In the minor leagues, sometimes a young player has to repeat a level to improve.
That was the case in the 2016 season for Orioles left-handed pitching prospect Brian Gonzalez. A third-round pick (No. 90 overall) in the 2014 draft, Gonzalez pitched at Single-A Delmarva in 2015 at 19. He went 4-9 with a 5.71 ERA. Last season, back again with the Shorebirds at 20, Gonzalez went 10-8 with a 2.50 ERA and ranked third in the South Atlantic League in ERA and innings.
He ranked second in ERA among qualifying O’s minor league hurlers, behind only Alexander Wells, who posted a 2.15 ERA at short-season Single-A Aberdeen. He tied for second in wins among O’s farmhands and was third in strikeouts. His walk rate was reduced from 5.03 to 3.53 walks per every nine innings.
When the Orioles gave up draft picks for signing Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez before the 2014 season, Gonzalez became their top draft pick that June. He was selected out of Archbishop McCarthy (Fla.) High, where he played for a powerhouse that won three consecutive state titles. Gonzalez signed for $700,000, which was $105,800 over slot.
Showing a fastball that usually sat between 90-92 mph, touching 93 and 94, he threw 147 2/3 innings for the Shorebirds, allowing 135 hits with 58 walks, 111 strikeouts and a .247 average against.
“He’s got a plus changeup, he’s always had that,” said Delmarva manager Ryan Minor. “His breaking ball (curveball) was better and more consistent this year, too. But I think the biggest gain he made this past season was with his fastball command. He was able to pitch with his fastball deeper into games rather than going to his secondary stuff right from the get-go. Just located it better than the previous year.”
What made his changeup a plus pitch?
“Good arm speed with deception,” Minor said. “Typical lefty having his changeup run away from a right-handed hitter. He was real consistent with it to throw it when he did and the way he did. He could throw it in any count. Sometimes he finished guys off with a fastball because they were looking for it so much.”
Left-handed batters hit just .197 with a slugging percentage of .207 against Gonzalez. He gave up just one extra-base hit (a triple) against lefty batters over 167 plate appearances. Right-handed batters hit .267 off him. He gave up just a .180 batting average with runners in scoring position, while hitters went 0-for-11 against Gonzalez with the bases loaded.
Gonzalez developed a delivery that was cleaner and smoother than in 2015, working with Delmarva pitching coach Blaine Beatty. He also remained remarkably consistent with an ERA of 2.51 in 13 first-half starts and a 2.49 ERA in 14 starts in the second half.
I asked Minor if he thought Gonzalez could add some velocity as his career moves on.
“I think he could. He’s still just 20, 21,” Minor said. “He could get a little stronger and still grow more. He’s got pretty good arm speed, so he has a chance to add a bit there.”
Gonzalez, who turned 21 in October, also made gains holding runners last year. Base stealers against him were thrown out 26 percent of the time in 2015, and that mark was 35 percent last summer.
Gonzalez was ranked as the club’s No. 23 prospect by Baseball America at the end of the 2014 season. He will likely be among the top 20 when its Prospect Handbook is soon published.
As with almost any young player, he’ll need to continue to progress and put up numbers at each level as he moves up on the farm. He is expected to start the 2017 season in the rotation for Single-A Frederick.