Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez's puzzling transformation from major-league ready to 2014 question mark

The number of non-players here in camp is abundant. Every year, the Phillies keep adding layers, like rings on a tree.

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez's puzzling transformation from major-league ready to 2014 question mark

Alfredo Miguel Gonzalez walks to the field before a spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Clearwater, Fla. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Alfredo Miguel Gonzalez walks to the field before a spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Clearwater, Fla. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The number of non-players here in camp is abundant. Every year, the Phillies keep adding layers, like rings on a tree.

Roy Halladay was here in uniform looking thinner than his playing days, to the point where, from a distance of 50 yards, I asked somebody standing next to me, "Is that Roy Halladay?" I guess that's what happens when you no longer have to wake up at 4 a.m. and prepare yourself to take over the world. Wheels and Sarge were both here, as was Larry Andersen, who was in uniform as a guest instructor. He spent some time chatting with Ethan Martin about his delivery as the young righty threw a bullpen.

Around 10:15 a.m., a golf cart roared onto the playing fields with two cackling gray-haired former general managers on board, Pat Gillick behind the wheel and Dallas Green riding shotgun. As the golf cart roared toward the bullpen mounds, it passed to the right of Ed Wade, who was walking in that general direction.

Neither Lee Thomas nor Woody Woodward were sighted, but Lou Marson is back in camp. He's one of a number of players that were traded for Cliff Lee. Marson was the organization's top catching prospect when he was dealt along with Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Jason Knapp to the Indians in July of 2009 for Lee.

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Yesterday, everybody had their eyes on Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, the Cuban righthander who signed a three-year, $12 million contract last summer. The whole situation has been a strange one. In July, Yahoo! Sports broke the news that the Phillies had agreed to deal in the neighborhood of $50 million with Gonzalez. But the Phillies remained tight-lipped about the signing, refusing to acknowledge it for more than a month. Finally, on Aug. 30, the organization announced that they had finalized a contract with Gonzalez for three years and $12 million. The Phillies had some concerns about Gonzalez's elbow, although the exact timeline of the negotiations is unclear.

Yesterday, Gonzalez's velocity looked down compared with many of the other pitchers around him who are supposed to have similar arm strength. Later, manager Ryne Sandberg was asked for his appraisal of Gonzalez and said, "I'm interested to see him build arm strength."

It was the latest underwhelming assessment from a member of the Phillies' organization with regard to a player who in June of last year was speculated by some in the national baseball scene to be ready to pitch in the majors in 2013.

Gonzalez defected from Cuba last year, establishing residency in Mexico while working out in Tijuana. He missed most of the last two Cuban league seasons after being suspended for attempting to defect. At some point during the suspension, he had surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow. On June 7, the LA Times cited a major league scout as saying that Gonzalez could pitch in the majors at some point in 2013. On June 20, Gonzalez held a showcase in Tijuana for scouts representing most clubs in the majors. He pitched three innings in a game between Tijuana and Ensenada, which the Orange County Register described as the equivalent of rookie-level teams in the Mexican League. Fox Sports reported that Red Sox GM Ben Cherington was in attendance.

"We've been watching him for several years," said Dodgers chief international scout Bob Engle, according to the OC Register. "All the way back to the University Games (in Tokyo in 2010). We feel we have a good book on him."

On June 29, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that the Marlins "are believed to consider Gonzalez as a major-league ready middle-of-the-rotation starter, but the source questions the club's financial wherewithal to sign him considering the competition."

On June 30, the New York Post reported that the Yankees "are not in" on Gonzalez, despite the fact that they were in need of major league ready starting pitching at the time.

From the Boston Globe on June 30: "The Red Sox are one of the teams extremely interested in the 26-year-old righthander, but they won't break the bank for him, according to a team source. The Sox were also in on Yasiel Puig, but would not pay the $42 million required to sign him, and he went to the Dodgers. The Sox were certainly burned by the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing and don't want to get burned again. Gonzalez seems to be the real deal, though past injuries seem to be giving some teams pause. Ben Cherington and eight Red Sox scouts have watched him, but the competition is fierce."

