Gio excited for chance with hometown team

March 9th, 2021

JUPITER, Fla. -- As a kid from Hialeah, Fla., Gio González loved the Marlins, happily baking in the stands, in the South Florida sunshine, while watching the likes of Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett. One of his favorite memories was snagging a foul ball off the bat of second baseman Luis Castillo, even though González's quest to get the ball autographed fell short.

Now, many years later, González is thrilled to get the chance to fulfill a childhood dream by pitching for his hometown team.

The veteran left-hander's Minor League contract -- which includes an invitation to big league camp -- became official last Thursday. The Marlins introduced González in a Zoom call on Tuesday, with the two-time All-Star donning an old-school Florida Marlins cap for the occasion.

“As soon as I signed, it really hit me,” González said. “Being from Hialeah, Fla., I think that representing the Marlins was always any kid's dream. To be from South Florida, and to finally get a chance to put on this uniform, you find whatever you can in that tank to go out there and make sure you can pitch for them. That's any kid's dream that grew up in South Florida and grew up watching the Marlins.”

González provides experience for a talented but young starting staff. The projected top four starters in the rotation are Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López, Elieser Hernandez and Sixto Sánchez, each of whom is 25 or younger, with a combined 121 Major League starts.

At the same time, it's a group with a ton of talent and upside. Alcantara was an All-Star in 2019, López allowed no more than two earned runs in nine of his 11 starts in 2020, and Sánchez showed some of the game's most electric stuff in his debut season. González has been a part of some excellent rotations throughout his career -- including in Washington from 2012-18 -- and he recognizes the sort of group Miami has assembled.

“I have to say I've been fortunate in my career to see some pretty damn talented arms, and to look at it now, there’s still some pretty damn talented arms,” he said. “These guys have such ‘up potential’ and bright futures.

“This is going to be one of those things where you can't miss the show. You know one of these guys is going to probably throw a no-hitter, a perfect game. They have the capability of doing that kind of stuff."

Even with all that talent, the return of a 162-game schedule means there's no harm in adding depth.

The 35-year-old González is 131-101 with a 3.70 ERA over 13 MLB seasons with the Nationals, A's, Brewers and White Sox. He finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2012 with Washington, going 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA in 32 starts. He will be reunited with former Nats teammate Ross Detwiler, who signed a free-agent contract over the offseason to pitch out of Miami's bullpen.

"Obviously, it's nice to have a guy with that kind of experience within your organization," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said during a Zoom call last Friday. "And Gio brings a lot to the table as far as being a good teammate, a guy with huge experience, pitched in all kinds of different situations.

"I like the fact that he's a Miami guy. You know he wants to pitch well if that situation arises for him in Miami. I think you also realize that he's not the Gio González of 10 years ago, and you don't expect that. You expect him to pitch with experience and be a veteran guy that helps in different ways in different situations."

Last spring, González dealt with shoulder issues and rehabbed it back to strength during the shutdown. The Marlins, who came to watch a couple of González's showcases in Pinecrest, Fla., had him undergo an MRI to make sure it was fine. González went 1-2 with a 4.83 ERA in 12 games (four starts) for the White Sox, who also boast a talented pitching staff. According to Statcast, González was in the 85th percentile for exit velocity against and 81st for whiff percentage, but his expected stats were poor.

"As long as I can get on that mound, I'm gonna give you the best I got," González said. "I'm always gonna fight. I'm not just gonna throw in the towel. I'm still a competitor, and at the end of the day, I still want to compete."

There is time for González, who was throwing bullpen sessions and building up his shoulder strength, to catch up to game speed. Following Tuesday's off-day, Miami has 16 Grapefruit League contests remaining, with the spring slate set to end on March 28. González threw a live bullpen on Tuesday, before speaking to reporters and said he felt "great," especially with his cutter.

"It was pretty cool to kind of get back out there and get in the swing of things, get to face some guys," he said. "It was just getting back in the routine again."

If González falters, Miami has several other starting options in the mix, including prospects Trevor Rogers, Braxton Garrett, Nick Neidert and Daniel Castano. Rule 5 Draft pick Paul Campbell, another candidate, must be returned to the Rays if he's not on the active roster. Prospect Edward Cabrera is sidelined with an arm injury.

It remains to be seen if González will show enough to actually suit up for his hometown club in a regular season game. He knows there are no guarantees. But for a South Florida kid whose career highlights include getting to meet or play against many of his childhood Marlins heroes, this opportunity to return to where it all began was too tantalizing to miss.

“If you grow up in a certain city and watch that team, you're always gonna love that team, you’re always going to have that team in your heart," González said.