Meet Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Phillies pitcher

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Meet Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Phillies pitcher

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The first thing you notice about Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is the classic pitcher’s body. He is tall -- 6-foot-3 -- and lean, and has the kind of long, whippy arm that impresses scouts and makes general managers reach for their checkbooks.

The next thing you notice about Gonzalez is the pained look on his face when he talks about defecting from his homeland, Cuba, earlier this year to chase his dream of pitching in the major leagues.

“It has been tough being away from my family,” he said in Spanish. “It has definitely been tough. I have no regrets, the distance between me and my family -- my mother, aunts, cousins -- is the only thing.”

For security reasons, Gonzalez does not say much more about his defection, but as the conversation turns to the international language of baseball and his new baseball home -- Philadelphia -- the hint of a smile appears on his face.

“I feel like the change has been a good one,” he said.

This conversation with Gonzalez occurred Thursday at the Phillies’ spring-training complex in Clearwater. Six weeks earlier, the 27-year-old, power-arm right-hander signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Phillies.

“I hope he slides into our rotation for 2014,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said on the day the deal was finalized. “Great stuff. We’ll see how it translates at the major-league level.”

With a translating assist from Ray Robles, the Phillies’ coordinator of international operations, Gonzalez spoke with Philadelphia-based reporters for the first time Thursday. He talked about his hopes and dreams, his health and his style of pitching.

“I have several pitches,” he said. “Fastball, curveball, changeup, cutter, splitter.”

He paused.

“Knuckleball. Sinker.”

Knuckleball?

Si.”

That’s more than several.

***

Gonzalez said he’s able to use any of those pitches in a game. He was asked how he decided which pitch to throw and his answer was that of an educated baseball man.

“Every day is different,” he said. “The hitter will show you what kind of pitch you want to throw.

“The main thing for me is location, getting the pitches where I want them.”

That comment provided a good segue.

Gonzalez, who pitched in two World Cup tournaments for Cuba, was suspended from his national team after a failed attempt to defect in 2012. He has pitched only a handful of competitive innings in the last 18 months, mostly during a showcase for major-league clubs this summer in Mexico. When is this guy going to get on a bullpen mound and show off some of that repertoire? He has spent the last month conditioning his body and arm but has yet to throw off a bullpen mound.

Joe Jordan, the Phillies’ director of player development, said the plan was for Gonzalez to throw off a mound in the next week or 10 days, then move into an offseason conditioning program before starting a pre-spring training throwing program in January.

“Initially we were thinking we were going to get him into bullpens, but we decided it just wasn’t the right thing to do,” Jordan said. “He had gone on this lengthy tour throwing for teams and showcasing himself. Then he took six weeks off before we signed him. We decided there was no need to accelerate him just so we could see a bullpen.

“We decided to slow him down and get him a good base, start him from the ground up -- conditioning program, shoulder program, long-toss. He’s been 100 percent committed.

“Once spring training starts, he’s going to be familiar with what we do to prepare and condition the arm, the shoulder. We’ve gotten through that so it won’t be as foreign when spring training starts.”

Gonzalez didn’t have a problem with the Phillies’ taking the slow road because he encountered some hurdles when he cranked up his arm after the layoff.

“I didn’t feel quite there yet,” he said. “I didn’t feel coordinated.”

He’s throwing long-toss at 120 feet now and feels …

“Excellent,” he said. “I am finally finding myself again. A year and a half not pitching … I wasn’t coordinated and with a month of training here, I feel like I’m coming back."


***

Questions remain.

For instance, will Gonzalez be ready to compete for a spot next to Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee in the starting rotation in mid-February?

Minor-league pitching coordinator Carlos Arroyo, who has been with Gonzalez for a month, said yes.

So did Jordan.

So did Gonzalez.

“Slowing him down was the best thing to happen,” Arroyo said. “It got him to understand how we work and how to become a professional and take care of his arm.

“He’s healthy and sound.”

Gonzalez has had arm issues. He had bone chips surgically removed from his elbow in January 2012. Many pitchers have that surgery in their careers, and Gonzalez said he received an excellent procedure and is 100 percent healthy.

However, the Phillies clearly had some level of concern about Gonzalez’s health. The two sides initially agreed on a six-year, $48 million contract in July, but it was reworked after Gonzalez was examined by Phillies doctors.

“No comment,” Gonzalez said about the reworked deal.

If Gonzalez is as good as scouts think he can be, he will make plenty of money in this game. Amaro said Phillies’ scouts believe Gonzalez can become a No. 2 or 3 starter. The Phils need guys like that -- and soon. As of right now, they have only two sure-things in the 2014 rotation -- Hamels and Lee.

