Gonzales aims to follow Miller, Wacha to stardom
First-rounder has chance to learn from others who made quick rise to Majors
JUPITER, Fla. -- Left-hander Marco Gonzales, the Cardinals' top pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, spends his spring days following the footsteps of one former first-rounder and hopeful of taking the path of another.
It all ensures that Gonzales does not have to look far to see the possibilities ahead.
Manager Mike Matheny was intentional in placing Gonzales alongside Shelby Miller in the pitchers' early spring rotations. Miller, a first-round selection four years before Gonzales, took the assignment as an opportunity to "teach him a little something that I learned along the way." Gonzales has sought to be a sponge.
He can also look across the Cardinals' clubhouse to see the bar set by the player taken in the same Draft position (No. 19) one year ahead of him. It was here in Spring Training that Michael Wacha opened important eyes, the first step in his eventual ascent to St. Louis last season.
Gonzales was pitching for Gonzaga University at this time a year ago, but he still knows the rest of Wacha's story quite well. For him, it's a reminder that the organization's decision-makers are constantly evaluating.
"That is what Spring Training is -- getting your foot in the door and trying to stand out among the rest," Gonzales said. "If the Michael Wacha path works out for me, that's great. But that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him. I'm really just trying to discover my own path and see where that takes me. All I can do is work hard every day."
Gonzales' impression thus far has been a strong one. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was pleased to see Gonzales report to camp "a little strong, a little bigger than we he came to St. Louis [to sign] last year." Once Gonzales started throwing, Matheny quickly noticed the athleticism and deception in his delivery.
Those observations were later corroborated by the hitters who faced Gonzales in his live batting practice session on Saturday. They, too, left impressed.
"The ball was sinking," Matheny said. "[It] got up on them and had a little more jump and life on the end than they anticipated."
Gonzales, 22, won't break camp with the Major League club, though he has the potential to make a quick climb through the system. It wouldn't be the first such accelerated path for Gonzales, who turned himself into a standout pitcher at Gonzaga as a freshman.
Though his fastball (which now sits in the low-90s) was registering in the mid-80s when Gonzales went to play for coach Mark Machtolf, Gonzales arrived with a composure well advanced for someone his age. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that he had already become something of a legend in the Colorado high school scene. Four times in four years he started and won the 5A championship baseball game.
As a freshman at Gonzaga, Gonzales went on to start 15 games, win 11 of them and become the first player in program history to be named to four West Coast Conference postseason accolades. He went on to become, as Machtolf describes, "the most decorated" player in Machtolf's 11 seasons at Gonzaga.
"He was the one who came right in from the start as a winner and a guy we could count on to win games for us," Machtolf said. "He helped put us on the map. Hopefully in the future, people will realize their dreams can come true by coming to play up in the north. He showed what is possible."
Gonzales passes credit for his professional preparation to a few different places. The lessons came early from his father, Frank, who followed an eight-year Minor League journey with a career in coaching. He is now the pitching coach for the Rockies' short-season affiliate and his son's go-to resource for help.
Then came the seasoning at Gonzaga, where Gonzales said he learned the importance of trusting the process.
"There's always a standard I hold myself to, which was given to me at Gonzaga," Gonzales said. "We might not have been the winningest team in the country, but we were the most competitive and we got after it every day. Just having that instilled in me is a big thing. There is a standard I hold myself to where I leave everything out on the field."
In speaking of that standard, Machtolf said Gonzales "upheld it as well as anybody who has come through our program."
Gonzales' introduction to the next level of competition came after he inked a $1.85 million signing bonus to join the Cardinals last summer. He started in the Gulf Coast League and finished in the more advanced Florida State League. Combined, Gonzales allowed eight runs (seven earned) on 18 hits in 23 1/3 innings. He walked eight and struck out 23.
The Cardinals kept a close eye on Gonzales' workload to make sure he didn't push too hard after being a two-way player in college that spring. That even meant inviting Gonzales to the organization's September instructional league, but not having him throw a pitch while he was there.
"We made a decision that we would give him limited innings to get him relatively sharp, let him get established, let him get his feet under him, but we weren't going to extend it," said Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals' director of player development. "It worked very, very well. He was really great with it, and as a credit to him and how he goes about his work, he embraced it and we moved forward from there. "
The Cardinals will be looser on the limitations in 2014, though the innings count will still be monitored. Consider it similar to what Wacha went through a year ago.
LaRocque said that the organization does not have plans to space out Gonzales' outings early in order to save him for appearances late, but such a schedule can also be altered.
Gonzales isn't thinking too much about that or anything else in the future right now. He's just trying to fit in and get noticed. But if ever he needs a reminder of what could be, he knows just where to look.
"As soon as you get here, I think all labels are dropped and you just become another player on the team," Gonzales said. "I'm so happy to be here. The whole world has flipped upside down in a very good way in the last year. It's crazy to look back and think about where you've been, really where anybody has been in a year.
"And our team is so young. Some of these guys were in my shoes last year. Having them around has been very welcoming. I think that's why it has been so easy to mesh."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.