LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - If you are looking for a contender to be this year's David Buchanan, he might have been on the mound at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex yesterday. Severino Gonzalez's name is probably more familiar than Buchanan's was at this time last year, but the two pitchers are comparable on a number of levels, not the least of which is their availability to fill what looks to be a significant need on the Phillies' roster.
When minor league pitching coordinator Rafael Chavez informed Gonzalez the big-league club wanted him to join it on the road for yesterday's game, the coach gave him a sound piece of advice: Do the same thing up there as you are doing down here, and you'll be fine.
And in three scoreless innings against the Braves, that is exactly what the 22-year-old righthander did in the Phillies' 5-3 win. He spent the first inning pounding the zone with a fastball that sat at 89 to 91 mph on the scoreboard radar gun. He worked fast, kept the ball down in the zone, and mixed in his cutter and changeup, the latter of which he spent much of last season refining at Double A Reading. Gonzalez did not walk a batter, kept the ball inside the park, and worked out of trouble with little sign of trouble. That combination earns the trust of big-league coaches.
Buchanan used that combination last spring to position himself for a midseason call-up, and it's a combination that Gonzalez has established as his modus operandi since signing with the Phillies out of Venezuela in 2011. In four seasons in the minors, he has walked an average of only 1.5 batters per nine innings. His strikeout numbers have dropped as he has climbed through the system, from 13.1 per nine at Lakewood to 9.8 at Clearwater to 6.5 last year in 27 starts at Reading. But keeping runners off base is the best way to keep runs off the scoreboard, and Gonzalez's success in doing so is the primary reason for his 2.97 career ERA.
Like Buchanan, Gonzalez relies more on power than control. He won't blow fastballs by big-league hitters, which is one reason the Phillies forced him to use his changeup instead of relying on his cutter last season.
"I understand that it was a work in progress," Gonzalez said.
That kind of developmental work is one reason you can't rely heavily on minor league numbers. At Reading last season, he finished with a 4.60 ERA, but that's lower than the 4.82 mark Buchanan logged in 22 starts at Reading in 2013. The rest of their numbers are similar; for Buchanan, an average of 5.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9 in 2013 at Reading; for Gonzalez, 6.5 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 1.3 HR/9 in 158 1/3 innings over 27 starts.
Against the Braves, Gonzalez was in control throughout his three innings of work. He allowed a couple of singles in the first inning, but got out of a jam by getting Nick Markakis to ground into a doubleplay on an 0-2 cutter (Darin Ruf earlier contributed an assist from leftfield). By the end of the outing, he had allowed four hits with two strikeouts. Most important were the zeros not the scoreboard.
"I'm very happy, very pleased," Gonzalez said through an interpreter. "I said to myself, this is just another game. Just like the minors."
While Gonzalez is only 22, a strong couple of months at Triple A could put him in position for a look at the big-league level. The Phillies have spent the last year upgrading their minor league pitching depth, but prospects Aaron Nola, Zach Efflin, Tom Windle, Jesse Biddle and Ben Lively all figure to start the season behind him on the organizational depth chart. Nola will start against the Yankees on Friday, but the Phillies have no reason to rush their 2014 first-round draft pick to the majors. While Gonzalez is not projected to have the upside of his peers, he has necessity on his side, the same way Buchanan did last season.
"In some regards, an outing like this could go a long way," manager Ryne Sandberg said.
As he stood outside the visitor's clubhouse at Champions Stadium yesterday, Gonzalez said his goal is simply to earn a call-up once rosters expand in September. That might be the way it plays out. But a trade of Cole Hamels and an injury to one of the veterans behind him could hasten his arrival.