“It will be very exciting to pitch with them,” Gonzalez said. “It will be an extra help for me. It stimulates me to become better and become like them.”

***

Gonzalez will become the fourth Cuban defector to pitch for the Phillies, joining Eddie Oropesa, Danys Baez and Jose Contreras. Recently, Gonzalez has drawn inspiration from countrymen Yeonis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, two of his contemporaries who have gone on to become offensive forces for the Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively.

Gonzalez fantasizes about facing them in a major-league game.

“It will be something spectacular,” he said. “Their success feels like my own because they are Cuban and they are friends.”

Gonzalez was asked whether he believed he could be an impact player like his two friends.

“Nobody knows that yet,” he said.

What do you feel in your heart?

“I feel good, confident and I feel like I’m capable,” he said. “But the future cannot be predicted. You have to do it and let things flow.

“Right now I’m just focused on my work, my job and helping my team. I’m focused on the great opportunity that it is to play for the Phillies. That’s what I am most gracious about.”

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

The addition of outfielder Michael Saunders doesn't suddenly make the Phillies an NL contender, but coupled with the trade for Howie Kendrick, the Phils' projected lineup is much deeper and more well-rounded than it was at this time last year.

By adding two capable corner outfield bats, the lineup has been lengthened, and it's unlikely you'll see someone like Freddy Galvis in the five-hole much in 2017.

The Saunders signing is not yet official, but assuming it goes through, the Phils' lineup could look like this on opening day:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (S)
2. Howie Kendrick, LF 
3. Odubel Herrera, CF (L)
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF (L)
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS (S)

Considering the Phillies started Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos in the outfield corners last opening day, this is a huge upgrade even if Kendrick and Saunders are not huge names. 

Phillies leftfielders hit .212/.284/.332 last season. Unless Kendrick forgets how to hit overnight, he won't come close to those numbers. Phillies rightfielders had eight home runs in 637 plate appearances last season. Give Saunders that many PAs and you're likely looking at 27 to 30 homers.

Before last season, Kendrick hit between .279 and .322 every year from 2006 to 2015. Having a guy who can hit .290 with a .330-plus on-base percentage in the two-hole is a big deal, especially if he's hitting between Hernandez (.371 OBP last season) and Herrera (.361 OBP). You can foresee plenty of scenarios where, if that's the 1-2-3, Herrera comes up with runners on the corners in the first inning.

Saunders is another 20-plus home run bat. When you look through the Phillies' lineup, there are potentially five of those. Plus, don't sleep on the improvement Herrera made in that department last season, almost doubling his HR total from eight to 15.

The balance of left-handed and right-handed bats will make the Phillies more difficult to pitch to. It was important that the outfield bat they added was left-handed, because if not you'd be looking at an extremely right-handed heavy middle of the order.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of adding two veteran hitters who have had success in the majors. Franco could use all the additional advice he can get. Herrera, too, is at an impressionable age. Might Franco be less likely to give away an at-bat, as he did so many times in 2016, with someone like Kendrick there to greet him at the top step of the dugout? That question may sound silly, but the entire environment changes when you add a respected veteran leader to a clubhouse filled with kids.

This is not to say the Phillies will have a top-five offense in 2017. They'll still likely be toward the bottom-half or bottom-third of the National League, but as of right now this isn't the NL's worst lineup like it was for the majority of last season. The Reds and Padres have worse lineups, and you could add the Brewers and Pirates to that list if Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen are traded.

Pete Mackanin has called for more offense and more lineup flexibility and he's gotten it, even though it doesn't involve real star power. Kendrick's ability to also play first base and second base could allow Aaron Altherr to get some playing time in an outfield corner when Hernandez or Joseph sits. 

The only real casualty of the Saunders signing is Roman Quinn, who Mackanin confirmed Tuesday night would likely spend the year at Triple A. Quinn showed some flashes late last season and is an exciting player, but it would have been risky to rely on him as a starting outfielder in 2017 given he's never even reached 400 plate appearances in a season. 

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

READING, Pa. — Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.

It won’t be possible to fully gauge the right-hander’s condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.

But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. “I feel back to normal.

“My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow — a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.

Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“All through the rehab, I had no pain,” Nola said. “Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I’ve been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it.”

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.

Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.

Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.

“There's a part of me that’s concerned,” Mackanin said. “When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels.”

Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that’s a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he’s healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.

More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest or [Quinn’s] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A,” Mackanin said. “We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn’t done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he’s a potential game changer.”

Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.

Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer’s job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.

So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”