You know, it's a funny thing how quickly fortunes can change in the game of baseball. Look at Marco Gonzales, for instance, and where he was at this same time last spring.
When spring training 2015 began to creep toward its inevitable conclusion, there was more than a little consternation about Marco Gonzales heading back to the minor leagues, rather than having a spot on the major league roster. He was seen as a mid-rotation starter in waiting -- and some more hyperbolic observers predicted even greater heights of success for him -- and while I think most were still pleased that Carlos Martinez had beaten him out for a rotation spot, rather than see El Gallo back in the bullpen again and Marco on the roster, there were at least a handful of dissenting opinions preferring Carlos der Grosse right back in that late-inning role he had already proven able to handle, and the Colorado-bred lefty taking his spot in the rotation.
Of course, we all know how things turned out last season, with Gonzales missing much of the season with a pectoral/shoulder injury, and Carlos moving up into the ranks of the game's elite young pitchers before ending the season prematurely with a sore shoulder of his own. All in all, a positive outcome for the club, as they found out what they had in Carlos the starter, even if it turned out to be a mostly lost season for the former first-rounder from Gonzaga.
Fast forward just one year, and the future for Marco Gonzales, it has to be said, is exceedingly cloudy. That lost season is part of it, obviously; at the very least, one has to have doubts about his durability going forward. This spring, however, he looks healthy, and has looked pretty good, overall.
It's snowing outside. Big, heavy-looking flakes. Huh. Weird.
Anyhow, Gonzales looks to have regained a bit of lustre this spring, if perhaps not the full amount he had this time last year. However, there are other complicating factors at work here as well.
First and foremost is the simple fact the Cardinals are set in the starting rotation for the foreseeable future. Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez all have their names written in ink for the rotation this year, as does Jaime Garcia. Of the five, only Garcia isn't under contract for 2017, as well, and even he has another option season on his deal that could keep him in Cardinal red should he perform this year anywhere near his 2015 levels.
And even if the Cards were to cut Jaime loose after this season, or perhaps even move him during the season as part of a partial reset in the event of a slow start or difficult run at the division this year, Lance Lynn will, in all likelihood, be ready for Opening Day 2017, since his Tommy John surgery took place early in this offseason.
There is also the matter of Marco, at least as of the end of the 2015 campaign, having been passed on the depth chart by Tim Cooney. Of course, Cooney coming down with some arm soreness of his own this spring puts a bit of a wrinkle in any plans for his immediate future, but he's back to throwing now, and so far it appears he is once again healthy and ready.
If you combine the currently full rotation, the fact that rotation is four fifths locked up for 2017, at least one similar pitcher having moved ahead of Marco in the pecking order, and the potential arrival of pitchers like Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver as soon as later this season, it certainly appears as if the way forward for Gonzales in the Cardinal organisation is a tenuous one.
Now, before you even start, I am well aware that it's very rare for a baseball team, no matter how solid the pitching appears early on, to need but the five they have in the rotation to begin the year. Chances are, at least one pitcher currently slated to be in the rotation will miss time this year, and there will be an opportunity. But then, considering what we've seen from the respective options in the majors already, there's every reason to believe that Cooney has dibs on the first man up designation. And while Gonzales could certainly earn that role back with a strong performance in 2016, it's unclear how long he will have to cement himself before Reyes finishes his suspension. Or how long he will have before Luke Weaver's fastball/change combination is too intriguing to continue languishing in the minor leagues.
Short-term, I'm sure that Marco Gonzales is going to be just fine. In the longer term, however, I do wonder if there's a chance we see him fall through the cracks, considering all the talent coming up very nearly on his heels.
A move to relief work could benefit him, I suppose, but there are two issues there, as well. One, he doesn't have the sort of repertoire most often associated with short relievers (particularly of the lefty variety, so often tasked with retiring just one or two same-handed hitters), and two, Tyler Lyons appears to have the inside track on that second lefty spot in the current 'pen. Lyons's stuff, including a big, sweeping breaking ball he can run away from lefthanded hitters, would seem to be better suited for the role anyhow.
So what is the answer? What is the most likely outcome for Marco Gonzales in the Cardinal organisation? Well, for now, it appears all but a fait accompli he will head off to minor league camp soon, and probably anchor the Memphis rotation until such time as Alex Reyes is ready to return. It also seem very likely Gonzales will continue to start games in Triple A, rather than move to that relief work he seems only somewhat suited for.
Long term, it's much less clear what, if any, role Marco may fill for this franchise. Sure, there will be injuries to the current starters and opportunities coinciding with those injuries, but all the same, Gonzales may very well end up a 'tweener of sorts in this organisation. The meteoric rise of Reyes could end up putting Marco on the outside looking in, though that's probably counting our eggs before they hatch. Still, when you have a top five or ten prospect in all of baseball, you want to believe he'll develop the way you would like to see.
The nice thing about the situation is this: Marco Gonzales still has options. Minor league options, that is. Not only will Gonzales use his third option season this year when he heads off to minors camp, the fact he will use that third option before reaching five years' service time would appear to indicate he will be eligible for the somewhat unusual fourth option year, meaning now decision will have to be made on him until after the 2017 season, at least in terms of a permanent roster spot.
However, if the Cardinal farm system continues to do what it has done the past several years, and continues churning out pitching prospects of all ilk, it would seem, to me at least, that exploring a trade with Gonzales as the centerpiece of the package could ultimately benefit the team. How much value Gonzales has right now, considering his lost 2015, is tough to really put a high number on. That next batch of talent chasing him up the ladder could make him redundant, and in relatively short order.
In all likelihood, the situation will work itself out, in on way or another, and perhaps by the time late March of 2017 rolls around, we'll have answers about Marco's short- and long-term roles with the Cardinals, and it will seem silly to have ever wondered where Mark Buehrle 2.0 could possibly grab hold. However, there's also plenty of reason to think Gonzales may have more variety as a trade chit than as a permanent fixture for the Redbirds. What the club might need to move him for is not yet any clearer than Gonzales's own place is currently. But of all the pitching assets the club controls, Marco just might be the one with the most intriguing blend of nearness to the big leagues, long-term upside, and questionable opportunities here in St. Louis. In which case, he would seem a near-ideal candidate to be moved on, and cashed in for long-term value.
For now, the immediate future is concerned only, I'm sure, with getting back to 100% health and regaining Marco's standing in the organisation. Looking a bit further out, though, reveals a pitcher as like to contribute value in a move as he is to ever find a place to belong wearing Cardinal red, I have to believe.