As Ted already covered this morning, the wait to see who the Washington Nationals' first big signing would be ended on Thursday afternoon, as they acquired LHP Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland Athletics.
We’ve already covered the base level stats several times, so we won’t do much but remind you. In the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Gonzalez threw more than 400 innings, posted a 3.17 ERA in the American League, and went 31-21 when the A’s didn't break the .500 mark. It’s not a small feat.
We’ve covered the more pessimistic view of the signing, and it’s worth pointing out that the Nationals did lose some extremely valuable prospects in this trade. Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone showed real promise in their September call up opportunities, Derek Norris still had time to become a premiere offensive catcher, and A.J. Cole had perhaps the highest ceiling of them all at just 19 years old.
At some point, though, a baseball team has to make tough decisions get to the next step. A deep farm system and talented prospects are great, but the fact remains that prospects are prospects. They aren’t proven major leaguers, and there is no guarantee that they will meet their projections. Of the 3 pitchers the Nationals lost, only A.J. Cole projected to be a #3 or better in a starting rotation, and he is young enough that a lot can change in the future, both positive and negative. Peacock was always projected to be a #4 or #5; Milone would be a #5 at best.
In return, the Nationals didn’t get in ace, but they already have that: Stephen Strasburg. They got an extremely solid, young (26), left-handed, middle of the rotation pitcher to accompany Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann for at least the next 4 seasons. Gonzalez isn’t arbitration eligible until after this coming season and will be under club control until after the 2015 season. This is the type of move a team makes to push them to the next level.
Looking at the 2012 season, it’s hard to argue that the Nationals pitching rotation isn’t better now than it was. The rotation will look something like Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan. This lines up all of the pitchers favorably against almost all competition in baseball. What organization wouldn’t want Jordan Zimmermann facing other #3s? And finally, John Lannan will face competition that is closer to his skill level to show what Nats fans have seen glimpses of in the last 2 seasons. This impressive rotation, as it stands today with Gonzalez in the #2 or #3 slot, competes with every rotation in the National League.
Gonzalez’s value can’t be understated in terms of wins either. In each of the last 2 seasons, he provided 3.2 (2010) and 3.5 (2011) WAR, which would have been the best WAR among Nationals starters in each of those seasons. As the stats go for players that pitched the whole season, Gonzalez is a vast improvement compared to what was in the system and major league ready. He has also been durable the last two seasons, throwing more than 200 innings each year.
Sure, his just over 4 BB/9 is a bit concerning, but there is no saying that it can’t be resolved. The Nationals have access to the magic that is Steve McCatty, one of the most talented pitching coaches in baseball. Cat has built the Nats pitching staff into something impressive, and it even looked like he got through to Henry Rodriguez at the end of the 2011 season to resolve some of his command issues.
Gonzalez’s issues with walks have drawn many comparisons to the now-defunked starting LHP Oliver Perez. However, this is an unfair comparison in many ways. While their BB/9 were both less than ideal, Perez never showed some of the promise that Gonzalez has already shown, except for one season (2004). Gonzalez has already thrown more than 200 innings twice, Perez never reached that mark in 9 MLB seasons. Gonzalez had a sub-4 FIP the last 2 seasons, Perez had just one sub-4 FIP season (2004). About 48% of balls in play are on the ground for Gonzalez, while Perez induced grounders at less than a 33% clip with more HR/9 and a similar BABIP. I could go on. It is not fair to take one stat, walks, and make these sort of blanket comparison with a failed MLB starter.
The prospect loss hurts in the short term, but the Nationals did get two highly sought after draft picks in the 2011 draft, Matt Purke and Alex Meyer. They should provide some depth down the road when Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez all reach free agency in case the team is unable to re-sign one of these young pitchers, or if Purke or Meyer jump to the top of prospect lists before then, they can add to an already impressive rotation.
For these and many more reasons, Gio Gonzalez will be a valuable piece for the next several years as the team competes for its first playoff appearance and pennant. The initial shock to the farm system will be noticeable, but Mike Rizzo has proven he is more than capable of stocking a farm system in fairly short order either to use as trade bait or to make an impact to the major league roster. Before directing too much ire toward the Front Office, remember, NatsTown has been clamoring for the team to compete now, and Rizzo has helped the team do that with this move. You can’t ask for much more.