Nationals Acquire Gio Gonzalez from Oakland, But at a High Cost

Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo entered this offseason with a goal in mind. He was determined to find another starting pitcher to place near the top of the Nationals’ rotation. He wanted someone who has proven he can handle pitching 200+ innings. He wanted someone with some experience, to help mentor the organization’s young pitching talents. He wanted someone who threw the ball left-handed.

Rizzo placed his primary focus as the offseason began on free agent Mark Buehrle. Buehrle met all of the above criteria and seemed like an ideal solution to Rizzo’s search. Buehrle has pitched 200+ innings in each of the past 11 seasons. He’s certainly experienced, having started 365 career regular season games and 4 more in the postseason. He’s pitched in four All Star Games, won three Gold Glove Awards, and has a World Series title under his belt. And he’s a lefty. He spurned the Nationals, instead following the higher paycheck and his former manager to Miami.

The “next best option” on the free agent market would likely have been C.J. Wilson. Wilson has pitched 200+ innings in each of the past 2 seasons, after converting from the bullpen to the rotation prior to the start of the 2010 season. He’s made at least 33 starts in each of the past two seasons, adding 9 more postseason starts. He’s also a lefty. The Nationals elected not to pursue Wilson (smartly, I might add) because his contract demands were reportedly going to be too high for the organization to seriously consider. Wilson ended up signing a lucrative free agent contract with the Angels.

Once the Winter Meetings concluded, it seemed that Rizzo would instead need to focus his efforts on acquiring his coveted lefty via trade. There was some speculation that the team could simply stand pat and maintain their rotation depth as the season began. There was even some belief that the organization might be better off without a big named starting pitcher acquisition. But those thoughts never seemed realistic because Rizzo had to have his left-handed innings eating starter to add to the team’s rotation.

Image courtesy: masnsports.com

This afternoon it would seem that Rizzo finally landed the left-handed starter he’s been pining for all offseason, acquiring Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland Athletics. In news first reported by Keith Law via Twitter, he traded four of the Nationals’ top prospects in order to complete the deal. Rizzo is hopefully happy with the deal. I’d like to not be so blunt about this, but there really is no way to avoid stating this directly – I’m not. Let me explain why.

Now, I will readily admit from the beginning that adding Gonzalez does improve the 2012 Nationals rotation. He provides a solid left-handed starter near the top of the rotation. He’s capable of pitching 200+ innings (having done so each of the past two seasons). He’s capable of striking batters out with regularity (career 8.6 K/9). And pairing him with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann may just give the Nationals one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball.

Gonzalez will make the Nationals’ rotation better for the 2012 season. It also makes it clear who will comprise the rest of that rotation. After the trio of Gonzalez, Strasburg, and Zimmermann (in whatever order Davey Johnson ends up arranging them) it will likely be John Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang starting for this Washington team. The addition of Gonzalez eliminates the need to enter Spring Training with an open battle for the 5th spot in the rotation. It eliminates any chance of Nationals fans seeing some of the organization’s newest young arms pitch significant innings in the Major Leagues this season. It also likely eliminates either Ross Detwiler or Tom Gorzelanny from making the Opening Day roster.

Gonzalez holds a career 38-32 record in 95 appearances (89 starts). Over 535.1 innings he has pitched to a 3.93 ERA with 8.6 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9. While the strikeouts are certainly encouraging, the walks are something to be concerned about. Gonzalez led the American League in walks allowed this past season, with 91. He walked 92 the year before, so it would seem that it wasn’t just an aberration. Gonzalez has largely been able to overcome putting so many extra men on base throughout his career. That trend will likely change, however, after this trade for two reasons.

Gonzalez has pitched in a very pitcher friendly ballpark in Oakland for the past few seasons. Over the course of his career he has a rather pronounced home/away split. At Oakland’s spacious stadium, Gonzalez is a 21-14 pitcher with a 3.56 ERA. Opponents are batting .232/.324/.358 against him in 273.0 innings. On the road, he’s 17-18 with a 4.32 ERA. Opposing batters are hitting .251/.340/.387 in 262.1 innings. That’s an ERA three-quarters of a run better at home than on the road, in nearly identical innings totals. It is unknown how Gonzalez will adjust to pitching half of his games in Nationals Park. The A’s and Nationals have not faced eachother in interleague play since Gonzalez first debuted with Oakland, so he’s never had the opportunity to pitch in Washington.

He also benefited from having one of the better outfield defenses behind him in Oakland. Neither Coco Crisp or David DeJesus, two thirds of Oakland’s starting outfield during the 2011 season, are widely regarded as being among the game’s top outfielders. Each has too many holes in their overall game – namely their offense – for such consideration. Yet both are considered to be superior defensive players with the range and athleticism to track down numerous balls that otherwise would drop in for hits.

