Cuban Gonzalez thriving as reliever in Phillies system

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Posted: August 30, 2014

When the Phillies signed Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez for $12 million last summer, they included performance bonuses for games started and games relieved. Ruben Amaro Jr. proclaimed his Cuban import a starter - the team negotiated a $48 million agreement before a medical examination forced amendments - although the international scouting community was divided on Gonzalez's future role.

Some, like the Phillies, saw the potential for a back-of-the-rotation arm. Others envisioned a shutdown reliever. Then Gonzalez reported to spring training and doubt permeated all projections.

"It was hard to find a lot that you liked," said Joe Jordan, the team's director of player development.

But Gonzalez, who turns 28 next month, has thrived for two months as a minor-league reliever. He is expected to be among the team's September call-ups. One month in the majors will not justify the $12 million agreement, but there is time for Gonzalez to provide value.

Ryne Sandberg could slot Gonzalez with two other arms (Ken Giles and Jake Diekman) who throw in the upper 90s. The Phillies manager, when asked about that possibility, beamed.

"Hopefully we will have a chance to look at him in September, but he potentially would be a good addition," Sandberg said. "Three of them, that would be very good."

Gonzalez has a 1.93 ERA in 10 games for triple-A Lehigh Valley with 12 strikeouts and eight walks. He has a 2.36 ERA in 34 innings as a reliever across three levels. His strikeout rate dipped while walks increased as Gonzalez climbed the organizational ladder. He has, at least, maintained some success and health.

Two scouts who have seen Gonzalez at triple A raved about the righthander's improvement. Gonzalez featured a fastball at 95-98 m.p.h. in a recent outing and threw it for strikes on both sides of the plate.

"He looked like a totally different guy than in spring training," an American League scout said.

"He's a solid setup guy for me," one National League scout said.

Jordan watched Gonzalez on Monday night, a scoreless two-inning outing with two strikeouts against Syracuse, the best team in the International League.

"He was a major-league pitcher [that] night," Jordan said. "It's the best I've seen him throw. It was very exciting. . . . For two innings he overmatched them. Right through the good part of the lineup. I've seen him every step along the way, and last night was the best I've seen him."

The Phillies have paid Gonzalez almost $7 million before his major-league debut. He received a $5 million signing bonus last winter and his 2014 salary is $2 million. He will make $2.5 million in each of the next two seasons.

There will be an internal debate this fall on how to proceed with Gonzalez, his relief success notwithstanding. The situation dictates that Gonzalez be stretched into a starting role because of the organization's lack of major-league-ready options and many rotation holes. But Gonzalez's body could not handle such an assignment earlier this season.

A decision could hinge on whether Jonathan Papelbon remains with the Phillies next season. If Papelbon is traded, Giles becomes closer with Diekman and Gonzalez as the primary setup men and decent relief options like Justin De Fratus and Mario Hollands behind them.

Jordan said there is no winter plan yet for Gonzalez. Could he handle a starter's workload?

"I don't know," Jordan said. "I don't know if he can or not."

In the meantime, Gonzalez will be one of the more interesting Phillies to watch in the season's final month.

"I just think it was about getting him in a role where he can have some success," Jordan said. "I'll tell you the thing this guy will do - and I've seen him do it two or three times this summer - he'll get to a good hitter in the lineup, and when he knows it's the best hitter in the lineup, he's got another gear.

"So it'll be interesting as we watch this guy in the next year or two. Obviously, a major-league lineup gives you more opportunities to do that."


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

inquirer.com/phillieszone

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