CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Philadelphia Phillies missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and have an aging, injury-plagued roster with a record payroll.
They have many questions as spring training camp opens, but perhaps none are accompanied by the same amount of mystery that follows right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.
The 27-year-old Gonzalez signed a three-year, $12 million deal last August as a free agent out of Cuba.
Gonzalez is expected to compete for a spot in the Phillies' rotation. But before they arrived at camp this month, neither manager Ryne Sandberg nor general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had ever seen Gonzalez pitch.
"It's good to see what he's got," Sandberg said after watching Gonzalez throw off the mound Thursday at the team's first official workout. "He shows deception with his delivery, so that's something. I'll be anxious to see how he continues to look as he continues to build arm strength."
Gonzalez is a mystery not only because he's never pitched a professional game in the United States but also because he's been barred from pitching altogether for most of the last two years after a failed defection from Cuba.
Since his work had been limited, Gonzalez was handled with caution by the Phillies when he reported to Clearwater in September. Gonzalez threw one bullpen session in October before taking a break and rebooting his offseason program in January.
Gonzalez said he's thrown seven or eight bullpen sessions since January and isn't concerned about durability despite the light workload in the last two years.
"I'm not worried," Gonzalez said through an interpreter. "I'll be prepared and ready to go. Stamina, being in shape, that doesn't worry me."
If the Phillies are worried or concerned, they aren't showing it.
Gonzalez said he was "100 percent" healthy following his bullpen session Thursday. But until he has consistent success against major-league hitters, there will be at least a touch of skepticism about the mystery man in Phillies camp.
"I've got more to prove to myself than anyone else," Gonzalez said. "Once I prove it to myself, everyone else will be able to see it clearly."
With All-Stars Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, newcomer A.J. Burnett and veteran Kyle Kendrick all but guaranteed starting spots, Gonzalez will compete with right-handers Roberto Hernandez, Jonathan Pettibone and Ethan Martin for the final spot in the rotation. Hernandez, who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal in December, is considered the heavy favorite.
Gonzalez said he's open to pitching out of the bullpen. But he could start the season at triple-A Lehigh Valley, too, as Amaro views him as a starter.
"I think he's more suited to be a starter, but we'll keep an open mind," Amaro said.