Gonzales hopes a healthy elbow, a new arm slot and the return of the cut fastball will help him find the type pitcher he believes he can be for the Mariners.
PEORIA, Ariz. — “Have Mariners fans seen the real Marco Gonzales as a pitcher?”
They’ve certainly heard general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais discuss all that he can/will be for this organization. Enthusiastic, optimistic and at times breathless in their praise for the pitcher they acquired in a largely unpopular trade for slugging outfielder Tyler O’Neill with the Cardinals last July, they’ve made sure to let people know that Gonzales will not only be part of the starting rotation, but should also be much better than the pitcher, who went 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in seven starts and three relief appearances after being called up.
“We’re very bullish on what Marco’s going to be,” Dipoto said. “He’s athletic. He throws strikes. He has an out pitch in his change-up. Is he a fly ball guy who’s going to give up a couple of homers here and there? Yes. But he’s more of a neutral pitcher who’s going to get them to hit it on the ground. We’re very excited about what he can do.”
There were hints of it last season for two or three-inning bursts. There were traces of it in his first Cactus League outing on Sunday where he pitched two shutout innings vs. the Dodgers, striking out four batters.
“He looked really good,” Servais said. “I was very happy with the way he threw.”
But ask Gonzales the question and there is no definitive answer from him. It leads to introspection and reflection about where he’s been, what he’s overcome, what he’s learned and what the possibilities might be. And soon, maybe at some point this season, he’ll be able to find that clarity. Until then, the hope is that he moves closer to a time where that question won’t even need to be asked.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen the real me,” he said. “I think I’ve been hindered for the past couple of years and I haven’t been able to figure out what my potential is. And so I’m exploring that just like other people who are trying to get to know me.”
The hindrances have been health related. After a brilliant 2014 season where he was named the Cardinals’ minor league pitcher of the year, going from High-A to the big leagues and appearing in 10 games, Gonzales seemed on the verge of earning a spot in St. Louis’ rotation. Instead, his body betrayed him.
It started in 2015 when a pectoral strain and shoulder issues limited him to just 17 total appearances in the minor leagues and one awful big league outing. In April of 2016, he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament and underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery.
“Having a new elbow is something that I’m excited about because I haven’t had that chance to learn and develop at this level and be healthy,” he said. “I’m excited for what I can do.”
Admittedly, Gonzales has reassessed his post-surgery health status from last season to this spring.
“Looking back, last year I thought I was maybe 80-90 percent back to where I was before the surgery,” he said. “But standing here now looking back on that time, I’d say I was about 60 to 70 percent and now I’m close to 90 percent. I’ve heard so many time that the second year after Tommy John surgery is really when you start to find yourself again. I think I’m getting close to that.”
But there is something that Gonzales doesn’t want to go back to pre-surgery — his previous arm slot and release point.
When Dipoto gushed about Gonzales touching 94 mph at Safeco last season and touted the Brooks Baseball readings of a 92 mph average for his fastball, it wasn’t just due to a surgically-repaired elbow.
“I think it’s due to finding my natural arm slot,” he volunteered without prompting. “For so long I searched for it and I wasn’t healthy enough to get there.”
There wasn’t an epiphany from film study or a recommendation from a coach. It just kind of happened. It finally felt normal and easy to throw a baseball. It wasn’t forced.
“It was just a natural progression,” he said. “I didn’t look at film or anything. I just let my body do the work. I kind of listened to what my arm needed and my shoulder needed. The exercises that I’ve done allowed me to get to that. I think I was searching and had lost that for so long. But coming back last year and feeling the way I did, it just made me feel that much more secure and that I’m close to it.”
The gradual process to the lower arm slot started to really take effect a few weeks before he joined the Mariners.
“If I had to put a timeline, it was probably mid-summer last year,” he said. “It was a couple of months after getting back to Memphis and I had one start with the Cardinals and at that point, I was just grooving. I was smooth sailing down the path and trying to maintain. I said ‘OK, I’m at a stable point, let’s try and stay right here.'”
The goal is to supplement the change without getting away from it. He’s still meticulous to maintaining that preparation.
“I think I’ve found my groove and routine of where I can be the strongest,” he said. “I think that’s allowed me to fine tune some pitches and fine tune my command. I think it’s shown. I don’t pay too much (attention) to velocity because I’m not going to blow everyone away with velocity. But it’s reassuring it makes me happy to see that I was diligent to the routine of the rehab and that’s what I owe that to it.”
Gonzales will return the cut fastball (cutter) to his repertoire after not allowing himself to use the pitch last season to protect the elbow. It’s another weapon for him to use.
“Just throwing it to both sides and really just trying to throw it for a strike is my main goal now,” he said. “I’m happy with it. It’s developing. And I think I’m going to learn how to use it most effectively soon.”
There have been doubts about the Mariners’ projected rotation, specifically the effectiveness Gonzales and Erasmo Ramirez as the back-end starters. Demands to add another starter have permeated from the fan base. Dipoto has remained steadfast in his defense of Gonzales, while Servais believes the young lefty is “really going to surprise people” this season.
“I’m just trying to stay within what I do and showing up here every day and putting in some works and trying not let any outside noise effect what I do in here,” he said. “I’m after some consistency I’m going to be diligent to my routine every day and that’s about it. The results are going to be what they are and the outside noise is going to be what it is. But right now I’m confident in my routine and that’s a success for me.”