There are several questions for the Washington Nationals to address this offseason. One of the most interesting is “What to do with Gio Gonzalez?”
In his first year in Washington, Gio recorded career best 21 wins and a 2.89 ERA, leading the Nationals to an MLB-best 98 wins and their first NL East crown, bringing postseason baseball back to the District of Columbia for the first time in 79 years.
Since then, however, Gio has been consistently inconsistent and his performance has steadily declined, culminating in his worst season with the Nationals in 2016 at 11-11 with a 4.57 ERA.
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Other stats further expose his downward trend. In 2012 he gave up 149 hits in 199 innings pitched. Fast forward to this season and the hits have climbed to 179 through just 177 innings. These are troubling numbers for a top-to-mid-tier starter.
Which leads us to this offseason. The Nationals have a $12 million club option on Gio in 2017. Do they roll the dice and take this option, knowing his performance will likely continue to wane, or do they buy him out for $500,000 and allow him to become a free agent while they pursue other (ideally left handed) options for a starting pitcher? Let’s examine those choices:
Picking up Gio’s option
One look at the free agent market for starting pitchers this offseason and you’ll notice it’s exceptionally thin at the top. At the same time, next year’s offseason crop of starting pitchers is currently loaded with promising options. The Nationals could decide to hedge their bets, go with the exact same starting rotation it had in 2016, and address any pitching needs in the 2017-18 offseason.
This rotation (injuries aside) was one of the key strengths for Washington through most of the season and Gio did have periods of success. A year from now, Lucas Giolito and/or Reynaldo Lopez could also be ready to serve as regulars on the mound, but that still leaves the need for a lefty arm in the mix. All things considered (even if Gio’s production drops further), this the safest bet.
But is that a bet that a championship-hungry franchise makes?
Buying Gio out and testing the free agent market
Scenario two is more aggressive – and riskier.
As mentioned, the current market for top-quality starting rotation pitchers is pretty thin this year. Rich Hill, who Nationals became very acquainted with during the NLDS tops the list. While he is a left-handed pitcher and he did have a standout season in Oakland and Los Angeles, he will be 37 before the 2017 season begins, and has been plagued by injuries in his career (including 2016).
Hill will also command an inflated price as teams scramble for the few good pitchers who are available. Other options either don’t fit the Nationals needs (LHP) or just aren’t the caliber needed to surpass what Gio brings to the table at comparable cost (Andrew Cashner, Ivan Nova, Jeremy Hellickson).
There is one other option to consider in this equation.
Trading Gio and trading for another left-handed starter
This is the most intriguing (and potentially most high risk/reward) option on the table. Mike Rizzo certainly isn’t shy about making trades. That’s how the Nationals acquired Gio Gonzalez, former center fielder Denard Span, and the rising star center fielder/shortstop Trea Turner.
Using the leverage of a pitcher-starved free agent market, the team could pick up Gio’s option and then trade him to a team in need of a starter for prospects. From there, Rizzo could turn around and make a push for one of the best left-handed pitchers potentially available by trade: Chris Sale.
Sale, a perennial AL Cy Young candidate, has been a solid and steady southpaw for the White Sox over the past five seasons (tallying up around 200/200+ innings pitched each season from 2012-2016, except for 2014). Like Gio he is slated to make $12 million in 2017, but also has club options of $12.5 million and $13.5 million in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and a $1 million buyout option for either year.
While this is certainly an aggressive move, it would take substantial trade pieces to make happen (likely Giolito, Lopez and more). It clearly meets the “win now” attitude of a team that, while it has key players invested for the long haul, their championship window with the current core is dwindling fast.
Rizzo and company haven’t shied away from blockbuster moves in the past: See Max Scherzer. And the Nationals are definitely one of a few teams who have the depth available to pull a trade like this off.
The Nationals could play it safe and retain Gio this season – and very well make it to the playoffs once more. They could also fork over an overpriced sum for the likes of a Rich Hill in hopes he retains some of his 2016 form. However, to upgrade with the expectation of finally getting past the “NLDS game 5” hump, requires an all-chips-on-the-table move. Making the trade for Chris Sale would be such a move.