Miguel Gonzalez was one of the Orioles' best finds in recent years — discovered pitching winter ball in Mexico, trying to rebuild his career after two major surgeries. The starting pitcher became a key piece to the club's success over the past four seasons.
On Wednesday — five days before Opening Day — the Orioles cut ties with Gonzalez by giving him his unconditional release, according to an industry source. If no team claims him after 48 hours, he will become a free agent.
Gonzalez was set to make $5.1 million this season in his second year of arbitration eligibility, but by releasing him before Opening Day, the Orioles will likely save roughly $4 million. If Gonzalez goes unclaimed, the team would still have to pay 20 percent of his salary, according to a source. Any team that claims him would have to pay his full salary.
Gonzalez still had a minor league option remaining, but instead of sending him to the minors, the Orioles chose to sever ties with Gonzalez. The move was clearly a cost-cutting act, as the club has interest in re-signing Gonzalez for less money, but Gonzalez will likely have better opportunities elsewhere if he becomes a free agent.
Gonzalez compiled a 30-21 record and 3.45 ERA in 69 major league starts with the Orioles from 2012 through 2014, but dealt with groin issues throughout last season and made just one start in the last month of the season due to elbow and shoulder soreness. He finished 9-12 with a 4.91 ERA.
Gonzalez was looking to rebound in 2016, but he was 1-4 with a 9.78 ERA in six spring training appearances.
He allowed 14 earned runs over his first three spring outings spanning 52/3 innings, and manager Buck Showalter opened the door on a competition for the final rotation spot among Gonzalez, Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson and Vance Worley.
Gonzalez's will likely be taken by either Wright or Wilson.
Also, right-hander Kevin Gausman, who will open the season on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis, likely won't be ready by April 10, when the Orioles will need a fifth starter, so both Wright and Wilson could be in the rotation during the season's first week. Showalter said Tuesday the club is targeting April 19 for Gausman's return from the DL.
The move also makes it more likely that the team can keep Worley or right-handed reliever Chaz Roe on the Opening Day roster.
Showalter has said often that he doesn't put a lot of stock in spring training results, especially when evaluating a player with a track record, but Gonzalez's spring didn't dispel the club's concerns about last season.
“Some of it” is spring training results, Showalter said. “A lot of it, though, is track record where everybody's concerned. You look at where they've been for the last year.”
“All these guys — whether it's Miguel or Mike or Tyler, with the exception of Worley — we have a pretty good history of them,” Showalter added. “We have a pretty good idea of when it's right and when it's not. You just don't base it on two weeks of spring training. You base it on a big body of work, knowing all along it's an inexact science. But that's all you have to go on.”
Wright posted a 4.79 ERA in six spring outings over 202/3 innings, and Wilson compiled a 2.51 ERA over 141/3 innings over six Grapefruit League appearances (three starts). Worley sported a 4.61 ERA in 132/3 innings in six spring outings (two starts).
Gonzalez compiled a 4.61 ERA over his final three starts of spring training, but it wasn't enough to overcome a 22.24 ERA over his first three starts.
He pitched well in his final start on Tuesday, allowing one run over five innings against the Atlanta Braves. He allowed seven singles and one hit batter, but he seemed to recapture his command, which had been a big part of his success. He effectively used his secondary pitches — his breaking ball and split-finger changeup — to keep the ball on the ground and induce a pair of double-play balls.
But Showalter didn't give Gonzalez a rousing endorsement after the start, calling his results merely “good” and saying that his command was still “not as good as I've seen him.”
“He had better feel for all his secondary pitches,” Showalter said. “That's what allowed him to get some results, and some really good defense behind him.”
Gonzalez opened last season with a 5-4 record and 3.33 ERA in his first 11 starts before going on the disabled list with a right groin strain in mid-June. He held opposing hitters to a .216 average and went six innings or more seven times.
But Gonzalez never regained his previous form. He posted a 6.53 ERA and a 4-8 record over 14 starts after coming off the DL. Opponents hit .320 against him and his batting average for balls in play was an unsightly .349.
Gonzalez was signed by Fred Ferreira, the Orioles' executive director of international recruiting, after Ferreira found Gonzalez pitching for the Mazatlan Deer of the Mexican Winter League. Gonzalez had just been released by the Boston Red Sox and was looking for another chance to get to the majors. Injuries had forced him to miss two full years. Gonzalez had missed the 2008 season with a knee injury and he had a 90 percent tear in his elbow ligament that needed Tommy John surgery in 2009.
When he arrived in Orioles minor league camp in 2012, he was slated for Double-A before a spot opened up on the Norfolk roster. He posted a 1.61 ERA in 14 regular-season games in Triple-A and joined the Orioles as a long reliever before becoming a part of the rotation in early July.
Despite last year's struggles, Gonzalez has gone 22-12 with a 3.23 ERA over his career against AL East opponents.
Gonzalez was popular inside the Orioles clubhouse, and the team's starting rotation is a close group. For the past two seasons, they watched and critiqued one another's bullpen sessions before games, and when the Orioles won the AL East in 2014, Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez and Gausman were part of a rotation that that had the fifth best ERA in the American League (3.61)
Asked for his reaction to Gonzalez's release following his start Wednesday, Tillman declined to comment, saying, “I'm not going to talk about that today. … Sorry.”
Gonzalez was looking forward to the opportunity to rebound this season. He spent the offseason working out with Tillman and Britton in Sarasota five days a week.
“Obviously being hurt, you can't help out the team,” Gonzalez said in February. “That definitely hurt us last year. Obviously it's really tough to accomplish something you can't do because you're not active. Just learning from that, we really worked hard this offseason and hopefully that's what's going to keep me in the game a little longer.”
After the Orioles starting rotation posted a 4.53 ERA last season, second worst in the AL, Gonzalez said he wanted to re-instill the Orioles' faith in him.
“We know that Tillman and I and Ubaldo and Gausman, we're all capable of doing that,” Gonzalez said in February about pitching well as a rotation. “That's why we're here. They wouldn't have us here if they didn't have any faith or trust in us or what we can do. I think that's the main goal, that people know we can do it.”