Meet Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Phillies pitcher

oct1013-gonzalez-pic.jpg

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.”

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

In his second-to-last game in a Phillies uniform, Ryan Howard will man first base and bat fifth against the Mets on Saturday afternoon (1:05/FOX).

Howard went 1 for 4 Friday night with a double. The first baseman has three home runs and five RBI in 44 at-bats against the Mets this season. 

Andres Blanco takes Freddy Galvis’ starting spot at shortstop and bats second. Galvis left Friday night's game with hamstring tightness. Blanco has not made a start since Sept. 16, but is batting .294 against the Mets this year.

Cameron Rupp catches and bats sixth for the second day in a row. Rupp went 2 for 3 on Friday night with an RBI. Jimmy Paredes and Aaron Altherr follow Rupp in the lineup and man the corners in the outfield.

Here's the Phillies' full lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Andres Blanco, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Phil Klein, P

And the Mets lineup:
1. Jose Reyes, 3B
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
3. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
4. Curtis Granderson, CF
5. Jay Bruce, RF
6. T.J. Rivera, 2B
7. James Loney, 1B
8. Travis d'Arnaud, C
9. Bartolo Colon, P

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Is Phil Klein ready to stop 5-game skid?

Phillies-Mets 5 things: Is Phil Klein ready to stop 5-game skid?

Phillies (70-90) vs. Mets (86-74)
1:05 p.m. on FOX

The Phillies continue to stumble towards the finish line with their fifth straight loss and seventh in eight games. Phil Klein makes a spot start out of the bullpen for the Phils while the Mets turn to Bartolo Colon in a nationally televised game.

Here are five things to watch on Saturday afternoon.

1. Mets playoff update
With Friday's win, the Mets cannot be eliminated this weekend. Their magic number for a playoff spot is just one.

That means that if they win one more game or the St. Louis Cardinals lose a game to the Pirates in the next two days, the Mets clinch a spot in the NL wild card game. If the Phillies are able to beat the Mets back-to-back, the Cardinals win both games and the San Fransico Giants win at least one game, the Mets will be forced to play in a tiebreaker on Monday.

Got all that?

Because the Mets won four of seven against the Giants this year, they only need one more win to clinch homefield advantage in the NL wild card game. That means that if they win on Saturday, they'll have the ability to skip Noah Syndergaard, the scheduled starter for Sunday, and have him pitch in the wild card game. 

Therefore, a win by the Phillies on Saturday that isn't accompanied by both a Cardinals and Giants loss would likely force the Mets to pitch Syndergaard before 
the wild card game.

2. Life after Howard
Ryan Howard's option for 2017 will undoubtably be declined by the Phillies after the season, meaning of course that Howard is in his final two games in a Phillies uniform.

But what exactly comes next?

It's easy enough to say Tommy Joseph. Joseph has been extremely impressive in his first season in the majors. The now-25 year old broke into the majors in a big way and carries a .257/.308/.505 line into Saturday over his first 347 big league plate appearances. He has 21 home runs and 47 RBI. 

But there are reasons to be concerned. The big one is his injury history. Joseph dealt with concussion issues that moved him to first from behind the plate. While it seems to be behind him, it does raise a question with his durability. He also struck out in over 20 percent of his plate appearances this year and will need to be better in that regard.

Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how he handles making the team out of spring training next year and manning first base every day. The term 'sophomore slump' exists for a reason because plenty of players take a step back in Year 2.

It doesn't mean Joseph can't be relied on as the future at first base. Far from it. But how the Phillies provide support for him during the inevitable peaks and valleys will be key to his long-term takeover of the first base job.

3. Klein makes spot start 
The Phillies chose not to give Jake Thompson one more start and instead will hand Klein the penultimate start of the season. 

Klein made a spot start for the Phils on Aug. 3 vs. the Giants after Aaron Nola was shut down for the season. The 27-year-old righty held his own for five innings, allowing four runs in a 5-4 Phillies win, although he didn't factor in the decision.

Things haven't gone so well for Klein since he was recalled earlier in September. Klein dominated Triple A with a 1.51 ERA in 14 appearances (10 starts), but he's appeared out of the bullpen twice for the Phils in the last week. He gave up three runs and five baserunners while getting one out in the 17-0 loss on Sunday.

He followed that up with a four-out, two-run outing. He's thrown just 52 pitches and 24 strikes in those games, meaning he's lacking control and isn't fully stretched out. It's hard to blame Klein for his rust: He hadn't pitched in 16 days before Sunday.

Expect Klein's outing to be somewhat shortlived and this game to be a bullpen affair.

4. Big Bart in a big game
Believe it or not, but the oldest member of the Mets' rotation this year has been the healthiest.

Colon, who turned 43 in May, has made 32 starts, his most in a season since he won the American League Cy Young in 2005. He has started every fifth day for the Mets this year and even made one start on short rest. Meanwhile, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz, all under 30, were lost to arm injuries for the season.

The righty known as Big Bart had a streak of five straight quality starts until his last start on Sept. 26. It was the Marlins' first game after Jose Fernandez's tragic death and the Fish knocked Colon around for seven runs while he recorded just seven outs.

Colon only threw 47 pitches in that game, so he should be completely fresh today. The big man carries an impressive 3.42 ERA and 14-8 record into Saturday, made even more remarkable considering he began in baseball in 1997.

5. This and that
• Howard has just six hits off Colon in 35 plate appearances, but he has made them count. He has three home runs and eight RBI. One of the home runs came earlier this season while the other two came in 2008.

• The Mets have turned up their offense in September, averaging 5.22 runs per game and going 17-10. The Phillies have been just about the opposite, going 10-17 and scored just 4.07 runs per game. 

• The Phillies are in the midst of their fourth losing streak of at least five games this year. They won't have a chance to eclipse their nine-game losing streak from Jun. 14-22.

• At 70-90, the Phillies are 20 games under .500 for the first time all season. They currently have the eighth worst record in baseball. The worst draft pick they can finish with is No. 9 overall.