CLEARWATER, Fla. - Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez packed his bags Sunday morning and made the short walk from Bright House Field to the Phillies' minor-league clubhouse. The recipient of the most lucrative international contract in team history will again start a baseball season in the minor leagues.
A dismal 141/3-inning sample size ensured Gonzalez a ticket to triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he will begin the season. This spring was different for the Cuban righthander but only for the fact that he was healthy. Shoddy command led to a 7.53 Grapefruit League ERA.
"It was an opportunity for him," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "It just seemed like he wasn't quite there yet. So, he's going down to get some work."
The Phillies will finalize their 25-man opening-day roster by Sunday but could manage without a fifth starting pitcher until April 12. They may begin the season with an extra bench player, especially given the possibility that Domonic Brown's left Achilles tendinitis lands the rightfielder on the disabled list for the first week or so of the season.
A fifth starter has yet to be named. Sean O'Sullivan, a 27-year-old righthander who has spent the last couple of weeks starting games in minor-league camp, is a candidate. Nonroster invitee Kevin Slowey has major-league starting experience, but the Phillies have yet to stretch out the 30-year-old righthander as they would a starting pitcher.
Whoever becomes the No. 5 starter will likely make only two or three starts before Chad Billingsley is ready to join the rotation. Billingsley, coming off consecutive seasons lost to elbow surgeries, could be ready by mid-April to early May.
The Phillies want Gonzalez, 28, to work on better command of his pitches. He has yet to show the promise that led the team to sign him in August 2013 to a three-year, $12 million contract with the expectations of a No. 3 starter. They consummated that deal after a reported six-year, $48 million contract fell through over health concerns.
Gonzalez's first major-league spring training was marred by shoulder soreness. His second ended with 12 earned runs and 25 hits allowed, including five home runs.
Gonzalez's stuff was improved from last spring and the ball was coming out of his hand better, Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said. "But he needs to be able to command the ball a little better," McClure said. "It's command."
Out of necessity, Gonzalez could still make major-league starts this season. The Phillies lack starting depth behind ace Cole Hamels, Aaron Harang, David Buchanan and Jerome Williams, who has struggled this spring. They probably will need a slew of starters to get through their first season of rebuilding, especially given the potential for a summer trade involving Hamels.
The Phillies have yet to decide whether Buchanan or Williams will start April 9, the third game of the season-opening series against the Boston Red Sox, behind their Nos. 1 and 2 starters in Hamels and Harang. Whoever doesn't would get the nod for the April 10 series opener against the Washington Nationals, likely followed the next day by Hamels' second start.
That would set up the yet-to-be-named fifth starter to pitch on April 12. A second consecutive spring of missed opportunities ensured that Gonzalez will spend that afternoon in Allentown.