By Andrew Sifari
As Spring Training begins, one of the big question marks for the Phillies entering camp is Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. The Cuban right-hander, signed to a three-year, $12 million deal last August, has been the subject of much speculation in the time since teams began scouting him in earnest last April.
Information regarding Gonzalez’s pitching ability is limited. While it has been asserted that he is 100% healthy, it is still hard to forget that the Phillies signed Gonzalez to his current contract only after offering a larger one and retracting it soon after. Most believe this had something to do with a 2012 procedure Gonzalez had done to remove bone chips from his elbow, though this isn't confirmed.
General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his staff are in a similar boat; Gonzalez had pitched only a handful of times since coming to the States, including scouting showcases last year. Although the hopes are high, Amaro has admitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Gelb, “If I knew more what Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez was, I would feel better about it.”
This is an attitude shared by most fans. The overall feeling around baseball is that the Phillies aren’t going to be very good, though Amaro insists that health will be a bigger issue than talent. “I don't believe all of a sudden that these guys are so old that they've lost all of their bat speed, their quickness, and their abilities,” he told the Inquirer’s Bob Ford, referring to veterans such as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, both of whom have missed substantial time to injuries in the past few seasons.
As far as Gonzalez is concerned, things seem to be picking up. He began throwing bullpen sessions January 6th, and insists that he is in full health. Even better, he notes improvement in his pitches, noting an increase in speed and movement.
The question is, of course, what can fans look forward to from Gonzalez this spring? What we do know about Gonzalez, who is 6’3”, 190 lbs, is that his fastball regularly sits in the mid-90’s, occasionally reaching the high-90s. Complimenting his heater are a curveball, changeup and splitter.
In a scouting report from July 2013 by BleacherReport’s Mike Rosenbaum, its noted that “Employing a high leg kick, Gonzalez hides the ball well and, for the most part, does a nice job of keeping his shoulders closed and in line with the plate. However, there are times when he’ll cut off his stride and rip open with his front shoulder, which leads to lower velocity and flatter offerings left up in the zone. Additionally, the right-hander doesn’t always finish his delivery and, in those instances, tends to rely on sheer arm strength rather than executing pitches.”
It remains, of course, to be seen how his style of pitching translates to Citizens Bank Park, which is still a very hitter-friendly venue. Leaving pitches up in the zone, especially when thrown in the mid-90s, is a great way to get hit around at the Major League level, especially since the Phillies defense going into this year looks less than stellar.
Pitchers who regularly throw splitters aren’t all that common; some current Major Leaguers throwing the pitch include Ubaldo Jimenez, Ryan Dempster, Freddy Garcia, Koji Uehara, Hiroki Kuroda, and the Phillies’ own Jonathan Papelbon. The key with that pitch is keeping it low in the zone. Splitters, or split-fingered fastballs, are usually thrown hard enough to hit out, but drop vertically like a 12-6 curveball would. The most important thing is, again, keeping the ball down, so that batters either beat the pitch into the dirt or swing and miss altogether.
If Gonzalez pans out, he could benefit the Phillies in many ways. There will be little pressure on him to be ‘that guy’ unless either Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee struggles, so he will get enough time to figure things out. Plus, his presence all but ensures that the competition for a rotation spot will likely come down to him and Jonathan Pettibone, forcing Ethan Martin to the bullpen, where his 94-95 fastball will be of more use to the team.
The thing that jumps out most, though, is Gonzalez’s fastball. First of all, the Phillies’ top two starters are left-handed, so Gonzalez’s presence alone will be a nice change of pace. If he can throw anywhere near as hard as scouts say he can, and be effective, it will be huge for a Phillies rotation that, for the most part, lacks the kind of firepower a 96-mph fastball comes with.
Gonzalez, in addition to adjusting to new competition, must also adjust to American life, as well as the American style of playing. While countrymen Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes seem to have done well so far (Puig’s driving citations aside), you can’t assume the same for Gonzalez. He is still very much a case of 'wait-and-see.' The hope around the Phillies clubhouse is that Gonzalez develops into a number two or three starter. The question is, will he be ready this year? Or will he need some polish? Remember, this is a guy who hasn’t pitched competitively in months, and has only just begun throwing seriously.
The Phillies, however, don't seem worried about his availability for spring games. While he may not throw a whole lot of innings at first, he is definitely a player worth looking out for.