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Marco Gonzales shows the circuitous route of former top prospects

He was once highly-touted and then a non-factor. Now it seems like he has what it takes to survive in the Mariners’ rotation.

Tampa Bay Rays v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

It was only three years ago, but there was a time when Marco Gonzales was ranked just a spot below Luis Severino on a prospect list, 52nd overall to be precise. The road for prospects is never a clear one—Severino is now on his way to another stellar season, and Gonzales is just starting to put together his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2016 before being traded from the Cardinals to the Mariners. As of today, Gonzales ranks third on the now-first place Mariners in fWAR.

Gonzales was not some pitcher that came out of nowhere. Originally signed in the 29th round by the Rockies in the 2010 draft, he instead opted to attend Gonzaga and was one of the best college pitchers in the country: co-Freshman of the Year, All-American, and won the 2013 John Olerud Award for best two-way player. He was then drafted by the Cardinals as the 19th overall pick in the 2013 draft, and he made his big league debut just the following year.

In a recent interview with David Laurila, Gonzales describes his challenges in returning to form in 2018:

“My curveball was probably hurt the most by the layoff. I still had good spin, but being able to command it where I wanted to was out of the question... The changeup is something I’ve always been confident in. This offseason, for sure. Building more confidence in my arm in general has allowed me to be more aggressive with my changeup... I get sink and a little bit of arm-side run with my change. I want more sink than run, because that’s more impactful for getting ground balls, getting quick outs, and getting guys in swing mode faster. That’s kind of my goal with it. More run usually means that I’m not getting on top of the ball. If it’s running sideways more than it’s dropping, I’m going to try to change that.”

Well, so far this approach has worked for him. In an admittedly small sample of 13 starts and 74 innings, he has a very respectable 82 ERA-/82 FIP-/76 DRA-. Good sign number one, considering the surgery, is that his velocity is rebounding (and increasing):

The other thing that is a very, very good sign is that he is taking the advice of so many pitchers recently: instead of trying to be effective by being a fastball-first pitcher, which can be incredibly ineffective considering that pitch is just north of 90 mph, he has gone to a more diversified and change-first repertoire:

Let’s look, for example, at the at-bat against Matt Duffy in his last start, a bases-loaded jam where you can see this exact strategy on display against a right-handed hitter:

The sequence is curve, cutter, curve, cutter, change, and cutter. What you’ll notice is that there wasn’t a single four-seam fastball, and the cutter after so much soft stuff appeared to be “blown by” Duffy.

There’s one more reason I think these results can be consistent, and it’s because, frankly, his release has been consistent. While his previous arm slot has been all over the place...

...that sequence in the previous at-bat looks all-the-more alluring when it looks like it originates from a single point:

Who knows with baseball, as can always be said. While there are so many things to like here, and there is a lot of evidence that he can be a serviceable pitcher in 2018, there are also some downsides: he did just have Tommy John surgery, and that often is the best predictor of future injuries. Not to mention the low velocity and the constant, grinding need to rely on command; his projection-based true talent level of 1.16 (per ZiPS) HR/9 is... definitely an issue in such a pitcher-friendly park, so he’ll have to get crafty to both avoid walks and not leave a hanger over the plate.

What this shows, though, is that prospects are not linear, which seems like a banal observation. Originally a fast-riser in the 2013 draft, Gonzales is now a reclamation project just over five years after draft day, which isn’t that long in the scheme of things. All of the pieces are there, and now we can sit back and see if he can help carry the Mariners to their first playoffs in 17 years.