Washington’s outfield defense isn’t necessarily poor, as Jayson Werth certainly has the potential to be at Gold Glove outfielder (in right field, not center), but it’s rather incomplete, to say the least. As of this evening there are four outfielders on the organization’s 40-man roster. Aside from Werth, the only one of those four players who has ever appeared above Double-A is Roger Bernadina. He too, has been speculated as a potential trade candidate for much of the offseason and it remains highly unclear what his role will be for the Nationals in 2012, presuming he’s still a part of the organization come April.

Both the other two 40-man roster options – prospects Bryce Harper and Eury Perez – are highly inexperienced and unproven. Harper will almost assuredly see Washington sometime this season, though it remains to be seen whether he will be given a serious opportunity to win a roster spot during Spring Training. But regardless when he arrives in Washington, Harper is a talented athlete who should be able to hold his own in the outfield. He may not be the defender that Crisp or DeJesus are, but he isn’t likely to embarrass himself out there either.

The Nationals still have to address their outfield situation before the season begins in just a few short months. Gonzalez likely won’t have the same quality defense behind him as he did this past season – another adjustment he will have to make and another unknown variable that could affect how effective a pitcher Gonzalez is. Of course, both Crisp and DeJesus reached free agency this offseason. Crisp is still available on the market, though he’s rumored to prefer an opportunity to play on the West Coast. DeJesus signed early, agreeing to a deal with the Cubs at the end of November.

As I stated previously, I do agree that the acquisition of Gonzalez makes the Nationals’ rotation stronger in 2012. It does help beyond 2012 as well, as Gonzalez will not reach free agency until the offseason prior to the 2016 season. He will go through the arbitration process four times instead of the usual three, thanks to having enough service time to qualify for Super Two status. This January will be the first of those times, part of the reason why the Oakland A’s were willing to part with him in the first place. Gonzalez is projected to earn a raise to $4.2 Million this season.

Washington can afford to pay that salary, so that’s not a concern here. But Oakland couldn’t and they had to trade him by all accounts. It’s no surprise that Billy Beane was able to bring in a big haul for Gonzalez. The market for his services was strong. At various points the Red Sox, Rangers, Marlins, Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, and Mariners have been linked to the left-hander. Such demand naturally drove the price tag up but in the end, it was Mike Rizzo who ultimately overpaid.

That is where I am in disagreement with this trade. The price that Washington paid to acquire Gonzalez is high. Too high, in my opinion.

Oakland will receive four players in exchange for Gonzalez: right-handed pitchers Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole, left-handed pitcher Tom Milone, and catcher Derek Norris. Peacock (#3), Cole (#4), and Norris (#9) all were recently named to Baseball America’s Top 10 Nationals’ Prospects list.All four players were also to be ranked in our first annual Top 15 Prospect rankings here at DoD. Norris came in at #11 and Milone at #9. Peacock and Cole finished 3rd and 4th respectively in our Top 10, though their rankings had not yet been announced as those profiles have not yet been written.

Image courtesy: minorleagueball.com

Norris being dealt as part of the package is no real surprise. He is the organization’s top catching prospect in an organization that doesn’t have a need at catcher thanks to the 2011 emergence of Wilson Ramos. Norris was expendable to Washington, but a potentially attractive trade option for other organizations. He has a strong power potential and is an on-base machine – both traits that Oakland has long coveted. While at first glance some may question why Oakland would want a catcher when they already have Kurt Suzuki in the fold, I believe Norris fits perfectly into what the A’s are in the process of doing. The organization is stockpiling as much young talent as they can, because ultimately until their stadium situation is resolved they won’t be able to afford to keep their own players. Once Norris is ready for the Major Leagues, don’t be surprised to see Suzuki available on the trade market.

Cole is still a long ways away from the Major Leagues. He turns 20 in just under two weeks, stands 6’4″, and was drafted by the Nationals in the 4th Round of the 2010 Draft. He was 4-7 with a 4.04 ERA in 89.0 innings this past season, adding a 10.9 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. Cole projects as a future middle of the rotation starter and had the best fastball in the Nationals’ minor league system according to BA. It is unknown where he’ll rank in the overall MLB Top 100 when BA publishes that list in the coming months, but it’s certain that John Manuel – one of BA’s most senior writers and rankings guru – thought highly enough of him to include Cole in his personal Top 50.

Peacock and Milone are Washington’s two most-MLB-ready pitching prospects, having both debuted this past September. Peacock was 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA in 12.0 innings (3 appearances, 2 starts). In 146.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A before his callup he went 15-3 with a 2.39 ERA, 10.9 K/9, and 2.9 BB/9. Milone was 1-0 with a 3.81 ERA in 26.0 innings (5 starts). He was 12-6 with a 3.22 ERA, 9.4 K/9, and 1.0 BB/9 in 148.1 Triple-A innings before his callup.

