Cuban righthander in Clearwater, working on his dream

The Phillies' Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez said he typically throws 94-95 m.p.h. but can hit 97.
The Phillies' Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez said he typically throws 94-95 m.p.h. but can hit 97. (STEVE NESIUS / For The Inquirer)
Posted: October 12, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez misses where he has been and knows where he wants to go, but at the moment he is in the slow process of trying to get there.

The 27-year-old pitcher's exact location Thursday morning was the Phillies' Carpenter Complex training facility, a baseball lover's paradise that is less than 350 miles from his native Cuba. Political strife between Cuba and the United States, however, makes it impossible for Gonzalez to still feel close to home.

"It has been tough," Gonzalez said through a translator during his first interview since he defected from Cuba earlier this year and signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Phillies. "It definitely has been tough, but I feel like the change has been a good one. It's just being away from my family."

Gonzalez said he left his mother, cousins, and aunts behind in Cuba - his wife, Greter, is with him - because he wanted to pursue his dream of being a big-league pitcher. It is an aspiration he has watched close friends and countrymen Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes fulfill in the last couple of years.

"I have faced them," Gonzalez said. "Both are really good friends. Their success feels like my own because they are Cuban and they are friends."

Gonzalez thinks about the day when those two will dig into the batter's box to face him again.

"It will be something spectacular," he said.

After their worst season since 2000 and a second straight year without a postseason berth, the Phillies need something spectacular to rejuvenate their disgruntled fans. The name Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is as exciting as any you'll find on the Phillies roster because of the pitcher's promise and mystique.

Puig's early June arrival in Los Angeles resurrected the Dodgers, who are four wins away from their first trip to the World Series since 1988. Oakland's Cespedes won the Home Run Derby at this year's All-Star Game and played in Game 5 of an American League division series Thursday night. Cuban closer Aroldis Chapman, with his searing fastball and slider that should be illegal, has helped Cincinnati play in three of the last four postseasons.

The Phillies, a team that once had Four Aces but now has gaping holes in the back of its rotation, are hoping their Cuban addition is something special, too. Gonzalez was smart enough to know he should not storm onto the scene with a bold declaration about how he'll fare against the best hitters in the world.

"I feel good, confident, and I feel like I'm capable, but the future cannot be predicted," Gonzalez said. "You have to do it and let things flow."

You couldn't tell much from watching Gonzalez on Thursday during his Florida Instructional League workout on the neatly manicured Mike Schmidt and Robin Roberts Fields. He emerged from the clubhouse about 10 a.m. wearing shorts and a red pullover. His on-the-field activities in the hot Florida sun consisted of stretching, playing catch with Phillies rehabilitating pitcher Jonathan Pettibone, and running around the warning track. In between, he went through a lifting program.

After auditioning for big-league teams by throwing bullpen sessions and two games and six innings for a team in Tijuana, Mexico, Gonzalez went nearly six weeks without throwing at all as he waited to see where he would sign. It appeared as if he would join the Phillies in late July, which might have enabled him to pitch in a minor-league game this season. Once the process was delayed by a month, however, the Phillies decided they would treat Gonzalez like a rehabilitating player.

Having gone through the emotional drain of the defection and the physical demands of the team tryouts, Gonzalez told the Phillies he felt some fatigue when he arrived here.

That could cause some red flags because he had elbow surgery to remove bone chips on Jan. 29, 2012, and the initial reports of how much the Phillies would pay Gonzalez decreased significantly after the monthlong delay in his signing. Gonzalez declined comment on the delay but said he feels "excellent."

The pitcher also said he believes he will be ready to compete for a job in the starting rotation when spring training begins in mid-February.

In the meantime, he is in Clearwater strengthening his arm with the goal being one bullpen session before he briefly leaves town. He plans to return to Clearwater long before the start of spring training to get ready for what he hopes is his first big-league season.

"We wanted to get him oriented to our throwing program and our strength and conditioning program," said Joe Jordan, the Phillies' director of player development. "We felt like, what's the hurry? Let's slow down and get him a good base. He started throwing and he's up to 120 feet. He's getting close to the mound."

The real questions about Gonzalez will not be answered until we see him in spring training. That's the first chance he'll get to show off an arsenal of pitches that he said includes a fastball, curveball, change-up, cutter, splitter, sinker, and even a knuckleball.

He said he will throw all of them.

"Every day is different," Gonzalez said. "The hitter will show you what kind of pitch you want to throw."

As for velocity, Gonzalez said he typically throws 94 to 95 m.p.h. but can hit 97.

"The fastest ever was 99 a few years ago," he said.

Gonzalez said the Phillies are known, but not very well, in Cuba. He knows about Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, the two remaining aces in the Phillies rotation, but the pitcher he looked up to the most never made it out of his communist country.

"Just one," Gonzalez said when asked which pitcher he idolized. "With all due respect to all the other great pitchers, the one is Norge Luis Vera."

It was a good choice. Vera, who retired a few years ago, beat Stephen Strasburg and Yu Darvish in the 2008 Olympics and was 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

If Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is the next Norge Luis Vera, the Phillies will be more than happy with their first huge international investment.

Cuban Imports

Recent Phillies free-agent signee Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, 27, hopes to have the same impact as these former Cuban players.

   Team    P    Age   HR   RBI   BA   

Yasiel Puig*    Dodgers   OF   22   19    42    .319   

Yoenis Cespedes    A's   OF   27   26   80   .240   

Kendrys Morales   Mariners   OF   22   23   80   .277   

*104 games

   Team    Age   Rec   ERA   S   IP   K   

Aroldis Chapman   Reds   25   4-5   2.54   38   63.2   112


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