From the Chicago Tribune on July 11: "The U.S. government is close to clearing Cuban right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to sign a contract. He's 26 and scouts consider him capable of helping a big league team almost immediately, which is why the Cubs might offer him $10 million per for four or five years, the same type of commitment they were willing to make for Ryu before the Dodgers outbid them."

In mid-July, Gonzalez became free to sign with major league teams. He continued to pitch for scouts in the Mexican League.

On July 18, ESPN Deportes reported the Phillies' interest in Gonzalez, along with the fact that his agent said he could be pitching in the majors soon.

From the LA Times on July 24: "The Dodgers haven't offered a contract to Cuban free-agent pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, nor do they plan to, according to a person familiar with the team's thinking but not authorized to discuss it on the record. The Dodgers have heavily scouted Gonzalez, who defected from Cuba and has established residency in Mexico. Gonzalez is expected to sign with a major league club by the end of the week, according to his agent."

July 26: Red Sox president Larry Lucchino tells WEEI the club is looking "pretty hard" at Gonzalez.

That same day, the USA Today reports that the Red Sox are now considered to be "his most ardent pursuers."

That night, the news broke that the Phillies had signed Gonzalez to a six-year, $48 million contract with an option for a seventh year.

Boston media reported that the Red Sox were the runner up.

The Phillies were especially tight-lipped about the deal. They would not acknowledge it, presumably because their doctors had yet to examine Gonzalez and finalize the deal. Two weeks after news of the signing broke, there was still no word. Heading into the last week of August, the Phillies were still attempting to finalize the deal.

Finally, on Aug. 31, the Phillies announced that they had reached a three-year, $12 million deal with a fourth year option. Neither Gonzalez's agent nor Ruben Amaro Jr. would explain why the negotiations were reopened.

Amaro: "Any time you sign a free agent, there is always risk, and we had our doctors take a look at him and we were comfortable enough to go ahead and move forward with it."

More Amaro: ""He's got great stuff. It just all depends on how effective he becomes at the major-league level. He actually has a variety of pitches - fastball, cutter, slider, curveball, change-up, split - so . . . we just have to find out what ones work for him."

The plan was for Gonzalez to report to Clearwater in mid-September and begin throwing in the instructional league. But by mid-October, Gonzalez was only long tossing.

Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan: "We wanted to get him oriented to our throwing program and our strength and conditioning program. 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."

Amaro on Dec. 10: "Pettibone is not a slam dunk and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is not a slam dunk, so there's opportunity for someone here. I'd like to have them step up. But there's opportunity there. None of those guys are definites."

Amaro on Dec. 13: "We just don't know what we're going to get out of him yet. He's got a great arm. One of the reasons why we wanted to add some depth [is] because if he's not quite ready to take a job in our rotation, we can have him develop."

Amaro on Jan. 15: "We signed [Cuban pitcher] Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, a guy with a tremendous ceiling. I don't know what he's going to be, but we took a swing. For various reasons, he hasn't really pitched in two years. Is it a risk? Sure, but we took a swing." 

Amaro on Jan. 23: "I'd like to have more depth in the middle. If I knew more what Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez was, I would feel better about it. We think he has the potential to be that guy. It's not a slam dunk. We haven't seen him pitch. In some ways, we have to get lucky on that one."

Over the course of six months, Gonzalez has descended from a potential difference-maker in the 2013 stretch run to a guy who, if you asked me today, will be starting 2014 in the minors as Roberto Hernandez mans the No. 5 spot in the rotation. 

None of this means the Phillies were wrong to sign Gonzalez. A lot of teams have wasted a lot more money than $12 million on players who lack the upside that Gonzalez was widely regarded to possess as recently as last summer. But for the Phillies to regain their stature of 2011 and before, they need a lot of variables to break in their favor. As of right now, Gonzalez is not one of them. 

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