Image courtesy: natsfangirl.com

Both Peacock and Milone were expected to compete for the team’s 5th starter role this Spring, alongside Detwiler and Gorzelanny. In all likelihood the pair were going to see at least a little time in Triple-A to begin the season, as I think Detwiler had to be considered the favorite for the 5th spot, largely because he is out of options and would have to be exposed to waivers in order for the team to send him to the minor leagues. Detwiler has always had potential, but hasn’t lived up to it to this point in his career. With the Gonzalez acquisition, he may be forced into a bullpen role, potentially ending Gorzelanny’s stay with the Nationals and creating another “lost player” as a result of this deal.

Having to give up both Peacock – who was widely expected to eventually become the team’s #3 starter behind Strasburg and Zimmermann – and Milone – who has frequently been compared to Buehrle – is a steep price for the Nationals to pay. The inclusion of both pitchers in addition to Cole – potentially one of baseball’s best pitching prospects – is where this deal starts to fall apart for me.

I see the value in adding Gonzalez to this team’s projected rotation for the next four seasons. He gives the team a fairly formidable trio atop the starting rotation for the foreseeable future. He’s capable of reaching the 200+ inning plateau and he’s left-handed – two of the three pieces of criteria that Rizzo was so determined to fill when acquiring another starting pitcher this offseason.

But Gonzalez isn’t one of the Top 25 starting pitchers in all of Major League Baseball. In fact, he isn’t even one of the Top 5 left-handed starters. And yet the Nationals paid a price to acquire him as if he was – surrendering three quality arms who had barely begun to collect service time and a quality catching prospect who seems to fit perfectly into the direction the A’s organization is heading.

I don’t disagree with acquiring Gonzalez. He could develop into a superior starting pitcher and could help bring the Washington organization into playoff contention. But I’m not convinced that the organization wouldn’t have been able to get to the same destination in the same time frame had they chosen to keep Peacock, Milone, Cole, and Norris. Remove one of the pitchers, making this a 3-for-1 trade, and I’m more inclined to consider myself excited about this deal. Even replacing Peacock and/or Milone with another player on the team’s 40-man roster – CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported that Ian Desmond‘s name was “in play” at one point, while MLB.com’s Bill Ladson shares that at one point Cole Kimball was part of the deal (only to be replaced with Cole) – makes the deal more palatable. In fact, I’d be willing to part with both Desmond and Kimball if it meant Washington only needed to part with one of Peacock, Milone, or Cole.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and we won’t truly know how this deal turns out until some time passes. It’s possible Peacock and Milone falter in Oakland, failing to live up to their potential. Cole could burn out, never even reaching the Major Leagues. Norris might not be able to make the transition to MLB pitching. Gonzalez could experience some of the same disappointments. It’s too early to judge a deal with any finite decisions, but at least at first reaction, I’m not a fan of this trade and I believe that Washington surrendered too much talent. Time will ultimately tell just how accurate that assessment will prove to be.

Topics: A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Derek Norris, Gio Gonzalez, Tom Milone, Washington Nationals

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  • Andrew Flax

    I’m inclined to agree in some ways, but disagree in others. Yes, the Nats overpaid, but it was with expendable talent. As you said, Peacock and Milone were likely to spend 2012 in the minors. They have both proven themselves at AAA, essentially making it a “lost year” for them if they’re forced to stay there. Now that we have Gio, the top 3 SPs are locked up through 2015, leaving the 4th and 5th spots to be filled by guys like Matt Purke, Alex Meyer, Ross Detwiler, and free agent schlemiels.

    Norris was never going to be useful, and an obvious trade chip. Cole might be great one day, but you really don’t know and he won’t come up until 2014. Peacock and Milone are rendered expendable by this deal, and therefore losing them is not a huge blow. Gio may not be a world-beater, but he’s a great lefty and will certainly perform to the level of a #3, and likely exceed that. I agree that we overpaid for him, and I don’t love that, but it was talent we could afford to waste.

  • jim fetterolf

    Agree, too high of a price. Some Royals bloggers were clamoring for a trade for Gonzales and a comparable price from our system would have been foolish for us. Like with Trevor Cahill, I think Billy Beane will win this trade in the long run, just as Dayton Moore is winning the Zack Greinke trade.

  • GoodLuckGio

    trust me…as a diehard A’s fan who watched every Gio start as an Oakland A, you are going to love the guy…The A’s had one of the worst defenses in the league last year…they either led the league or were 2nd in Errors…their offense was horrid and never gave Gio any run support but he still found a way to battle every night and keep the team in games despite never getting any support….also, don’t be too concerned about the walks…Gio scatters his walks and has drastically improved his command from two years ago…he used to be absolutely terrible in terms of command/walks and would have emotional breakdowns that would result in an early hook….but that was two years ago…he has literally blossomed in front of A’s fans eyes into a true professional that doesn’t have the emotional lapses …he does get into high pitch counts due to his strikeout rate but he seems to always find to give you at least 6/7 innings every start.