Cards must make decision on Gonzales' role

Matheny believes lefty has bright future in St. Louis

Cards must make decision on Gonzales' role

JUPITER, Fla. -- As it concerns Marco Gonzales' early-season assignment, the Cardinals are rapidly approaching a crossroads.

That's not to suggest that the Cardinals don't anticipate key contributions from the 24-year-old lefty in 2016. In fact, when speaking about Gonzales' development over the past year, manager Mike Matheny boldly noted that "the way he's pitching now is really setting him up to be around here a long time."

But what the Cardinals have to determine soon is if he'll be around now. That's because, with less than two weeks remaining before the club leaves Florida, Gonzales must begin readying for a role.

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The idea of building Gonzales up to start while simultaneously considering him for a bullpen job won't work much longer since the Cardinals' five Major League starter pitchers are going deeper into games. If the Cardinals are serious about considering him for a role in relief, one-inning appearances -- like he had in Thursday's 5-4 loss -- will do. But to give Gonzales the necessary time to stretch out as a starter, the Cardinals will have to send him out to Minor League camp.

Regardless the team's direction, Gonzales has proven to himself and the organization that he has not only recovered from the arm issues that hindered him in 2015, but he has grown as a pitcher, as well.

"I feel like this has been my strongest camp so far as far as how my body has felt," Gonzales said. "Arm, health, everything feels there."

Feeling right physically has allowed Gonzales to focus his attention elsewhere, most notably on the continued development of his repertoire. He rode to the Majors a year after being drafted largely because of an above-average fastball-changeup mix. He has since developed his curveball into a satisfactory third pitch, and he has a sinker and cutter to flash at times.

"He's just a better pitcher," Matheny said. "He went from being a very predictable two-pitch pitcher into having five weapons. When you widen your array of pitches, it opens up a whole new dimension of what you can do from the mound."

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Gonzales lost development time last season when a recurring shoulder injury limited him to 14 Triple-A appearances and a one-start cameo with the big league club. It wasn't near the level of expected contribution from Gonzales, who had competed for a Major League rotation job in Spring Training.

The setback left Gonzales to spend much of the summer and subsequent offseason working through a strength program. He hoped to feel a payoff and, through four Grapefruit League appearances, has. He's just waiting now to see how that translates into a season-opening assignment.

"After coming into last spring feeling so good and then something random happens and you're on the [disabled list], it can make you a little nervous when you're going into the next camp feeling well," Gonzales said. "I think, for me, I learned a lot about my character, what it takes to stay focused and patience, for sure. I came into camp wanting to be competitive and hoping for the best. I'm just fighting for a chance to pitch."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.