Texas Rangers

Chi Chi debate: Rangers rotation or more development?

Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez has focused this spring on working the bottom of the strike zone and pitching to contact.
Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez has focused this spring on working the bottom of the strike zone and pitching to contact. Star-Telegram

Alex Gonzalez finds himself in a constant quandary, one that pushed him to his breaking point last month.

The pitcher who prefers to be called “Chi Chi,” the nickname he was given out of the womb, had tired of people accidentally calling him Chi Chi Rodriguez, the famous Puerto Rican golfer whose name was once butchered over the Cincinnati airwaves.

So, the Texas Rangers’ first overall pick in 2013 took to Twitter to remind the world that his name, indeed, is Chi Chi Gonzalez.

Remember the name.

Gonzalez is still standing in the Rangers’ spring clubhouse after the first round of roster cuts claimed seven Tuesday. That means he still has a chance at the Opening Day rotation, though how good of a chance is debatable.

His candidacy isn’t as cut-and-dried as being the best pitcher. Some say he has been the best so far this spring, and most believe he ultimately will be a quality major leaguer, say in two or three seasons.

There’s another quandary facing Gonzalez: Despite his success, his development is a priority and could dictate where he pitches in 2015.

“Staying healthy, this is going to be a significant pitcher,” manager Jeff Banister said. “We all believe in Chi Chi Gonzalez. We all believe in what he’s going to be. We are ultra-aware of his path, and we’re going to take care of that path for him.”

Triple A Round Rock is Gonzalez’s most likely destination to open the season. Others in camp have an edge on experience, and the coaching staff always wonders how well a young pitcher will perform under the bright lights at the highest level.

So far, Gonzalez has thrived since turning pro. He finished 2014 at Double A Frisco, going 7-4 with a 2.70 ERA in 15 games/14 starts. Opponents batted .245 against him.

While his numbers have been effective this spring — four runs in 82/3 Cactus League innings — Gonzalez has impressed with his mound presence. He’s confident, works fast, and acts like he belongs.

As he has climbed through the system after starring at Oral Roberts, the Miami-born Gonzalez has learned to evolve as a pitcher. A self-proclaimed strikeout pitcher in college, Gonzalez now realizes that he will have to pitch to contact in the majors.

The transition has been eased by how well Gonzalez commands the bottom of the strike zone. Even in giving up two runs Sunday in his second inning of work, Milwaukee batters had to find holes in the infield to fuel their rally.

“I think you grow into it,” Gonzalez said. “Now it’s about getting early outs. Early outs on the ground are better than trying to get an early out in the air and it turns into a wind-aided home run.”

But within his success down low, the Rangers want Gonzalez to toy with occasionally throwing high fastballs to change hitters’ eye levels.

He said he did it a few times Sunday, and understands the value of working up.

“Word’s going to get around that I just throw low,” said Gonzalez, 23.

That kind of aptitude has caught the Rangers’ attention. Banister said that it’s noticeable from start to start, as he learns from his mistakes and applies the solutions next time out.

“He’s a guy who’s faced major league hitters, and he’s collecting a Rolodex of data in his own mind of how he can pitch and how he’s going to pitch and how he’s going to make himself better,” Banister said. “This is a young man who learns from all experiences when he’s out on the mound.”

Smarts, to go along with the talent, will help Gonzalez make the Rangers’ rotation someday soon. He has the numbers this spring to be in the hunt for the fifth spot in 2015, and he will be competing for as long as he still has a spot in the Rangers’ clubhouse.

But the decision on Gonzalez isn’t as cut-and-dried as just getting outs. He’s developing, and keeping him on the right path will factor into where he opens the season.

“Until they experience actual under-the-lights major league games and the stress of pitching to a major league strike zone, it’s until you see that experience,” Banister said. “He’s going to be a really nice effective pitcher at the major league level. I don’t want to jump the gun on how we evaluate Chi Chi.”

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @JeffWilson_FWST

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