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Phillies’ fifth starter still a mystery

Neither Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez nor Kevin Slowey seemed to help his case yesterday.

Phillies pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, pitching coach Bob McClure and manager Ryne Sandberg. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Phillies pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, pitching coach Bob McClure and manager Ryne Sandberg. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Here's the best thing you can say about Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, the Cuban import to whom the Phillies gave a 3-year, $12 million contract two Augusts ago:

He's healthy.

The first year of Gonzalez's deal wasn't a very productive one for the player or his new team. He had shoulder pain from the start in the spring, was shifted to the bullpen in the summer, and got virtually no experience that will aid his mission in becoming a pitcher in the Phillies' rotation sometime soon.

But that's where Gonzalez stands as camp draws to a close in Clearwater, as one of the leading candidates to take the fifth job in the Phillies' rotation. Why? He was the first name manager Ryne Sandberg mentioned when asked about the vacant job.

Gonzalez did not exactly get the most ringing of endorsements from his manager, however, after surrendering four runs on eight hits in four innings of a 7-1 loss to the Astros yesterday.

"You know what?" Sandberg began. "Overall, his stuff is better than we've seen in the past. He's just struggling with his control, and command and pitches."

That's all, eh?

Gonzalez gave up hits to each of the first three batters he faced in the second inning; the first two scored. In the fourth, former Astros first overall pick Carlos Correa launched a Gonzalez curveball over the leftfield fence, and backup catcher Hank Conger followed to make it back-to-back solo shots.

"He's having a hard time making a pitch when he needs to and he's pitched behind in the count," Sandberg said. "And when he misses pitches, they're out over the plate and they result in some balls to be hit. So, that's the biggest thing with him, his control."

Gonzalez, 28, is 0-3 with a 7.53 ERA in five games this spring. Opponents are hitting .385 against him and he has a 1.81 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched).

Gonzalez has allowed 25 hits this spring, the most of any big-league pitcher in either the Grapefruit or Cactus leagues. On paper, it would seem to be a frustrating spring for a righthander hoping to make a permanent leap to the big leagues.

"It's not the right time to be frustrated," Gonzalez said through an interpreter. "If I'm going to make mistakes, let it be in spring training. If it comes to that, I'll get frustrated in the regular season, but not now."

But isn't it troubling to not be able to have positive results when that very well may be the difference between beginning the season with the Phillies or the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs?

"It doesn't worry me because it's a decision that's out of my hands," Gonzalez said. "I'm here to do my best and whatever decisions management comes up with, I can live with it."

The decision is beginning to become an easy one.

If the Phillies still hope to get some value out of the $12 million they invested in Gonzalez, he is best suited to get his reps in the 'Pigs' rotation. Perhaps he has success in the minors and it pushes him forward to the majors.

The reality, at least for the near future, is the Phillies do not need a fifth starter until April 12, a week from Easter Sunday.

Gonzalez might be the most obvious candidate, since he's still one of five pitchers on the 40-man roster making Grapefruit League starts. But he's hardly the only one.

Kevin Slowey has 106 major league starts to his name in the last seven seasons. The 30-year-old righthander impressed in two starts early this spring (five scoreless innings), but has been used in back-to-back appearances for just one inning, including yesterday.

Slowey gave up three runs (two earned) in the sixth inning of yesterday's game. He has a 3.72 ERA in six games.

"For me, the goal is to come north, in whatever capacity that is, I'm more than willing to do it," Slowey said. "I've done both [starting and relieving] in my career. I feel like I have that ability, and whatever they ask me to do, I'll do."

With 17 days still remaining before the Phillies need someone other than Cole Hamels, Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams and David Buchanan in the rotation, Slowey could certainly get stretched out to make a spot start if and when duty calls. Sandberg also mentioned Sean O'Sulllivan as an option, even though he was shipped to minor league camp two Mondays ago.

With 2 days off mixed into the first 15 games of the season, the Phillies might not need a fifth starter more than once before the best option among them is major league-ready. Chad Billingsley today will throw his second minor league game in 6 days, and could be ready to jump into the rotation in late April.

"He's doing very well, whether it's 2-3 weeks into the season [that he's ready]," Sandberg said. "I think that's a possibility at the earliest. But he's doing fine. So, we need to hold the fort up until then, because he's throwing the ball real well."

Perhaps they'll call back O'Sullivan. Or call on Slowey.

"I do not [know]," Slowey said of the open job. "Do you have any idea?"

It's a guessing game, but it's a safe bet to take Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, the former International Man of Mystery, out of the equation. He's no longer a mystery.

The best guess of a 12-man Opening Day pitching staff?

Hamels, Harang, Buchanan and Williams, righthanded relievers Jonathan Papelbon, Ken Giles, Justin De Fratus, Luis Garcia, Jeanmar Gomez and lefthanders Jake Diekman and Andy Oliver. And Slowey, the swing man and potential fifth starter.