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.”

Today's Lineup: Daniel Nava, Brock Stassi, Andrew Knapp all get starts

Today's Lineup: Daniel Nava, Brock Stassi, Andrew Knapp all get starts

Just mere hours after topping the Braves in dramatic fashion in the 10th inning, the Phillies will have a much different lineup take the field Sunday afternoon as they look for the sweep of Atlanta (see Sunday's game notes).

Daniel Nava, Brock Stassi and Andrew Knapp will all start Sunday's series finale.

Nava will bat fifth start in left field for the ailing Howie Kendrick, who's missed the last week with an oblique issue. Nava's sample size at the plate so far this season is small, but he's still 8 for 21 (.381 batting average) with two homers, two doubles and 7 RBI. So it makes sense that manager Pete Mackanin wants to get Nava some more at-bats.

Stassi bats sixth and gets the nod at first in place of Tommy Joseph, who had that odd sequence of events late in Saturday's win. First, Joseph had an ugly at-bat with the game tied in the ninth inning. Then in the top of the 10th, he caught a popped-up bunt and suddenly made an ill-advised throw to an empty third base, helping the Braves plate the go-ahead run. So today could be a day just to clear Joseph's head.

Both Nava and Stassi are left-handed bats against Braves righty starter Mike Foltynewicz.

Knapp will give Cameron Rupp the day-game-after-night-game breather behind the plate Sunday.

One note on Atlanta's lineup: Brandon Phillips, who drilled the game-tying homer off Edubray Ramos in the top of the ninth on Saturday, has been moved up to the second spot in the order for Sunday's finale.

Both teams' lineups can be found below:

Phillies
1. Cesar Hernandez 2B
2. Aaron Altherr RF
3. Odubel Herrera CF
4. Maikel Franco 3B
5. Daniel Nava LF
6. Brock Stassi 1B
7. Freddy Galvis SS
8. Andrew Knapp C
9. Zach Eflin SP

Braves
1. Ender Inciarte CF
2. Brandon Phillips 2B
3. Freddie Freeman 1B
4. Matt Kemp LF
5. Nick Markakis RF
6. Kurt Suzuki C
7. Jace Peterson 3B
8. Dansby Swanson SS
9. Mike Foltynewicz SP

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Phils aim for first sweep of the season

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Phils aim for first sweep of the season

Phillies (8-9) vs. Braves (6-11)
1:35 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies and Braves played quite the game Saturday night. 

The teams went back and forth in the final two innings, culminating in Maikel Franco's walk-off single. What do they have in store for Sunday? Zach Eflin will take the hill for the Phillies opposite Mike Foltynewicz, a matchup of developing right-handers in their 20s.

Here are five things to know for Sunday's game.

1. Eflin back to form
Promoted to the majors at the beginning of the week, Eflin looked back to form in his first MLB start of 2017.

Eflin had the unfortunate problem of needing to rehab two knee surgeries this offseason, but clearly has not lost much in terms of his stuff. He looked a lot like the Eflin who produced five quality starts in a stretch of six appearances last summer, not the one who gave up 20 runs in his last 13 innings.

While he threw just five innings against the Mets, he limited New York to just two runs while working around six baserunners. Both runs came in the first inning and he retired 13 of his last 15 batters faced. 

The 23-year-old righty lives off his low-90s fastball and sinker while mixing in a slider and curveball. He was sinker heavy in his first start of 2017 and it was effective at Citi Field.

One of his best starts last season came against the Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Eflin needed just 92 pitches to throw a six-hit complete game with just one earned run allowed, a solo homer by Ender Inciarte. He didn't walk any Braves batters and struck out six in a quick game (2:08 in duration). Atlanta slugger Freddie Freeman went 0 for 3 with a strikeout and no batter got more than one hit.

2. Foltynewicz vs. the Phils
Foltynewicz hasn't had an ideal start to the season. His first start came in inclement weather vs. the Pirates, then he had to come out of the bullpen with a series of off days, which allowed the Braves to skip their fifth starter.

His most recent appearance came back in the rotation on Tuesday and he held his own against the Nationals, who were without a few key veterans but still had Max Scherzer on the hill. Foltynewicz held the Nats the just two runs over seven innings, scattering nine baserunners while striking out three batters. He walked four batters and has a paltry 8/7 K-BB ratio this year. 

In his three seasons with the Braves, the 25-year-old righty has a sub-optimal 4.85 ERA over 222 2/3 innings. However, his ERA got much better from 2015 to 16 (5.71 to 4.31) and his 4.26 ERA thus far in 2017 isn't half bad. 

Foltynewicz lives off his mid-90s fastball that has touched 97 this season. He mixes in a slider that draws a lot of groundballs, a sinker and a changeup. His velocity is down a little this season, which could explain his poor strikeout rate.

Folynewicz is 2-1 in four appearances against the Phillies in his career but has a 6.00 ERA, allowing five homers and 12 runs in 18 innings. Franco and Tommy Joseph each have one of those home runs while Odubel Herrera has three hits off the right-hander.

3. Ryan Howard: Braves minor leaguer
Believe it or not, Ryan Howard could be playing for another NL East team this year. The former Phillies slugger made his debut Saturday night for the Gwinnett Braves, Atlanta's Triple-A affiliate. 

Howard had himself quite a night, going 2 for 2 with two singles, an RBI, a hit-by-pitch and a walk, which was intentional. For someone signed so recently to a minor-league pact, it was an encouraging showing, although it's unlikely he'll be called up anytime soon.

There are two major obstacles to Howard making it back to the show with the Braves. The first is Freddie Freeman. With Freeman, the Braves already have a lefty slugger at first base for the foreseeable future. The other issue is Howard isn't on the Braves' 40-man roster. Atlanta has little incentive to add Howard to its 40-man because they're in full rebuild mode and need to prioritize their prospects.

Still, there may be something left in the tank for Howard. He still hit 20 home runs last season and was quite effective in the second half, particularly as a platoon bat. Even if the Braves ultimately don't need Howard, his opportunity in Gwinnett is a chance to audition for other teams as well. Veterans on minor-league deals often have opt-outs or could be granted their release if another team shows interest. 

If you're curious, Howard doesn't play Lehigh Valley, the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate, until July 17-19 and doesn't play in Lehigh Valley until a week later.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Freddy Galvis struck out twice on Saturday, but he also extended his hitting streak to six games with a double. It was just his second extra-base hit since April 7.

Braves: Freddie Freeman has raised his average to .400 on the season. His .400/.507/.850 batting line won't last, but he looks to have brought his game to another level this year.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are on a three-game winning streak, including two straight over the Braves. Despite finishing ahead of Atlanta in the standings in 2016, the Phillies lost their last seven games vs. the Braves last season.

• The Phils have won two extra-inning games in the last five days. They haven't done that since April 17 and 20 of last season.

• Aaron Altherr has a six-game hitting streak going and has raised his average to .379. He has doubled in consecutive games and has two hits in three straight games. For good measure, he's added stolen bases in two of Phillies' last three games.