing 25 of the games. His laid-back approach to rehabilitation frustrated the Twins and would lead to future problems. Playing in only 118 games in 2001, Guzman still managed to lead the AL in triples with 14 and batted .302.
The 2002 season was a disappointment for Guzman due to several nagging injuries, but he still set a career high in at-bats with 623. His overall play, however, was not up to the expectations set the previous two years. Guzman’s lackadaisical approach to rehabbing injuries once again put him at odds with his manager, Ron Gardenhire. However, the Twins won the Central Division title and Guzman made his first postseason appearance. He scored the winning run in a Game Five win over the Oakland A’s in the Division Series. In the AL Championship Series, the Twins fell to the Anaheim Angels in five games. After the season, the Twins decided not to resign David Ortiz, one of Guzman’s closest friends on the team. A fellow Dominican, Ortiz was credited with helping keep Guzman motivated on the field.5
In 2003, for the third time in four seasons Guzman led the AL in triples, with 14. The Twins, though, were starting to lose their patience with him and started listening to trade offers at the winter meetings.
The 2004 season was one of Guzman’s more consistent seasons, second among AL shortstops in fielding percentage at .983. But after the season the Twins declined to pick up the fifth year on his contract, making him a free agent. The Twins were working on a limited budget and still had questions about Guzman’s commitment to improving his game. Free agent Guzman signed a four-year deal worth $16.8 million with the Washington Nationals. One of the first big acquisitions for the Nationals, he was expected to anchor their infield.
Guzman’s first year in Washington was a struggle that found him hitting in all spots in the batting order trying to find a way to help the team. By August he was hitting only .190 and manager Frank Robinson was starting to pinch-hit for him and bench him on occasion. The fans were booing Guzman, and he was losing his confidence. There was talk that the Nationals might release him and eat the remaining years of his contract. He managed to have a good September and raise his season-ending average to .219. This was Guzman’s worst year since his rookie season; the Nationals had had higher expectations for his production and defense.
Going into the 2006 season, the Nationals signed veteran shortstop Royce Clayton to provide some insurance at the position. Over the winter Guzman lost some weight and had laser surgery on his eyes so that he would not have to wear contacts. He entered spring training with a positive outlook and expected to bounce back. In late March the Nationals placed him on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. After a couple of months of rest and rehab, it was announced on May 5 that Guzman would have season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.6
Guzman returned as the starting shortstop for the Nationals under new manager Manny Acta in 2007. With a healthy shoulder, he started the season strong, even after missing some games with a hamstring injury. In late June he was hitting .329 when in a game against Cleveland he slapped a tag on Josh Barfield attempting to steal second base. On the play Guzman damaged ligaments in his thumb and had surgery the next day. The injury kept him out until late September, when he played in three games, ending another frustrating season for Guzman and the Nationals. Just when the Washington fans were starting to warm to him, his season was lost and one started to hear suggestions that he bore the stigma of being injury-prone.
In 2008 Guzman was back in the lineup as the starting shortstop and hitting leadoff. He was named to the All-Star Game for the second time in his career. He credited his success to better vision from the Lasik eye surgery in 2006.7 His stellar play also earned him a two-year contract extension at $8 million a year in late July. Playing through a thumb injury, he went into a slump in August. Breaking out of the slump, he started hitting and on August 28 he hit for the cycle in a game against the Dodgers with a triple in the eighth inning. His solid play continued the rest of the year and he finish fourth in the NL in batting average at .316 and hits with 183.
Guzman started the 2009 season by getting 17 hits in his first seven games before a hamstring injury forced him to go on the 15-day disabled list. Upon returning from the DL, he played well enough to be one of the five players up for the fan vote to make the NL All-Star team, eventually losing out to the Phillies’ Shane Victorino. In August the Nationals placed Guzman on waivers and the Red Sox claimed him, but they were unable to work out a deal to send him to Boston. A sore right shoulder limited Guzman to pinch-hitting during the final two weeks of the season. During the offseason he had arthroscopic surgery on the shoulder.
The Nationals had concerns about Guzman’s durability going into the 2010 season, mainly due to his shoulder issues. They started discussing the possibility of playing him at second base, turning the shortstop job over to Ian Desmond. This would be a significant change for Guzman, who had never played any position in the field except shortstop.
On July 31 the Nationals sent Guzman and cash to the Texas Rangers for minor leaguers Tanner Roark and Ryan Tatusko. Initially Guzman let the Nationals know that he was not going to accept the trade per his rights as a 10-year veteran with five years of service with one team. He eventually decided to accept the trade, realizing that his time in Washington was done. After getting only three hits in 34 at-bats, Guzman went on the disabled list with a strained quadriceps in August. The Rangers decided not to re-sign him at the end of the season.
After Guzman sat out the 2011 season with a shoulder injury, his former manager, Manny Acta, who was managing the Cleveland Indians, persuaded Guzman to go to spring training with the Indians in 2012. He signed a minor-league contract with hopes of making the team as a utilityman. He started the spring strong, but a strained hamstring limited his opportunities late in the spring. At the end of spring training, the Indians released Guzman.
Guzman’s career was one that started with a rapid rise to an All-Star shortstop at age 23 with a bright future. Injuries and questions about his desire led to a shortened career that did not live up to the early expectations. However, his speed led to his legacy as one of the best triples hitters of his generation. In retirement he spends his time with his wife and three children, while staying involved in baseball, working with young players in the Dominican Republic.8
Last revised: October 29, 2022
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Gordon Wittenmyer, “Quick Study: Cristian Guzman Has Gone From Novice to All-Star in Eight Years,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 10, 2001: C1.
2 Jeff Perlman, “The Triple Threat: The Twins’ Cristian Guzman Has Made Three-Baggers His Specialty,” Sports Illustrated, July 31, 2000.
3 LaVelle E. Neal III, “Everyone Is Pulling for Guzman,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 30, 1999: 16C.
4 Chip Scoggins, “Speaking of Success … Twins Shortstop Cristian Guzman Is Becoming One of Baseball’s Best Young Players, and He’ll Soon Be Able to Tell Everyone About It,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 23, 2000.
5 Tom Powers, “Twins Probably Will Be Fine,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 21, 2004.
6 Steven Goff, “Guzman Will Have Surgery, Is Out for Year,” Washington Post, May 6, 2006.
7 Rich Campbell, “Nats Get Eyeful of Improved Guzman a Better View of the Game: All-Star Cristian Guzman Finally Playing Up to Nationals’ Expectations,” Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia), July 14, 2008.