CLEARWATER, Fla. - With three weeks until opening day, the Phillies' starting rotation is still very much in flux. Cliff Lee is attempting to pitch through a tear in his elbow tendon and Aaron Harang has missed two of three scheduled Grapefruit League starts.
The uncertainty has given Cuban righthander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez a good chance to win a spot in the back end of the rotation. But his results through three Grapefruit League outings have done little to quell the newfound concerns about the Phillies' starting pitching behind ace Cole Hamels.
In seven spring innings, Gonzalez has allowed seven runs and 12 hits. He has surrendered a home run in each of his three appearances. On Sunday, Boston's Daniel Nava sent his 80-m.p.h. curveball over the right-field fence for a two-run homer.
Gonzalez, who threw 29 of his 44 pitches for strikes, rebounded and faced the minimum number of Red Sox hitters over his final two innings Sunday. There is no doubt the ball is coming out of his hand much better than last spring, but the results have been inconsistent.
At the behest of catcher Carlos Ruiz, Gonzalez increased his tempo and became more aggressive with his approach after the two-run first inning. "It was a big difference after that," said Ruiz, who praised Gonzalez's stuff.
If Lee isn't able to avoid surgery - the team offered no updates Sunday on the 36-year-old lefthander's status - Gonzalez and second-year righthander David Buchanan would likely slot into the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation behind Hamels, Harang and Jerome Williams.
Harang, too, has become a bit of a question mark this spring, though, as back discomfort led to another scratched start on Saturday. However, the 36-year-old righthander will pitch his bullpen session Monday morning and is in line to start Thursday against the New York Yankees in Tampa, Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said.
"We just were [being] precautionary," McClure said of Harang. "He says he can catch up."
Especially given Lee's status, the Phillies' late January signing of veteran Chad Billingsley to a one-year, $1.5 million deal is looking more prescient by the week. Working his way back from consecutive seasons lost to elbow surgeries, the righthander took another step in the right direction Sunday morning when he pitched his second live batting practice of spring training.
Billingsley, 30, threw 40 pitches to live hitters separated by a short break, essentially simulating two innings. Much as he did after Billingsley's first live batting practice, McClure offered rave reviews, calling the session "exceptional" and reiterating, "You would never know he was ever hurt. It's quality stuff. It really is."
On his current trajectory, Billingsley still probably won't be ready to join the Phillies' rotation until mid-April or early May. He will pitch two or three more live batting practice sessions in the coming weeks. If all goes well, he could appear in a Grapefruit League game before the team heads north to ready for the April 6 opener.
In the meantime, Gonzalez, Buchanan and nonroster invitees Kevin Slowey and Paul Clemens will continue to get their chances in spring games. Questions about the rotation would begin to dissipate if Gonzalez starts to put consistent zeros on the scoreboard.
"I think he's showing health and he's showing some progress," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He's mixing up his pitches. He's making progress."
Four pitchers have the best chances to make the Phillies starting rotation at the start of the season if Cliff Lee and/or Aaron Harang are injured or aren't ready:
Where he stands: If Cliff Lee can't avoid surgery on his torn flexor tendon, Buchanan likely slots in as the Phillies' No. 4 or No. 5 starter.
His spring so far: The second-year righthander has pitched well in three outings (one start), allowing only two runs over seven innings.
Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez
Where he stands: Like Buchanan, he currently slots in as either the Phillies' fourth or fifth starter, dependent on Lee's status.
His spring so far: The Cuban righthander has struggled over seven innings, giving up seven runs and 12 hits. He has yielded a home run in each of his three appearances.
Where he stands: Competing as a nonroster invitee for a spot as perhaps the fifth starter or the long reliever, the veteran is probably still on the outside looking in at a roster spot if Harang is healthy.
His spring so far: Allowed his first two runs of the spring Sunday against the Yankees. Over 72/3 innings the veteran righthander has allowed only six hits.
Where he stands: Probably a long shot to make the roster given Slowey's experience and track record. Another nonroster invitee, Clemens could also be in the mix as a long reliever.
His spring so far: The 27-year-old experienced a good start to the spring before walking four Astros in 21/3 innings on Saturday. He allowed three runs on four hits and increased his spring ERA to 4.26.
- Jake Kaplan