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Miguel Gonzalez’ journey from released Red Sox to Orioles standout

10.10.12 at 3:35 pm ET
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Miguel Gonzalez, released by the Red Sox last December, will start for the Orioles in Game 3 of the ALDS. (AP)

It was just 10 months ago that right-hander Miguel Gonzalez was released by the Red Sox. In the span of little more than 300 days, he has gone from an organizational castoff to a Game 3 playoff starter for the Orioles. The 28-year-old’s journey between those two points is improbable.

A glance at what Gonzalez did with the Orioles leaves little doubt that he could have been a considerable asset to the Red Sox. In his rookie year in the big leagues, Gonzalez went 9-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 18 games (15 starts) spanning 105 1/3 innings. Still, it would be an oversimplification to suggest that the Red Sox blew it with Gonzalez.

There was a missed opportunity, to be sure, but the Sox were hardly alone in wondering about what Gonzalez might be able to do. The team released him on Dec. 10 of last year. Gonzalez did not sign with another team until spring training games were already underway, when Baltimore added him on a minor league deal on March 4.

In some respects, what Gonzalez has done for the O’s this year represents a validation of the team’s scouting work on him. Back in December 2008 — after Gonzalez, then in the Angels system, missed all of the 2008 season after undergoing surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee — the Sox saw Gonzalez (then 24) pitching well in the Mexican Winter League. His fastball was 88-92 mph, while mostly sitting at 90-91, and he complemented that offering with a curve, slider and splitter — the same mix that he has now. He demonstrated impressive command and control of all four of those offerings, particularly his fastball, which he could throw to either side of the plate with good, late life. And Gonzalez, despite missing the 2008 season, also showed a good feel for the craft of pitching. 

And so, the Sox took a flyer on him in the 2008 Rule 5 draft. The team thought he had a chance to be a big league starter, though in order to stick on the big league club for all of 2009 (a full season in the majors is a prerequisite for retaining a player taken through the Rule 5 draft), it would have to be as a reliever, the capacity in which Gonzalez had spent most of his minor league career (during which he got as high as Double-A in 2007, before he missed the 2008 season) with the Angels.

So, Gonzalez showed up in big league camp with the Red Sox in 2009 — and promptly blew out. Even before games started, the right-hander tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The resulting need for Tommy John surgery meant that he’d miss a second straight year.

Gonzalez came back in 2010, and made 17 appearances (16 starts) in High-A Salem. He went 6-4 with a 4.54 ERA while giving up more than a hit an inning. Of course, pitchers are often inconsistent in that first post-Tommy John season, so there was curiosity about what Gonzalez might do in 2011, two years removed from the procedure.

The right-hander went 0-7 with a 5.40 ERA while making 18 appearances at three levels. He struck out nearly a batter an inning (54 punchouts in 56 2/3 frames), but walked 23. His velocity was 89-92 mph, mostly around 90-91, but it remained inconsistent, and while he showed the same general mix that the Sox had seen from him in Mexico, the power would fluctuate.

“It was a hard time for him. His arm wasn’t bouncing back initially. There was some soreness in there. There’s no timetable for when a guy is going to be fully recovered from arm issues. But there were signs, obviously. He showed that there was a reason the Angels were so high on him,” said Kevin Boles, who managed Gonzalez in 2010 with High-A Salem and in 2011 with Double-A Portland. “Every once in a while we’d see the velocity.

“But there were also times when the velocity was a little bit down. That’s where you have to be patient, understand what this guy is coming back from, and that there are no set timetables for when a guy is going to be fully recovered,” Boles continued. “There were flashes. He’d pitch around 89-91, 92, but the timetable is not an exact science as to when each guy is going to come back. Each guy is unique.”

That designation fits Gonzalez. After a trajectory that seemed to be taking him towards the big leagues in his early professional career, he endured four years — two due to injury, two due to poor performance — in which the idea of pitching in the big leagues seemed, at best, improbable. The psychological challenge of his Sisyphean task was apparent.

“Not only is it the physical challenges — it’s the mental approach also. I’m sure being a professional pitcher, going through an area where you’re not sure, coming off an injury, if your arm is going to be able to hold up, it’s got to be a mental strain,” said Boles.

Gonzalez acknowledged as much, admitting to MLB.com (in this excellent feature) that he arrived at a career crossroads by the end of the 2011 season.

“One side of my brain was like, ‘OK, this is it. You have to move on,’” Gonzalez told MLB.com. “But I really thought about it, and I talked about it with my wife [Lucy] and she got me into it again, back to baseball. This is the only thing I know how to do. I love playing it. So I stayed within myself — kept working, kept fighting.”

Still, while Gonzalez wasn’t ready to give up, given the performance over his two years in the Sox’ system and the fact that Gonzalez, at 27, was getting old in prospect years, it did not create any ripples when the Sox released him last December. However, just as had been the case when the Sox claimed him in the Rule 5 draft in 2008, Gonzalez went to Mexico and pitched well enough to impress O’s scout Fred Ferreira.

That, in turn, led to the minor league deal in March, and in the Orioles system, Gonzalez flourished. The power of his split and consistency of his velocity returned to pre-Tommy John levels. His command likewise sharpened.

Certainly, the Sox didn’t see this coming. No one — perhaps not even Gonzalez — did last December. But those who encountered the 28-year-old, described as an outstanding person, are thrilled for his emergence.

“Now, physically, he looks like he’s right,” said Boles. “Seeing him through the time he was with us, he did improve. He worked very hard. We saw slow but sure progress. He’s a guy who can pitch. He can add and subtract. It looks like he’s locating a lot better, but there was progress. Now, it’s terrific watching him. It’s a credit to how hard he’s worked.”

The Orioles have been the beneficiaries, while a Red Sox team that lacked starting depth throughout 2012 was left to wonder what might have happened had Gonzalez remained in Boston’s system. Yet the story is not a case of one organization succeeding where another failed, but instead a reminder of the difference that good scouting of obscure players can make. In some respects, Gonzalez’ success — even with the Orioles — acts as validation of what the Sox saw in Mexico back in 2008, while offering a reminder that good scouting is sometimes only part of the batter. Good timing (and its implicit corollary, good luck) can also play a huge role in finding the proverbial diamond in the rough, a player who is acquired for next to nothing but who has the capacity to transform a rotation.

But beyond that, the fact that Gonzalez will be on the mound for the Orioles in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Yankees reflects, more than anything, upon a pitcher who was stubborn enough to cling to the idea of a big league future even when there were years when everything that he encountered suggested that there were no grounds for such optimism.

“This is a great story. It really is. It’s a credit to him for working hard, getting himself a fresh start. He’s taken advantage of it, and I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s just a terrific person,” said Boles. “It’s been a long road for him. There were some times when his arm didn’t feel too good when he was with us, but he kept working, kept battling and the perseverance this guy has is terrific.”

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