Prized prospects Franco, Gonzalez eye big leagues

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Prized prospects Franco, Gonzalez eye big leagues

When looking for inspiration, Severino Gonzalez has a couple of pretty good role models.

One is Mariano Rivera, which is a pretty good choice for a pitcher, regardless of nationality. Given that both are from Panama, Rivera’s status in the game takes on a greater impact for Gonzalez.

Then there is Carlos Ruiz. Well known to all Panamanians, Gonzalez has latched onto Ruiz because they are from nearby towns. But given that Gonzalez is a pitcher in the Phillies organization with pinpoint control and a repertoire of pitches that the Phillies’ brass says is reminiscent of Rivera, perhaps there is a chance the team could have an all-Panama battery.

“In spring training was the first time I met him,” Gonzalez said. “The relationship grew from that.”

Gonzalez said Ruiz took him out for dinner and gave him advice when he could. For a kid who watched the 2008 World Series and felt like he was out there celebrating with his countryman when the Phillies won, it was pretty heady stuff for Gonzalez.

But whatever Ruiz passed on must have been pretty good because the right-handed pitcher put together a phenomenal season. Starting in extended spring training, the 6-foot-1, 150-pounder who still wears braces on his teeth, moved to low-A ball in Lakewood before moving to high-A Clearwater as a roster filler.

As it turned out, Gonzalez was a little more than just a guy on the bench. In 20 outings at Clearwater, including nine starts, the righty posted a 2.02 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 75 innings. By the end of the year, he was at Double A Reading for a start and on Monday and Tuesday he was in Philadelphia with Reading teammate Maikel Franco to pick up his hardware for winning the Paul Owens Award.

Given to the top pitcher and hitter in the Phillies system, Gonzalez won the Paul Owens Award, though he escaped much of the notice that Franco received. Gonzalez’s record wasn’t spectacular at 7-5, but he posted a 2.00 ERA between three teams with 119 strikeouts in 103 2/3 innings with just 22 walks. Gonzalez had 19 walks in 20 games and 75 2/3 innings for Clearwater.

Just 20 years old, Gonzalez understands that good things happen when a pitcher throws strikes.

“I just didn’t want to walk anyone,” Gonzalez said. “I just kept throwing strikes and that was what I was after.”

Like Rivera, Gonzalez throws a cutter that he moves in and out on hitters. He says he needs to work on his changeup, but he has been able to get away without one so far. In the meantime, Gonzalez likely will start the 2014 season at Double A where he can work on his repertoire.

Franco will probably be at Triple A to start the 2014 season, though an invitation to big-league camp in the spring isn’t far-fetched. Franco belted 31 homers with 103 RBIs and a .320 batting average in 134 games with Clearwater and Reading. His 70 extra-base hits led the minors and got some notice from Phils’ interim manager Ryne Sandberg.

If Franco were to get an invite to big-league camp, Sandberg -- if he is still the manager -- would be excited to see what he can do.

“A guy like him, if he’s in spring training next year, it’ll be the first time for a lot of people to get a look at him and see what he looks like on a field with major leaguers and get him a taste of that,” Sandberg said. “I think (Cody) Asche experienced that last year coming to big-league camp. Sometimes they can gauge what they need to work on, and also gauge where they stand compared to big leaguers.”

Of course there is the issue of a position for Franco, who has played third base for all but eight games last year. He dabbled a bit at first base for Reading and said he felt comfortable with it. However, Asche looks to have an inside track on the third base job next spring and Ryan Howard has first base locked up for a couple more seasons.

Where does that leave Franco if he continues to tear up minor-league pitching?

“Whatever position they want me to play, I’ll play,” Franco said. “Everybody wants to play in the big leagues. That’s my point. I want to play in the big leagues. I don’t care what position I play, I want to play in the big leagues.”

Franco is getting closer. In the meantime, he’ll spend the winter playing for San Francisco de Macorís in the Dominican Winter League. But while Franco was hanging around Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, Sandberg wondered if there was an extra uniform he could use.

Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

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Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Yordano Ventura quit school as a teenager so he could begin working a construction job to help his family make ends meet, laboring day after day in the hot sun of the Dominican Republic.

It was a chance tryout with the Kansas City Royals that changed the trajectory of his life.

Yordano wowed scouts with an electrifying fastball, the best they had seen in years, and a confident demeanor that bordered on brash and arrogant. And both of those traits served him well as he rocketed to the major leagues, helped the Royals win a long-awaited World Series championship in 2015, and became one of the most popular players in a city that embraced baseball one again.

Ventura, whose nickname "Ace" fit so perfectly, died Sunday in a car crash on a stretch of highway near the town of San Adrian in his native Dominican Republic. He was 25.

"Our team and our organization is hurting deeply," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "It's certainly something that puts everything into strong perspective, and challenges us all to never grow tired or weary or cease to do what is right, and loving others. Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.

"We loved Yordano," Moore said. "We loved his heart, we loved who he was as a teammate, a friend. He was somebody that challenged us all and made us better and I'm going to miss him."

Highway patrol spokesman Jacobo Mateo said Ventura died on a stretch of highway 40 miles northwest of Santo Domingo, the nation's capital. Mateo did not say whether Ventura was driving.

He's the second young star pitcher to die in past four months. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was 24 when he was killed along with two other men in a boating accident near Miami Beach in late September.

Also Sunday, former major league infielder Andy Marte died in a separate car accident in the Dominican Republic. Metropolitan traffic authorities said he died about 95 miles north of the capital.

"I was traveling to the airport this morning and I got a phone call wanting to know if I'd heard about Yordano, and I thought they meant Marte," Moore said. "My first thought was, `Were they together?'

"Then shortly afterwards, I got a call from Major League Baseball confirming this tragedy."

The Dominican Republic has the second-highest traffic-related death rate in the world -- officials there believe alcohol, speed and a blatant disregard for traffic laws is to blame. Oscar Taveras, Jose Oliva, Rufino Linares and Jose Uribe are among players who have died in crashes in the country.

It wasn't known whether Ventura had been drinking or speeding at the time of his accident.

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, a fellow Dominican whom Ventura called his hero, posted pictures of Ventura and Marte on Twitter and said, "Guys, the only way we can pay tribute to you, is by reflecting on the adjustments we all have to make in this game called life."

Moore speaks frequently with Latin American players about dangers of returning home, including driving on the perilous roads.

"I'm more intentional about it to the point where it probably goes in one ear and out the other," Moore said, "but we're constantly discussing these things."

The Royals lowered flags at Kauffman Stadium to half-staff Sunday, and displayed Ventura's photograph on the large, crown-shaped scoreboard in centerfield of the empty ballpark. Fans were leaving flowers, hats and other mementos within hours of learning of his death.

Royals teammates learned the news in a text chain and took to Twitter to share their sorrow.

"I love you my brother. I'm in disbelief and don't know what to say," first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas also expressed disbelief, tweeting: "I love you Ace. I don't know what to say other than I'm going to miss you a lot. RIP ACE."

Ventura will be buried Tuesday in the Dominican Republic. Moore, manager Ned Yost and other members of the Royals are planning to attend.

Before his start in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, Ventura paid tribute to Taveras, his close friend and countryman who had been killed days earlier in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Ventura wrote "RIP O.T (hash)18" on his hat and also wrote messages on his glove, cleats and the mound before shutting out San Francisco for seven innings in a win.

"If he was still here, I would for sure be talking to him, and Oscar would be very happy for me," Ventura said afterward. "Oscar was a very humble guy and very likable, and I'm going to miss him a lot."

Ventura signed a $23 million, five-year deal with the Royals shortly before he started on opening day in 2015. He then helped them bounce back from their loss to the Giants in Game 7 by returning to the World Series and beating the New York Mets in five games for their first crown since 1985.

The right-hander went 11-12 with a 4.45 ERA last season, and his fiery demeanor was never more evident than when he hit Orioles star Manny Machado with a fastball to trigger a brawl. Ventura was suspended nine games for the pitch, though it was cut to eight on appeal.

In a surreal coincidence, the 33-year-old Marte played his final game in the big leagues for Arizona on Aug. 6, 2014. Ventura started that game for Kansas City.

"Today is a very sad day for our entire game and particularly for the many loyal fans in the Dominican Republic, the home of both Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.

Said players' union head Tony Clark: "It's never easy to lose a member of our fraternity, and there are no words to describe the feeling of losing two young men in the prime of their lives. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends, teammates and fans throughout the United States and Latin America."

Moore said he spoke to Miami general manager Mike Hill early Sunday, in part because Moore admired the grace and heart in which the Marlins organization dealt with Fernandez's death.

It wasn't certain whether Fernandez was driving the boat when it crashed on Sept. 25. He had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.147, above Florida's legal limit of 0.08, according to autopsy reports released by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office.

"That was one of the first things that came to mind when I began to figure out how we were going to process this," Moore said. "Mike was able to provide some insight. Just give me some comfort, really."

Ventura wound up pitching his entire career for the Royals, going 38-31 with a 3.89 ERA.

Born June 3, 1991, in Samana, Dominican Republic, Ventura was a true rags-to-riches story. He quit school at 14 and was laboring on a construction crew to support his family when he heard about a tryout, which led to a spot in the Royals' academy located on his picturesque island home.

Still, the odds were long that Ventura would ever make it to the big leagues. Very few players from the Dominican academies reached the pinnacle of the sport.

But over time, Ventura was able to harness one of the most electric fastballs that scouts had seen in years, and his headstrong and confident nature was essential to his rapid rise. He made his debut to great fanfare in 2013, allowing just one run again Cleveland in a sign of things to come.

He eventually became a cornerstone of a youth movement that included young stars such as Hosmer and Moustakas, one that carried the Royals first to respectability, then to the top of the American League.

He was 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, and helped the Royals reach the World Series for the first time in nearly three decades. Then he helped to lead them back to the Fall Classic in 2015, this time completing the job on a crisp night in New York.

"He always had a zest for life, an innocence about the game, a freshness, a fearlessness," Moore said, his voice cracking. "He was a very compassionate human being, loved to compete, no doubt challenged us, but that made us better. Nobody could ever doubt how much he cared about his teammates, how much he cared about the fans, and how much he loved to compete and to pitch."

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.